North Carolina rolls to Sweet 16 with win over Washington

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It has not been the easiest road for Nassir Little this season.

A top five prospect in the Class of 2018 and a guy that was projected as a potential top three pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Little spent his first — only? — season on North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus as the guy that everyone seemed to have a question about.

And rightfully so.

For all the hype that he entered school with, for a guy that won the MVP in both the McDonald’s All-American game and Jordan Brand game, he was … just OK?

On the season, Little averaged 9.7 points and 4.6 boards. But he shot just 26.5 percent from three. He played just 18 minutes a night. There were long stretches were he looked lost, on both ends of the floor, as Roy Williams tried to find a way to get the best out of his talented young forward.

There were flashes along the way — he had 23 points against Virginia Tech in January, he had 18 and eight boards against Florida State in February — but I think it’s fair to say that the most impressive back-to-back performances that Little has produced this season have come this weekend.

He was the best player on the floor for North Carolina in Sunday’s 81-59 win over No. 9-seed Washington, tearing up the interior of the Huskies’ 2-3 zone to the tune of 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting and seven boards. That came after he went for 19 points in just 17 minutes in UNC’s win over Iona in the first round.

Little, it seems, is starting to figure things out at the best possible time.

The question that needs answering, then, is whether or not this is just a product of matchups.

Iona wants to run and gun and is totally overmatched athletically. That’s the kind of environment that Little can thrive in, allowing his incredible physical tools to take the wheel. Washington’s zone was ripe for the picking, as the Huskies were forced to continually extend out on the perimeter to chase around North Carolina’s shooters. Little wasn’t even North Carolina’s best player on Saturday. That was Luke Maye, who finished with 20 points and 14 boards.

Both of those games played to the strengths of Little’s game.

And here’s the most promising part for Carolina fans — Auburn wants to play just as fast as Carolina does, and with the number of perimeter oriented big men that Bruce Pearl has on his roster, Little becomes such an important piece. He can do what Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore do, and he might be better at it than them.

That’s where his value lies.

North Carolina’s offense is fairly unique in basketball these days in that Roy Williams always wants two big guys on the floor because controlling the glass on both ends of the floor is as important to him as getting out of the break and running is. That can be a problem as more and more teams start playing modern four-men. Little is the key, because he’s capable of doing so many of the things on the offensive end of the floor that Williams wants his big men to do, and he can do it while allowing them to play a brand of small-ball that works.

I’ve said all season long that Little is the key that unlocks UNC’s full potential.

And even if it’s come in 20 minute spurts, we’re starting to see that play out in this tournament.