Brownlow: Same story, different protagonist as UNC rolls into March as dangerous as ever
In many ways, the story feels familiar. A North Carolina team that struggled some in the early going, only to find its way in February and March, playing its best basketball when it’s most important.
And that’s March.
March and the roll into April, when it happens; a month and change where a Roy Williams-coached team at North Carolina has not been below .500 since his first year back in Chapel Hill.
Things always follow a pattern — early-season losses lead to overreaction and panic, then Williams’ teams get it together and are playing well when it matters.
Senior Kenny Williams knows it all too well. All he could do is laugh when asked how his coach keeps doing it.
“I don’t know what he sprinkles in our food or whatever,” Williams said. “But around the end of February or March, we’re always playing our best basketball. He’s got some magic spell to get us to do it.”
There is one thing different about this team in particular as March approaches, though.
It has the kind of asset that past North Carolina teams haven’t in quite awhile — a dangerous scorer at point guard in Coby White.
White hadn’t had the kind of game he wanted to have the last few outings, in spite of his team winning. He wondered if his confidence was as high as it needed to be. Nothing had shaken it before. But he had just 19 points in the last two games on 7 of 27 shooting.
Against Syracuse, though? He scored 34 points, including five in the final 1:24 of the first half with his team down eight points, cutting that deficit to three points all by himself.
He kept it going to start the second half, scoring nine in the first 2:43 to give his team a 5-point lead that it only kept adding to as the game went on.
So what was the difference between this game and the others?
“Uh,” White said, “I hit a shot.”
He hit more than one, of course, but.
“Last couple of games I don’t feel like I hit a shot. I hadn’t hit a shot in the last three games.”
It must have felt like that to White, who could not get his 3-point shot going. He got it going against Syracuse, though, hitting six, and once he started, it didn’t matter how contested the shots were.
It’s why his head coach said he was the best scoring point guard he’d ever coached.
“He was rolling,” senior Cam Johnson said of White. “That’s what he does - he scores in bunches like that.”
“He knows how to score. He knows he can score. He doesn’t ever get down on himself, he doesn’t waver,” Kenny Williams said. “A couple bad games doesn’t get him down. He’s just got an assertive mentality where he’s going to keep attacking no matter what.”
White, of course, admitted that he had wavered - a little. He’d faced off against some of the better defenses in the ACC, though, so some struggles were to be expected.
What gets him going, though, when it’s on like that? What gets him to a 34-point night?
What does that kind of a performance even feel like while it’s happening?
“To be honest, I don’t even realize it,” White said. “I’m just out there hooping.”
North Carolina locked up a top-4 ACC Tournament seed with the win over Syracuse, which means the coveted double-bye into the quarterfinals.
If you’d told some North Carolina fans or even national pundits that the Tar Heels would be in this position after a defensively-challenged loss to Texas in November and an offensively-challenged loss at Michigan less than a week later, they might not have believed you.
But they should have, of course, because we’ve seen this movie play out before.
Kenny Williams knows that the panic button gets not just pushed, but mashed when North Carolina loses a game - any game.
“Oh yeah,” Williams said, smiling. “Game by game, it’s - everybody on the outside is overreacting to something.
“I’m sure we’ll see tweets, Instagrams, whatever it may be, calling Coby the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). He played like it, but. Good or bad, everybody on the outside overreacts.”
Sure, North Carolina might take some ugly losses earlier in the year that cause people to question WHAT IS ROY WILLIAMS DOING or WHY WON’T HE CALL A TIMEOUT?
But Kenny Williams says it’s part of the big picture.
“We have a curtain on the practice court. (Roy Williams) says if you walk through that curtain without getting better, then you’re doing something wrong,” Kenny Williams said.
“That’s just our mentality. And it works every single year. His teams seem to be playing their best basketball going into March.”
It’s familiar, sure. But they haven’t had a point guard like White, either.
He’s the only North Carolina freshman in a group that includes Michael Jordan to ever score 30 or more points three times.
And there’s plenty of season left to go.
Even if the ending is familiar and the story arc is the same, the wildly unpredictable protagonist will make it appointment viewing.