KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After a 97-80 loss to Auburn in the Sweet 16, Nassir Little hung his head low in the locker room, his voice still congested from the flu-like symptoms he'd been suffering from since before the game began. Nearby, his teammate, Coby White, tried to explain what went wrong to a crowd of reporters as tears welled in his eyes.
In what might have been their final games for the North Carolina men’s basketball team, neither highly-touted first-year played like the best player on the court.
Little, who had been running a 102-degree fever heading into a matchup against the Tigers, had his shot furiously blocked three times from close range, as he finished with just four points in 13 minutes.
The 6-foot-6 forward — who clearly wasn’t feeling normal — failed to match his best performances of the season against Iona and Washington, when he scored 39 combined points — the most he had in any two-game stretch all year.
"I didn't feel my best, but I just tried to give it a shot, just try to help the team out,” Little said, later telling reporters he only felt “50 percent” his normal health during the game. “I didn't do as much as I wanted to, but at least I could say I gave it a shot."
Though he didn't appear to be sick, White could have played better too. Leading the offense at point guard, the 6-foot-5 Goldsboro native tied for a team-high in points (15) along with Cameron Johnson.
But in 32 minutes, White shot just 26.7 percent from the floor, including 0-7 from 3-point land, and he was as guilty as anyone for how poorly UNC (29-7) guarded a barrage of 12 Auburn threes in the second half.
"They were hitting contested, wide open, all types of threes. Bank threes,” White said. “So when it's that type of day going for a team like that, they can really shoot the ball, they're really hard to beat."
Even though things didn’t quite go according to plan for Little and White on Friday, the players were as important to the season as anyone the Tar Heels had.
The commitment of Little and White, along with classmate Leaky Black, marked the return of UNC in being able to attract top recruits from other top programs. And once on campus, the players mostly played up to expectations, adding value and talent the program benefited from.
Enrolling in Chapel Hill as the leading scorer in North Carolina high school basketball history, White won the starting point guard role from day one.
As the season progressed, he stepped out and showed himself to be one of the best scorers on the team — even among the likes of sharpshooter Johnson and Luke Maye, who were first and third in average points per game for UNC this season, respectively.
Including Friday, White scored in double figures in 28 out of 35 games this season, with a career-high 34 points against Syracuse in the heart of ACC play. Even in one of his worst shooting performances of the year, White showed flashes of his potential, with elusive speed running the floor and a James Harden-esque step-back jumper that gave some semblance of hope to UNC when it needed it.
This season, Little took on a more unconventional role, coming off the bench as the sixth man for UNC. As the season progressed, Little’s draft stock slid him out of conversation as a potential top-five pick, yet he figured out how to best contribute at the most important time — in the NCAA Tournament.
"I'd take him over anybody, any day," Brandon Robinson said of Little playing against Auburn despite not feeling well.
Little came off the bench in some role every game of the season, as he consistently hovered near 20 minutes per game in a role Roy Williams saw as the best fit for his talent.
If Little and White both declare for the draft later this spring, next year’s roster will look much different than it did this season after Maye, Kenny Williams and Johnson won't be back.
Seventh Woods and Robinson will be the oldest players in 2020, and they’ll be expected to take on a much greater role moving forward to help out rising junior big man Garrison Brooks.
So will both Black and Andrew Platek, who will be transitioning from young players toward two of the more experienced in the program.
If for some reason Little and White decide to stick around Chapel Hill for a little longer and wait on the NBA, UNC fans can expect they’ll be in good hands moving forward. But if not, the college careers of White and Little won’t be remembered for what could have been, even if their performance against the Tigers will be.
“Like I said, man, it's basketball, and it's life,” White said. “Everything is not always going to go your way, so you've just got to take it and keep moving forward."
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