Coby White, Nassir Little Shaking UNC's Stigma of Little-Used Freshmen

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2019

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 21: Head coach Roy Williams coaches Coby White #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during a game against the Virginia Tech Hokies on January 21, 2019 at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 82-103. (Photo by Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images)
Peyton Williams/Getty Images

There is no perfect way to succeed in college basketball. While Duke and Kentucky coaches Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari have thrived with one-and-done players, North Carolina boss Roy Williams has tended to take a different approach.

Most seasons, veterans lead the Tar Heels. First-year players typically don't function as featured pieces.

The limited number of young stars in the last half-decade has created a perception that Williams and his demanding system put freshmen at a disadvantage in the battle for minutes. Though that's not entirely correct, it's a widely held belief. 

But the 2018-19 season has been different.

Without freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little, the Tar Heels wouldn't have shared the ACC's regular-season title with Virginia. They likely wouldn't be threatening for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, either.

That duo has joined seniors Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams, as well as sophomore Garrison Brooks, at the core of North Carolina's rotation. White has started in all 30 of his appearances, while Little has served as the sixth man all season.

And they've garnered a bunch of praiseWhite in particular.

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"He's one of the best players in the league. He's going to be an NBA player," Krzyzewski said of the 6'5" freshman after Duke's second loss to UNC. "He's got all those things and he's got the support. What's cool [is] when a freshman gets supports from the seniors."

White is all over the Tar Heels' freshman record book.

The point guard has a realistic chance to catch Joe Forte's single-season mark of 600 points. Entering the ACC tournament, he's at 490. In the regular-season finale, he poured in 21 points―the second-most by a North Carolina freshman against Duke.

Additionally, White has already set a record with 75 three-pointers, and his 16.3-point scoring average is the fourth-highest mark since 1992. He's the UNC player most capable of taking over a game offensively, in part because he can create his own opportunities.

For good measure, White combined with Little for an accomplishment that broke a tenure-long trend for Williams:

During that mid-January win over then-No. 10 Virginia Tech, White scored 27 points. Little tallied another 23.

It's probably a surprise that simultaneous outbursts haven't happened more frequently, given Little's hype entering the year. After all, he came to Chapel Hill as the No. 3 prospect of the 2018 class and the reigning McDonald's All-American Game MVP.

While that may be framed as an issue because of how UNC's archrival operates—Duke has relied heavily on RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson, all of whom were top-five recruits—it's not really a problem. 

Little himself has acknowledged the perception:

"If you look at the guys at Duke, you look at what I'm doing, and then you're probably be like, 'Ah he's not playing that well.' But if you compare me to a lot of freshmen in the country, I'm actually excelling, especially at a school like North Carolina that's dominant. We're a top-five team in the country, and I'm a big contribution to that."

Compared to them, Little is indeed a smaller piece. But he's not a small factor.

His 18.4 minutes per game make 2018-19 only the fourth time multiple freshmen have averaged at least 18 minutes during Williams' 16 years at UNC. Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard were the first in 2005-06, then Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson in '06-07 and Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall in '10-11. The latter two seasons ended in the Elite Eight. 

From an NBA draft perspective, calling Little's season a disappointment is fair. He's working to show more creativity as a ball-handler and isn't much of a three-point threat right now, connecting on just 27.3 percent of his deep looks.

Still, he's been an important contributor while backing up breakout star Cameron Johnson. Little's 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game both rank fourth on the team.

Although his overall production pales compared to White's, he's also come through at pivotal times in recent outings. Little netted 18 points in a victory over Florida State and provided nine essential first-half points against Duke. He offers a regular rebounding presence, too.

Williams surely seeks more efficiency from the freshman, but Little's potential demands the respect of UNC's opponents. Together with White, he's helped create a youth-infused, veteran roster ready for a run at ACC and NCAA tournament titles.

Just ask Coach K.

"They have that blend of great old and really good, great young," he said after Duke's most recent loss to its rival. "And it makes them a special group."


Recruiting information via 247Sports. Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com or Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.