We have one more day to really bask in this past weekend’s performances. As a #1 seed, North Carolina did what they were supposed to do. Even with the first-half hiccup against Iona, it’s hard to complain about too much from the weekend. If anything, there were encouraging signs that this team is finding another gear.
Much of that optimism has to do with Nassir Little. After the ACC tournament, I wrote that UNC needs Little to take a step forward in the NCAA Tournament. Truthfully, that kind of optimism is often misplaced in a player that hasn’t quite lived up to their potential during the season. It’s usually best served for players like Sean May, Ty Lawson, or Joel Berry. Guys that have proven to be top-tier contributors but need to give just a little extra to take a title team over the top.
Little took steps this past weekend to disrupt that line of thinking. It was easy to dismiss the 19-point performance against Iona, due to obvious talent disparity. Against Washington, however, he proved the first round was not a fluke with 20 points and 7 rebounds. I don't know if it qualified as a “breakout” performance, but one could make an argument heading that way.
Granted, the 2-3 zone defense is unlike anything else the Heels will see the rest of the season. And yes, the PAC-12 is a garbage conference and Washington isn’t up to the level of other power conference champions. In this case, I’m not wholly convinced those caveats diminish what we saw.
Let’s take a look at the film.
Running the Floor
Cameron Johnson puts up an open three in transition. Little is the first Heel in the paint, finds a body, out-jumps two Washington defenders, and puts it back up for the three-point play.
Most will cheer the rebound and put back. The real credit goes to his willingness to run the court and put himself in position to make a play. That effort has been inconsistent throughout the year.
Block and Dunk
This was part of Little’s 11 consecutive points in the second half. He starts the sequence with a massive block. Note he is mere steps behind Brooks, who’s already at a full sprint, as Coby begins transition.
Now look where Little is as Brooks receives the ball. (If you still cannot appreciate Garrison Brooks, you’re a fool). Brooks beats every single Husky down the court, but gets stuck under the basket. He dribbles out of trouble and has teammates open all over the court.
Little never stopped hustling, nor did he bask in the glow of his block. He trails the play and finds the soft pocket of the non-existent Washington zone as the players scramble back in transition. He emphatically finishes, forcing UW coach Mike Hopkins to call a timeout.
“Assist” to Coby
Pretty basic. Nassir gets the ball in the high post, hesitates, and the Washington defense collapses. Little doesn’t panic and finds White on the opposite sideline. A month ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Little put his head down and dribble into the teeth of the defense. Instead, he gives a quick skip to Coby who, uh, does the rest... and enough, apparently, for Nas to not be credited with an assist.
Little grabs the rebound, immediately looks up court, and hits Cam Johnson. Brandon Robinson runs the opposite lane and receives the bounce pass for an easy layup. Great recognition by Little to get the ball and push it via the outlet. It seems like an obvious play, but Little has struggled to make correct reads within Roy Williams’ offense. This was not the case on Sunday.
Decisive and Aggressive
Good recognition by Little to drift to the corner when the wing steps up to guard Cam. There is nobody within seven feet of Nas as he takes the pass in rhythm and lets it fly. No hesitation. No hitch in the stroke. No second-guessing or giving the defense time to recover. Little nails it. That’s what confidence looks like.
Yeah, he missed it. But man, did you see how he missed it? This would be attempted murder in 34 states*. His reward? Two foul shots, which he made. This is the aggression that has been missing for long stretches of the season. It was not missing in the second half on Sunday.
There seriously is nothing extraordinary about any of these plays. Nas just stayed decisive in his movements and let his physical tools take care of the rest. Here, Washington literally has four defenders at or above the free throw line. Little catches, turns, and sees open space. Again, he doesn’t hesitate, take extra dribbles, or force a pass to Brooks. The quick recognition and awareness result in two easy points.
Short-Corner Finish Through Contact
A slightly different look, with Little along the baseline. Johnson takes the pass in the high post and fires it to Nas in the short corner. Little doesn’t even take a dribble and goes straight up. He takes contact and makes the bucket.
It’s anyone’s guess what to expect. The zone is not hard to decipher when you’re coached by Roy Williams and Iona gave the team some easy practice on Friday night. Little’s strengths at the moment are tailor-made for exploiting open spaces on the floor and punishing teams at the rim.
The bigger takeaway, in my slightly uneducated and likely uninformed opinion, is the aggressiveness, decisiveness, and confidence that Little showed. Many of his struggles have come from lack of hustle, and/or being hesitant or timid when he gets the ball. At times, he’s shown a Harrison Barnes-esque ability to overthink. None of those were truly on display this weekend. That is reason for encouragement.
Let’s be real. Little isn’t going to magically start breaking people down off the dribble to create his own shot. He probably isn’t going to become a lockdown defender in the next three days. That’s fine. He’s still raw and expectation management is a solid skill for fans to exercise. It’s fair to be excited and skeptical that this level of production will carry over to top-tier competition.
However, what he can do is consistently run the floor, put himself in position to make a play, and violently attack the rim as often as possible, regardless of his opponent. More than the level of competition or defensive schemes, that’s what made him so successful in his first two NCAA Tournament games.
If Nassir Little keeps doing just that, North Carolina will be playing in their third Final Four in four years.