As many of you may know, UNC has been pretty good this season on the basketball court. Sure, they took a while after the Gonzaga win to find another marquee win, but this past week they snagged one at the expense of the Duke Blue Devils. That’s not an easy task to accomplish, and only Gonzaga and Syracuse can claim that they achieved the same thing. Last week was the week that analysts could finally look at Carolina as a serious, undisputed threat to make it to the Final Four, and yet, the limelight was stolen by Zion Williamson and a busted shoe.
Media outlets across the country spoke about Williamson’s injury so frequently and so irrationally that there was very little attention paid to the fact that the Heels dominated the number one team in the country. One would have to think that it was impossible for players and staff not to be aware of the situation, and over the weekend we were able to confirm that players were indeed aware.
Following a big time performance against Florida State, Nassir Little spoke with Jack Leland at the Argyle Report about the amount of attention paid to his friend in Durham rather than the Heels. Rather than giving an answer that wasn’t really an answer at all (we all know how those answers usually go), Little decided that the truth was the best remedy for the situation:
“Me and Zion are friends, but I felt some kind of way. We win the game against the number one team by 16, and I hate to see Zion go down, but that’s not the story. The story is: ‘Zion gets hurt, should he leave college?’ And it’s like we get no credit. ESPN, they select their guys who they want to be the guy, and they just kind of ride with them through whatever. And I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think sports should be like that. We don’t have the hype, I guess, the social media hype. Zion’s a great player. He’s very talented, but I feel like everybody just wants to be a part of that. And ESPN, being as big as they are, they want to be like, ‘Oh, we’re the reason he is who he is.’ But that’s just the way it is these days, man. The way I live is like, be so good nobody can ignore you. At the end of the day, we’re beating people. They can pull all his highlights and whatever, but on the last Monday, if we win we win. They can talk about Duke and how they could’ve won, but if we win, we win. So that’s it.”
My immediate reaction to what Little had to say is that I don’t think I could’ve agreed more with anything that anybody has ever said in my entire life. There is this really strange need for the company to focus on one specific player each year to the point where coverage of other teams tend to take a little bit of a backseat, but this year may be the worst that I’ve ever seen it in my adult life. Watching a football game? Zion’s name may come up. Watching a soccer highlight on SportsCenter? There’s a good chance a Zion reference may slip in there. NBA? Easy name drop. Heck, I fully expect to watch the World Series of Poker before the end of basketball season and see Zion’s face show up on the side of my television. It has gotten out of control.
Meanwhile, how many readers here have heard ESPN talk about Murray State star Ja Morant for more than two seconds? Morant is having an amazing season, and by all accounts is nearly a lock to be the second overall pick in the NBA Draft. However, he’s not getting even a fraction of the media coverage that Williamson is. Sure, he doesn’t go to Duke, and that probably counts for a lot of it, but the fact is that ESPN has put all their eggs in the Zion basket and largely ignored someone having a really great year.
The other thought that I had about his statement is that Little feels the way that I think a lot of Carolina fans feel: there’s no reason to hate Zion Williamson as a person. He truly is an amazing player, and is maybe too humble for how extremely gifted he really is. It’s hard a lot of days to process the fact that he even wears a Duke uniform at all, and it makes complete sense as to why Roy Williams recruited him so hard while he was in high school. He is arguably the best college basketball player in the country, seems like a great guy, and he will be a fantastic NBA player. With that said, there’s a reason why the level of obsession over him this past week was so infuriating.
The North Carolina Tar Heels traveled to Durham and beat the dog snot out of the Duke Blue Devils. All of the sugar coating in the world won’t change the facts, and members of both programs understand what the truth is even if they won’t say it. Sure, the best player on that floor at tip-off got injured. However, please do understand who the Tar Heels faced that night even in Williamson’s absence:
- Two future top-five NBA draft picks
- (At least) Four McDonald’s All-Americans
- A Hall of Fame head coach, and a man that has been labeled as the best college basketball coach of all time by many analysts
- Home court advantage in the form of Cameron Indoor Stadium, a place that teams typically don’t have a great deal of success playing at
Let’s call a spade a spade: Duke lost because the Tar Heels outplayed them, and because Coach K couldn’t find a sustainable solution to make up for Williamson’s ability to take over games. However, it’d be disingenuous to say that they didn’t try — Cam Reddish had one of the best games that I’ve ever personally seen him play, as he managed to score 27 points. Duke also did tried doing everything they’d previously successfully done to destroy Louisville’s self-esteem while trailing and Roy Williams’ squad was tough enough to get through it. The Tar Heels were the better team Wednesday night, and they deserve every bit of credit that they are not receiving.
While the sentiments shared by Little could’ve stopped there, he decided to make a rare appearance on Twitter to double down on what he said over the weekend:
I said what I said, I meant it, and I’ll say it again if I got to.— Nassir Little (@2ez_nassie) February 25, 2019
Little exposing the Zion Williamson hype engine that is ESPN has easily been one of the best things to happen this weekend. Now that he is healthy, hopefully he will be able to keep the momentum from his 18-point performance going into the second game against Duke. We can only hope that his friend will be healthy by then as well so that the Heels will have an opportunity to leave no doubts behind should they manage to sweep the Blue Devils.
Until then, let the world sleep on the fact that Carolina has now won three of the last four games against that team in Durham. The Heels are showing in more and more ways that they are a dangerous team, and that their ceiling just may be as high as the national championship game if they are playing their best basketball come tournament time. The great thing about people who sleep on teams is that it never stops being fun waking them up.