Duke isn’t the only team with fabulous freshmen.
The country has been transfixed by Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, and understandably so. They’re incredible, exciting players, and they might just carry Duke to the national title.
Unless North Carolina’s Coby White and Nassir Little beat them to it.
The Tar Heels made the Sweet 16 for the 36th time Sunday, and White and Little both played big roles in getting them there. White broke out of his shooting slump from the first game in the NCAA Tournament to score 17 against Washington, and his early flurry of threes helped North Carolina sidestep the Huskies’ suffocating zone.
Little seemed to come up with baskets anytime the Tar Heels needed them, giving North Carolina a lift as it rallied against Iona on Friday and then keeping Washington at bay Sunday. There was one stretch in the second half when Little had 13 points and the entire Huskies team had … nine.
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“He’s being aggressive. If Nas is aggressive, that takes us to another level,” senior guard Kenny Williams said. “For him to outscore the whole team for a stretch is big, and that was all a product of him being aggressive. There’s no X’s and O’s to it. When Nas is aggressive, he gets good results.”
Little and White were hardly unknown quantities coming into the NCAA Tournament. White broke the North Carolina state high school scoring record — no small thing, considering some of the players who’ve grown up there — and earned ACC Freshman of the Week honors five times, tied with Williamson for most in the season.
Little was MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game and was fourth in scoring for the Tar Heels despite coming off the bench.
But both were overshadowed by Williamson’s otherworldliness, to say nothing of his shoe drama. Little also was slowed after spraining his ankle against Virginia on Feb. 11. Though he did not miss a game, coach Roy Williams could see the effect impact the injury had on his game.
“He was really coming along really, really well. And then he got his ankle hurt, and then he got hit in the face — in the eye, excuse me. And those kind of things set him back quite a bit,” Roy Williams said. “But the last two games he’s been something else for us.”
Little’s speed and athleticism make him almost impossible to defend. You think you have him contained out on the wing and, next thing you know, he’s by the basket. He can shoot the three or drive to the basket, and he can usually be counted on for a handful of rebounds.
Little’s energy is infectious, too, lifting the rest of the Tar Heels when he shifts into that extra gear.
White was uncharacteristically off against Iona. He couldn’t get anything to fall and never looked as if he was comfortable with the flow of the game. But he was locked in from the opening tip Sunday, and there was one 70-second stretch early in the game when he and Little showed just what a force they can be.
North Carolina led by just two when Little scored on a short jumper in the paint. White then made two threes in quick succession to stretch the Tar Heels’ lead to double digits. When the Huskies pared the lead back to six, White answered with another 3-pointer.
White would finish with 17 points and was 4-for-7 from 3-point range.
“We just tell each other to keep shooting because you know you’ll knock them down,” Kenny Williams said. “(White) didn’t have the best game shooting-wise (against Iona). I told him, ‘Today they’ll go in.’ And you guys saw that.”
Duke’s freshmen are terrific; no one’s questioning that. But North Carolina’s are pretty good, too.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.