In some ways, Nate Britt said, the decision to change his shooting hand made him feel like a freshman all over again. The junior went from shooting with his left hand as a freshman to shooting with his right as a sophomore.
“Like starting over,” Britt, the North Carolina guard, said Sunday after his team’s 92-65 victory against Fairfield.
He was sitting in the players lounge outside of the UNC locker room at the Smith Center, where the Tar Heels had slogged their way through a victory that, while never in doubt, wasn’t exactly an aesthetic masterpiece. During the game fans here were restless, waiting for when UNC would extend its lead.
Afterward, coach Roy Williams said the final score was misleading – that it “doesn’t tell the story of the game.” And there were a good number of things that concerned Williams: his team’s level of effort early on, its relative lack of success at the free throw line, some defensive lapses.
For the second consecutive game, though, Britt found himself on Williams’ good list. Britt on Sunday led UNC with 17 points, which tied his career high, and he thrived on Sunday after scoring 15 points during the Tar Heels’ season-opening 91-67 victory against Temple Friday.
I think he’s comfortable, he’s confident. I think confidence does a lot of things for you. And he’s gone through some major changes from left hand to right hand and has had some good things happen for him last year. But I think it’s more just his work and the time that he’s put in.
UNC coach Roy Williams on junior Nate Britt
Those 32 points are the most he’s scored in consecutive games at UNC, and this is the fourth time he has scored in double figures in back-to-back college games. Britt said afterward he’s more confident, more comfortable, and his numbers agreed: 6-for-9 from the field, 4-for-6 from behind the 3-point line.
How much better is he feeling now compared to a year ago at this time, working through the change in shooting hands? How much more confident?
“A lot more confident than last year,” Britt said.
It’s early yet, but through the top-ranked Tar Heels’ first two games Britt has been their most consistent, efficient player. He has made 11 of his 17 attempts from the field overall, and seven of his 10 attempts from behind the 3-point line.
He has made the most of an expanded opportunity in the absence of Marcus Paige, the senior point guard who’s not playing while recovering from a broken bone in his hand. Britt hasn’t been starting but he is playing starters’ minutes: 27 against Fairfield and 25 against Temple.
“I think he’s comfortable, he’s confident,” Williams said. “I think confidence does a lot of things for you. And he’s gone through some major changes from left hand to right hand and has had some good things happen for him last year. But I think it’s more just his work and the time that he’s put in.”
Britt downplayed the extra time he has been spending in the gym, working on his shot. He said all of his teammates on the perimeter do the same kinds of things that he does, and spend the same kind of time working on their mechanics.
Britt’s teammates, though, told a different story.
“He’s one of the main guys that stays after practice, before practice, gets shots up,” Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, said. “So it was just a matter of time for him to just kind of get into his comfort zone and start to knock down shots.”
UNC might be the No. 1-ranked team in the country but it is still a work in progress, especially with Paige on the bench. The performance against Fairfield, which was competitive through the first 30 minutes or so, provided proof of how far the Tar Heels have yet to come.
Yet through two games Britt is answering one question: Who benefits most from Paige’s absence?
Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard, has impressed at times during his two starts. He finished with 15 points on Sunday, but took 16 shots from the field to get there. And Theo Pinson, the wing forward who has started alongside Berry in the backcourt, has produced several nice moments, too.
Williams especially appreciated Pinson’s passing on Sunday. He finished with eight assists and no turnovers. But without Paige, at least through two games, it has been Britt, who has been UNC’s best outside shooter and most efficient scorer on the perimeter.
Williams hasn’t been asking Britt to do anything special.
“Just be a better Nate Britt,” Britt said. “Coach asks the same thing of all of us. He wants each and every player to be a better individual.”
With Paige hurt the Tar Heels are faced with the same question every game: Who do they turn to on the perimeter when they need someone to make a shot? Who offers the calm of reliability?
“Of course, Marcus, he’s proven that,” Pinson said on Sunday. “So today, honestly, we realized that, Nate, he can give us a shot. Joel, he knocked down big shots today.
“So I feel like everybody’s capable.”
Early on Britt has been most capable, though. During the run in which the game began to turn from competitive to blowout, Britt made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, pushing UNC’s lead to 14 points both times.
Moments later, after a Kennedy Meeks steal and a Jackson layup, the Tar Heels led by 16 and Fairfield was calling a timeout.
The 3s that Britt made were the kind of momentum-swinging shots that Paige has so often made, that ones that someone else has to make, consistently, while he’s out.