Luke DeCock

North Carolina’s freshmen making a splash of their own

Roy Williams: ‘We did a much better job of playing defense’

Williams addresses the media following win over Tennessee Tech
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Williams addresses the media following win over Tennessee Tech

Nassir Little, being both human and aware of his surroundings, is capable of observing and acknowledging the inferno of hype surrounding the four freshmen up the road at Duke. He’s also confident enough in the trio of freshmen at North Carolina, of which he was the most heralded component, to believe it has been grievously and unjustly overlooked in comparison.

“For sure,” Little said after Friday’s 108-58 win over Tennessee Tech. “100 percent.”

Duke’s class is, collectively, ahead in terms of NBA draft status and ESPN highlight quantity, unquestionably and extraordinarily talented. Only Little can match that at North Carolina, but the Tar Heels’ three are electrifying in their own way – and more important, deliver exactly what this team needed.

In just four games, Little, Coby White and Leaky Black have already demonstrated themselves to be the most impactful incoming freshmen since Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson arrived in the fall of 2014 and stepped right into crucial roles. In terms of raw playing time, this group is even ahead of that curve.

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North Carolina’s Coby White (2) breaks to the basket on a fast break in the first half against Tennessee Tech on Friday, November 16, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“Part of it is the talent in front of them is not as big, not as talented not as experienced,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “But also, those guys are pretty good.”

When it comes to raw talent, that starts with Little even though White is the one freshman starter, a second-wave secret weapon in the grand Williams tradition of Marvin Williams, Ed Davis and James Michael McAdoo, the difference-making freshman who comes off the bench – and like Williams and McAdoo, an inside-outside matchup nightmare who averages in double digits.

White’s rapid adjustment to the point-guard position after being an explosive scorer in high school can be measured best by the lack of criticism from Roy Williams, whose constant and public exasperation with Seventh Woods (still) and Jalek Felton (briefly) has been a theme of falls past. Even with Woods playing the best basketball in his time at North Carolina, White is the clear first option at the point.

“I’m pretty doggone pleased with our point guard position,” Williams said. “I’m never going to be satisfied.”

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North Carolina’s Seventh Woods (0) and Leaky Black (1) celebrate after a dunk by K.J. Smith (30) to seal the Tar Heels’ 108-58 win on Friday, November 16, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Black may be the most intriguing of the three because of his long-term potential, something that may not be realized this season but down the road, a guard in a forward’s body – but so far he’s ahead of returners Brandon Robinson and Andrew Platek in the rotation.

Still, in a group of freshmen that has been somewhat overshadowed, Black has been somewhat further overshadowed by his own teammates.

“Nassir and Coby got a lot more ink, but No. 1’s going to be pretty doggone good, too,” said Williams of Black.

Williams addresses the media following win over Tennessee Tech

Altogether, it’s a group that has been able to step in and contribute immediately in a way frequently seen in the past at North Carolina, but not as often recently.

“They’re really advanced and very athletically gifted, which is exciting to see,” said Luke Maye, a star as a senior who played a bit part as a freshman.

Little is a throwback among lottery picks who said his primary consideration when choosing a school was not which would do the most for his draft position but where he was most likely to win a national title. Let the hype fall where it may in November, but he plans to have the last word in April.

“If we win a national championship,” Little said, “then they can’t say anything.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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