UNC Basketball: Tournament takeaways for Tar Heels heading into Sweet 16

COLUMBUS, OHIO – MARCH 24: The North Carolina Tar Heels reacts to a play against the Washington Huskies during their game in the Second Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 24, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

No. 1 UNC Basketball has reached the Sweet 16 after wins over No. 16 Iona and No. 9 Washington. Here are some thoughts, observations, and numbers that defined the Tar Heels’ First Weekend of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

The Midwest’s top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels are on their way to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, with a promising first weekend — including breakout games, dominant team performances, and wins over Iona and Washington — giving UNC Basketball plenty of hope for a prolonged postseason run ending in Minneapolis.

Considering UNC’s standing as one of the last 16 teams standing in this year’s Tournament field, here are 16 thoughts, observations, and numbers from their first weekend.

Oh, So Sweet: Another second round victory, another Sweet 16 for Roy Williams and UNC. For coach Williams, this marks his 19th Sweet 16 berth (out of 29 Tournament appearances), moving him past Jim Boeheim (18) for second all-time in Sweet 16s made by a head coach in NCAA history. Mike Krzyzewski (24) is the lone man ahead of him. For UNC, the program has reached the second weekend for the fourth time in five seasons, an impressive run of prolonged postseason success.

Top-Heavy: For only the second time in NCAA Tournament history, all top-three seeds advanced to the Sweet 16. The only other year this happened? 2009.

History, Repeated? Not only are the top-three seeds alive in the Sweet 16, just like in 2009, but the exact same seeds remain: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-5, 1-2-3-12. Spooky.

Winning: Williams’ wins over Iona and Washington bring his Tournament win total up to 59 wins since 2000, the most such wins during that timeframe. (Krzyzewski is second with 49 wins, Bill Self third with 47, Tom Izzo fourth with 46, John Calipari fifth with 44.)

The World Is Yours: After what amounted to be a turbulent freshman season through his first 33 games, freshman forward Nassir Little has exploded onto the scene in his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Through two games, the 6-6 power wing posted totals of 39 points (19.5 PPG) and 11 rebounds (5.5 RPG) on a ridiculous 70.8 shooting percentage from the floor (17-of-24), all in just 38 minutes of action. Little’s 19 points in his NCAA Tournament debut against Iona were the most from a UNC freshman in a debut since Harrison Barnes scored 24 in the first round of the 2011 tournament. Little’s 20-point outing against Washington was the first time a UNC reserve hit 20 points in an NCAA Tournament game since 2005, when Marvin Williams scored 20 against Iowa State in the second round.

Jam Fam: With 8:26 remaining in the second half against Washington with the Heels safely up 61-47, Nassir Little received an entry pass from Cam Johnson, took one dribble into a hop-step and proceeded to attempt what would’ve been the rudest play of the entire 2019 NCAA Tournament had it worked. A two-handed poster over Hameir Wright would’ve made the internet explode. In the locker room after the game, Little was told (jokingly) that the guy(s) he tried to posterize had a family. Little’s response? “Well, their family should tell them to move.”

17-1: UNC’s record whenever Nassir Little scores in double figures.

Seven-Nothing: Against Washington on Sunday, grad transfer Cameron Johnson dished out seven assists, the most assists from a Tar Heel this season without committing a turnover.

16-0: UNC’s record whenever Johnson records at least three made three-pointers in a game.

Back On Track: Entering their Round of 32 bout with Washington, the Tar Heels were in the midst of a monthlong shooting drought from the perimeter, with March being UNC’s coldest month in what had been a downward, month-by-month trajectory: November 36.7 3P%, December 37.8 3P%, January 39.2 3P%, February 35.9 3P%, March 32.3 3P%. Against the Huskies, though, it appears that UNC is back on track from downtown, canning 9-of-21 (42.9 3P%) triples. Coby White drained 4-of-7, Johnson 3-of-8, Luke Maye 1-of-2, and Little 1-of-1.

Hoarders: Through two games, UNC is out-rebounding its opponents 100-50, including 35 offensive boards (20 against Iona, 15 against Washington) which led to 41 second-chance points. Both the Gaels and Huskies rank poorly as defensive rebounding units (bottom-third or worse), due to a lack of interior size and their usage of zone schemes on the defensive end. UNC’s next opponent, Auburn, primarily plays man-to-man, but the Tigers’ rebounding numbers are still mediocre. The Tigers were out-rebounded by 26 through two tournament games and rank 333rd in defensive rebounding percentage (66.8 DREB%).

LUUUKE: Senior forward Luke Maye scored 20 points (8-19 FG) against Washington, the most he’s recorded in 14 career tournament games. His previous high of 17 came against Kentucky in the 2017 Elite Eight.

Senior Memories: According to The Daily Tar Heel’s Chris Trenkle, Cameron Johnson says that he occasionally catches Kenny Williams rewatching the replay of the 2017 national championship game (where the Tar Heels defeated the Gonzaga Bulldogs, 71-65). And, yes, Johnson wonders what it was like to be win a championship.

They’re Watching: Acknowledged previously by members of the media year in and year out, the NCAA Tournament gives players a larger platform to show what they’re made of, with audiences of scouts, coaches, and NBA executives eyeing prospective draftees carefully. For UNC’s Nassir Little (19.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 70.8 FG%) and Coby White (13.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 40 3P%), strong performances during the Tournament’s first weekend has arguably elevated their draft stock more than any other duo of NBA hopefuls.

Little’s name was losing traction as a lottery prospect due to subpar play, but two highly-productive outings are pushing his name back into the top-10 range that he began the year in. White is among the highest risers of the Draft, playing his way into consideration as a lottery selection and perhaps the Draft’s second-best (or maybe even the best) point guard. If UNC’s run in the Tournament lasts even longer, and the two freshmen continue playing well, their stock should only continue to climb.

Go With The ‘Fro: Coby White is fun. That’s it. That’s the takeaway.

Grit and Grind: Sunday’s final box score versus Washington gives off the impression that the game was easy, but that wasn’t the case for two Tar Heel players. Both Kenny Williams and Garrison Brooks had to leave the game due to injury — Brooks suffered an elbow to the mouth, which required several stitches, and Williams exited the game briefly for cramping in his hamstring — before ultimately returning to the floor.

Next: Ranking the Sweet 16 teams

No matter your feelings toward these players from Chapel Hill, love them or hate them, you certainly can’t say that these young men aren’t tough.