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Little coming up big at right time for Tar Heels

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After a regular season in which he flashed enormous potential but struggled with consistency and his fit in North Carolina’s rotation, Nassir Little exploded in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The freshman followed a 19-point performance for the top-seeded Tar Heels against Iona in the Midwest Regional first round with 20 points in 21 1/2 minutes of action against No. 9-seeded Washington, shooting 70.8 percent from the field in Columbus.

Little’s efficiency in the paint was especially critical against Washington as Garrison Brooks missed the final 12 minutes, 17 seconds of the first half after taking an elbow to the face that broke one tooth and displaced two others. Brooks’ toughness is certainly not in question, as the big man returned for the second half.

“I love our toughness,” head coach Roy Williams said afterwards. “And just love the way we kept competing.”

Little’s competitiveness and ability to handle the dirty work in the paint in Brooks’ place was as impressive as his scoring numbers. He’s clearly a different player when he has early success and turns on the aggressiveness, and I expect to see Carolina make an early effort to get his motor started early in Friday’s third-round game against fifth-seeded Auburn (28–9).

TIGERS NOT AFRAID TO RUN

Unlike Carolina’s first two opponents, who did everything they could to slow the game down and force Carolina to play half-court basketball against their zone defenses, Auburn has had no fear of fast-paced games this season, as evident from the SEC tournament champions’ breakneck pace as they ran out to a 17-point lead in the first eight minutes in their second-round win against Kansas.

The Tigers finished 158th nationally in pace of play, but that has reflected more of a willingness to match pace rather than control it over the course of the season. The biggest concern for North Carolina has to be Auburn’s ability to get hot from outside, demonstrated with 13 3-pointers (on 30 attempts; 43.3 percent) against Kansas and 13 and 15 makes from deep in the Tigers’ two wins over Tennessee during the regular season and SEC tournament. 

Opponents’ success from 3-point range has been a common factor in Carolina’s losses this season. In the five losses, aside from the ACC Tournament loss to Duke, Carolina’s opponents averaged 10.6 3-pointers on 45.3-percent shooting, while the Heels have given up 7.4 3-pointers per game on 31-percent shooting in all other games. Defending the perimeter will be critical for the Tar Heels in this one.

Auburn also leads the nation in turnovers forced per possession (24.6 percent), another key against a Carolina team that has been sloppy with the ball at times this season. North Carolina had 15 turnovers against Washington, which was fourth nationally in forcing turnovers. UNC point guard Coby White, however, only had one turnover in each of the first two games, and another low-turnover game from White against Auburn’s high-pressure defense would go a long way toward the Tar Heels advancing to the Elite Eight.

ELITE EIGHT POSSIBILITIES

Tar Heel fans are all too familiar with the Kentucky team that beat UNC in Chapel Hill in December but surely know much less about Houston (33–3), the other potential Elite Eight opponent. There are three things to know in advance. First, Houston leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense (.366), which is significantly better than Virginia’s ACC-leading .381 mark. Secondly, Houston is comfortable playing small-ball, as its five leading scorers are all under 6-foot-5. Finally, the Cougars prefer a slower pace, ranking 247th nationally in tempo.

As for Kentucky, if Carolina faces them for a second time this season, keep a close eye on two factors. First, White struggled against Ashton Hagans’ defensive pressure in the first matchup but has markedly improved in that regard over the course of the season. Secondly, Kentucky dominated the boards (plus-11) in the first matchup while still limiting Carolina’s fast-break efficiency. If UNC faces the Wildcats, improvement in these two factors could be decisive in changing the outcome.

STAT OF THE WEEK

86.7 percent. UNC rebounded 65 out of 75 available defensive rebounds in the first two rounds, dominating the boards as both Iona and Washington tried to limit Carolina’s fast-break opportunities after misses.  

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.

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