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North Carolina freshman Nassir Little announced on Monday that he is leaving the university to enter the NBA Draft, where he is projected to be a first-round pick.
That news is no surprise, as Little was expected to be a one-and-done player from the beginning. Little averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds on 18.2 minutes per game as the sixth man in his first and only season as a Tar Heel.
Those close to Coby White have indicated that he has not yet decided about whether to turn pro or stay another year after the Tar Heels lost 97-80 to Auburn in Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal.
White was initially expected to play more than one year at UNC, but his draft stock has skyrocketed thanks to a prolific freshman season in which he displayed skills especially in demand in today’s NBA.
Some draft projections now have White as high as a top-five pick in the draft, which may be too much to pass up to return for another year, especially since returning would mean more opportunity for NBA decision makers to scrutinize his game. White averaged 16.1 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game in 2018–19.
Regardless of White’s decision, the departures of Little and seniors Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye, and Kenny Williams will mean UNC will look radically different next season, with a returning nucleus of junior Garrison Brooks, seniors Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods, and sophomore Leaky Black joined by freshman point guard Jeremiah Francis and five-star center Armando Bacot.
Carolina also appears to be the most likely destination for five-star 6-foot-3 combo guard Cole Anthony and remains in play for 6-9 five-star small forward Precious Achiuwa.
Expect the Tar Heels also to add a graduate transfer or two to help offset the loss of so much quality and experience. Two to watch early in the process: Akron forward Daniel Utomi and 6-5 Little Rock wing and Charlotte native Rayjon Tucker.
One thing that will certainly be different in 2019–20: Carolina fans should expect bigger, more traditional Roy Williams-style lineups next season after two seasons of mostly small ball, thanks to the addition of the 6-10 Bacot along with the return of Brooks and the continued maturation of fellow junior big men Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman.
AUBURN SCORCHES THE NETS
UNC finished the 2018–19 basketball season on a tear, winning 17 of the last 20 games, with all three losses coming to teams (Duke, Virginia, Auburn) that made the Elite Eight. Unfortunately, Carolina’s season ended at the hands of a team that was even hotter, as Auburn’s torrid shooting was just too much for the Tar Heels to overcome.
On the one hand, it’s obviously a disappointing result for a team that fought and clawed and improved all the way to a No. 1 seed. Many will see a Sweet 16 exit as underachieving in light of that top seed.
But that’s the thing about single-elimination tournaments — the results of one game don’t always tell the story about how much a team grew or whether it truly underachieved.
The Tar Heels simply ran into a red-hot opponent that was also a poor matchup for Carolina. Opponents’ success from long range was the biggest constant in the Tar Heels’ losses this season, and Auburn has now made 445 threes on the season, second all-time in NCAA history.
A staggering 17 of those came against Carolina, with the Tigers shooting an absurd 12 of 18 from deep in the second half—including a bank shot from the top of the key that served as a signal that this just wasn’t Carolina’s night. The bottom line: you’re just not going to win many games when your opponent makes 10 more 3-pointers than you do.
The Tigers also used their athleticism and Carolina’s respect for their outside shooting to have more success on the boards than anticipated, as Auburn spread UNC out and then outran their counterparts to offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive.
It’s ultimately surprising that Carolina wound up losing to a team that beat them at their own small ball and outside-shooting game, but that’s exactly what happened.
None of this should diminish just how fun this Carolina team was to watch, nor how much they grew over the course of the season.
It may not have been the ending that this team wanted or deserved, but it wouldn’t be correct to call this season a failure or to label the tournament performance as underachieving.
Dean Smith used to insist that regular-season conference championships were more impressive than tournament championships because of the consistency they required, and that should be remembered when evaluating the 2018–19 UNC season.
ILLNESS AND INJURIES
After logging perhaps his two best performances all season in the first two rounds, Little was limited by illness against Auburn. The star freshman had a fever of over 102 on Thursday and conceded after the game that he’d had difficulty getting air during the game due to the mucus buildup in his chest.
Johnson was also affected by similar symptoms, never quite looking like himself as he played through a high fever.
Johnson missed postgame interviews as he remained in the locker room throwing up. With illness combined with Kenny Williams’ hamstring troubles, the Tar Heels found themselves impacted by bad injury and illness luck at just the wrong time of year.
STATS OF THE WEEK
312. Carolina set a new school record with 312 three-pointers made in 2018–19.
96. Only Justin Jackson (105) made more threes in a season than Cam Johnson’s 96 triples this season. Johnson shot 45.7 percent from deep on the year.
562. Coby White’s scoring total is the fifth most by a freshman in UNC history, trailing only Joseph Forte (600), Rashad McCants (594), Tyler Hansbrough (587), and Harrison Barnes (580).
44. Luke Maye was the first Tar Heel in 44 years to average a double-double in consecutive seasons. The last to accomplish that feat was Mitch Kupchak, who did it in the 1974–75 and 1975–76 seasons. Maye averaged 14.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game this season.
121. Williams and Maye finished their careers with the third most wins by a four-year senior class in UNC history. Only the 2008 and 2009 classes finished with more career wins.
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.