This isn’t complicated — after his explosive performance in Columbus last weekend, Nassir Little was UNC’s most valuable player in this year’s NCAA Tournament. It may seem like a cop-out or overly simplistic, but it’s hard to dismiss that a less-than-healthy Little coincided with a less-than-stellar UNC team.
The usual cast of characters all had impressive numbers. Cameron Johnson, who also battled flu-like symptoms against Auburn had a case with 49 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists over the three games. Luke Maye was equally impressive with 49 points, 30 rebounds, and 5 assists. Coby White was close behind with 42, 15, and 10.
However, it was clear that without a healthy Little, UNC had no one else to turn to against the red hot Tigers. Here are the facts:
Iona: 17 minutes, 9-13 FGM/A, 19 points, 4 rebounds.
Final Score: UNC 88-Iona 73
Washington: 21 minutes, 8-11 FGM/A, 1-1 3PM/A, 3-3 FT, 21 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block
Final Score: UNC 81-Washington 59
Auburn: 13 minutes, 2-5 FGM/A, 0-2 3PM/A, 0-1 FT, 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 virus
Final Score: Auburn 97-UNC 80
Anyone watching UNC struggle in the first half against Iona will readily admit that Little played a significant role in keeping UNC competitive before his strong second half helped UNC cruise to victory.
Anyone watching UNC dominate Washington will readily admit that Little was borderline unstoppable in the second half, as he helped put the nails in the Huskies’ 2019 coffin. His aggression and confidence seemed to be the missing ingredient for the Heels to make a deep run.
Anyone watching UNC get dominated by Auburn will readily admit the entire team struggled, but a depleted Little couldn't pick up the slack this time. That was most evident when he was blocked twice in the second half as he tried to absolutely murder the rim.
The first blocked dunk at 12:38 would have cut the Auburn lead from 61-54 to 61-56. The second blocked dunk at 11:37 would have cut the lead from 64-54 to 64-56. Instead, UNC never got within single digits again.
We’re not trying to demean, belittle, or bemoan Little’s frustrating day. It may seem odd to pick a guy who struggled so much on Saturday, but it’s hard to hold the illness against him. If anything, it just shows how vital he was over the first weekend and to this team’s chances. Whatever virus hit the team will now become one of the “what if” moments in UNC basketball lore.
UNC fans will now sit back and wait to see if Little decides to come back for one more attempt at an NCAA title. Regardless of his decision, all UNC fans should be thankful for his efforts and giving everything he had this weekend, in this tournament, and during the season.