North Carolina Tar Heels: Stilman White

2014 class could be right piece

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
11:45
AM ET
Roy Williams won two championships in Chapel Hill thanks in large part to three standout recruiting classes. On paper, he just landed a fourth on Wednesday.

Williams delivered one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and gave a comment on each:

Theo Pinson, a 6-foot-8 wing, is ranked eighth in the ESPN 100: “He can do almost everything on the court and do it well. He can handle the ball, pass, defend and he has tremendous savvy.

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Chris Williams/Icon SMI2014 UNC signee Justin Jackson is the nation's top-ranked small forward.
Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-6 wing is ranked 13th: “He’s 6-8 with perimeter skills. He performed well last summer against tough competition, including at USA Basketball events.”

Joel Berry, a 6-foot-1 point guard, ranked 15th: “He is a true quarterback on the floor, but he has the ability to score as well.”

It matches the 2010 class of Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall for the highest average ranking. But the formula for winning titles doesn’t come with a talented class alone.

Williams has proven when he stacks classes the right way, Carolina contends for the title.

As you recall, Matt Doherty recruited the classes who proved to be the cornerstones of the 2005 national championship team. That included the 2002 class that featured Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton.

Marvin Williams, from the class of 2004, proved to be a key addition to that team and was in Roy Williams’ first full recruiting class in Chapel Hill.

The starters for the 2009 title team came from portions of the 2005 (Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green) and 2006 (Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson) classes.

The team built to win in 2012 had key starters from three classes in Tyler Zeller (2008), John Henson and Dexter Strickland (2009) and Marshall and Barnes (2010).

Even if James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston are not on next year’s squad, the Heels will still have a nice blend of old and new talents from three straight classes. That once again could be the formula for a serious Final Four contender.

Pinson and Jackson in particular will give Carolina the depth and athleticism on the wings that it has lacked. Berry will team with Marcus Paige and Nate Britt to form one of the fastest back courts Williams has had at UNC.

UNC recruiting classes under Roy Williams

2004
J.R. Smith, SF
Marvin Williams, PF
Quentin Thomas, PG

2005
Tyler Hansbrough, PF
Danny Green, SG
Bobby Frasor, SG
Marcus Ginyard, PG
Michael Copeland, F

2006
Wayne Ellington, G
Ty Lawson, PG
Brandon Wright, PF
Deon Thompson, PF
Alex Stepheson, PF
Will Graves, SF

2007
None

2008
Ed Davis, PF
Tyler Zeller, C
Larry Drew, PG
Justin Watts, SG

2009
John Henson, PF
Dexter Strickland, SG
Leslie McDonald, SG
David Wear, PF
Travis Wear, PF

2010
Harrison Barnes, SF
Regge Bullock, SG
Kendall Marshall, PG

2011
James Michael McAdoo, PF
P.J. Hairson, SF
Desmond Hubert, C
Jackson Simmons, PF
Stillman White, PG

2012
Marcus Paige, PG
Joel James, C
Brice Johnson, PF
J.P. Tokoto, SF

2013
Isaiah Hicks, PF
Kennedy Meeks, C
Nate Britt, PG

2014
Theo Pinson, SF
Justin Jackson, SF
Joel Berry, PG
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he feels “fairly comfortable” about having freshman point guard Marcus Paige, senior shooting guard Dexter Strickland, junior small forward Reggie Bullock and sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo in Friday’s season-opening lineup against Gardner-Webb.

But the second post position? As of Thursday’s 2 p.m. ET news conference, Williams hadn’t made a decision.

“As we stand here right now, I still don’t know who I’m going to start,’’ Williams said. “… I’m waiting for somebody to step up and say, ‘I’m going to deserve that,’ but it may be OK, if not. We may change the lineup throughout the course of the pre-conference season, too.”

Williams has a history of preferring to stick with the same starting five throughout the season, but losing four-fifths of the starting lineup from last season’s Elite Eight team -- including the entire frontcourt -- may change that philosophy.

The Tar Heels boast plenty of experienced wings in Bullock, Strickland, Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston, but are light in the post. McAdoo came on strong at the end of last season, but only started three games. Classmates Desmond Hubert (who started last week’s exhibition game, but averaged only 4.9 minutes last season) and Jackson Simmons (42 total minutes last season) were buried deeper on the bench in 2011-12. And Joel James and Brice Johnson are freshmen.

“It is a little bit unusual,’’ Williams said of not having his starting lineup set the day before the season opener. “But I think it’s because they’re so inexperienced or so young. Desmond was here last year, but Joel and Brice were not. And Jackson was here last year, but like Desmond, he didn’t play very much. So all of them give you different things on [a different] day.

"If I could evaluate it and say, ‘Desmond’s great on Mondays and Joel’s great on Tuesdays,’ that’s the way we would start people. But it hasn’t been quite that clear cut.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina point guard Stilman White knew he’d miss the laughter and dancing at Friday night’s "Late Night With Roy Williams" festivities. He figured he’d yearn a bit for the sweat and competition of Saturday’s season-opening practice.

But while his Tar Heels teammates are preparing for a new season, White is at home in Wilmington, N.C., preparing for a new calling: his two-year Mormon mission.

[+] EnlargeStilman White
Geoff Burke/US PresswireStilman White will take two years off from playing basketball at UNC to fulfill a two-year mission.
The 6-foot, 160-pound ballhandler -- who went from afterthought-off-the-bench to what UNC coach Roy Williams called “one of the great stories in North Carolina basketball” last March when he started two games for the injured Kendall Marshall in the NCAA tournament -- leaves Nov. 28 for the Utah Ogden Mission. The would-be sophomore will spend the next two years there studying scripture, spreading the Gospel and serving the community.

“I’m just so excited to get my calling; this is something I’ve been waiting for my whole life," White, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said during a phone interview last week. “As much as I’ll miss basketball, as much as I’ll miss my team ... this is a big moment for me, being able to serve.”

Once on his mission in Utah, White will wake up before sunrise on most days, and join a traveling companion preaching the Gospel, doing community service, studying scripture. Days can be long, stretching until 9:30 or 10:30 p.m. before the routine begins all over again.

And service is not without sacrifice.

Missionaries are allowed only two phone calls per year -- one on Christmas, one on Mother’s Day, and both to home. Although White will be able to send, and receive, weekly emails and letters, he won’t be allowed watch TV, have a cell phone, or use Twitter.

“I won’t be able to watch UNC’s games, so hopefully I either get emails from the coaches or other guys, and they can tell me how the season is going ... or maybe I’ll run into some Tar Heel fans while I’m spreading the Gospel, and they can give me updates,” he said.

As for basketball, itself, White -- who has always been a gym rat -- said he won’t get to play much, if at all. He will get Monday afternoons off as part of “Preparation Day,” during which missionaries usually wash their laundry, write letters and plan for the week ahead.

If the situation and time allows, he said, he might be able to spend part of that day working out. But he knows that’s a big “if.”

“It’s definitely going to be an adjustment, maybe one of the hardest things coming up for me -- not playing [basketball] on a regular basis," said White, who was dribbling a basketball almost before he could walk. “...But I also know I’m going there to work, to fulfill my calling, to spread the true Gospel, and that’s something I’ve always dreamed about.”

And it’s a dream that will begin only eight months after living another.

White was a little-known late signee who began last season as UNC’s third-string point guard when he was thrust into the spotlight as the starter for the Tar Heels’ Sweet 16 game against Ohio. With star ballhandler Marshall sidelined by a fractured wrist and UNC’s original backup, Dexter Strickland, in street clothes because of ACL surgery, White turned in a remarkable performance under the circumstances: six assists, zero turnovers and two points in 32 minutes.

He followed that 73-65 overtime victory by posting seven assists, zero turnovers and four points during UNC’s regional final matchup with Kansas. But the Tar Heels lost 80-67.

“Looking back, it was just a great experience being able to be put in the spotlight like that, and being able to play in games of that caliber," White said. “...But it was also a little bit disappointing, knowing we were just one game short of being able to play in the Final Four -- and that was one of our goals for the year, to make it to New Orleans.

“Sometimes you feel like you could have done a little bit more, since you came up short. But I walked off that court knowing I played as hard as I could, and I gave it everything I had. Maybe sometimes, it’s just not really meant to be.”

Something White is certain of, however: he said he has “has no doubt whatsoever” that he will be back in Chapel Hill two years from now, once again participating in “Late Night” and beginning pre-season practice with his teammates. Williams has said White will have a spot on the team.

White said he’ll miss being part of the next couple of seasons, but he’s thrilled to fulfill his new challenge and mission out west.

“I know this is what I’m meant to do,” he said.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
North Carolina point guard Stilman White -- the freshman who rose from third-stringer to NCAA tournament starter because of injuries last season -- still doesn’t know where his Mormon mission will take him. According to a Wednesday story in The Daily Tar Heel, he’s still in the midst of filing the paperwork, and he could end up just about anywhere.

[+] Enlarge Stilman White
AP Photo/Jim R. BoundsStilman White will be taking a break from basketball while he serves a two-year missionary trip.
But the next two years of his life will be vastly different than the past season, when classes and practice took up most of his time.

According to the story, written by Kelly Parsons, White -- where-ever he goes -- will wake up near dawn most mornings, exercise and study the scripture, and leave his apartment by 10 a.m. Then, with a traveling companion, he could do anything from preach on the street to passersby, to perform community service. He’ll return to his home by 9:30 p.m., be in bed an hour later, then start all over again the next day.
Though he will be encouraged by the Church to send weekly emails or letters to family and friends back home, White is allowed to make just two phone calls a year while on his mission: one on Mother’s Day, the other on Christmas.

One day a week, missionaries observe preparation day, an afternoon during which they have free time to do laundry, write letters and prepare for the week ahead.

Though White said he might be able to squeeze in a little practice time on this day if the conditions of his new environment allow it, he’s prepared to not pick up a basketball for the full two years.

For some, that might seem like a sacrifice, especially for a player who has loved and played basketball for so long. But for White -- who became one of the great UNC stories of the season after he racked up six assists, with zero turnovers, while starting in place of injured Kendall Marshall during the Tar Heels’ overtime NCAA tournament win over Ohio -- it’s a calling.

And a dream.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Well you’re on such a roll right now, why would you give it up after all you have going for you?’” White, who is from Wilmington, N.C., told the newspaper. “But ever since I was young, it’s always something I’ve wanted to do … so I’m willing to put that all down for a little while for this.”

He is scheduled to return to UNC for the 2014-15 season.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
After Tyler Zeller walked off the Edward Jones Dome court last Sunday, still stunned by his team’s 80-67 loss to Kansas in the NCAA Midwest Region final, it was hard to put into perspective what this North Carolina team’s legacy might be.

“We did win 30-plus games,” the senior 7-footer said. “I mean, hopefully it’s a good [legacy]. We had a lot of great players, we just came up a little short.”

UNC didn’t meet its goals of reaching the Final Four, of winning the NCAA championship. And with the loss of Zeller (who is graduating), plus fellow starters John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall (who announced Thursday they are entering the NBA draft early), this team leaves on a bittersweet note.

For some, it will always be the season of ‘What if?’ -- as in: What if Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland and Marshall had not been injured and in street clothes for that final game? What if Barnes had been able to make a few more shots? What if the Tar Heels hadn’t panicked in those final four minutes against the Jayhawks?

For others, it will be a season of unfulfilled promise -- a team chock full of NBA first-rounders that just couldn’t get it done.

And for still others, it will be remembered as a season of perseverance -- a group of players that came back from big losses and tough injuries, until they just couldn’t anymore.

For all, there will be memories -- some the players, coaching staff and fans will want to hold on to, some they might want to forget.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State vs North Carolina
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUNC opened the season in memorable fashion, playing Michigan State on the USS Carl Vinson.
In that vein, here are 10 standout moments/happenings that shaped the season (in chronological order):

THE CARRIER CLASSIC: The final score (67-55 over Michigan State by the way) wasn’t what really mattered in the opening game.

Staged on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, under the San Diego sunset, the game was about honoring the nation’s servicemen on Veteran’s Day, saying thank-you in the form of shots and dunks and camo-colored jerseys. All in front of President Barack Obama on 11-11-11.

After the final buzzer, the players stripped off those jerseys -- which also featured “USA” instead of their individual names -- and gave them to the Wounded Warriors sitting courtside.

"Hopefully I'll be coaching another 10 or 15 years,” coach Roy Williams said afterward, “but I think it's going to be hard to top this."

PANIC AND FREEZE: In 2010-11, UNC had been a team that thrived in late-game-situations. So when they panicked against UNLV in the second half on Nov. 26 -- allowing the Rebels a 14-0 run from which the Tar Heels never recovered -- then froze in the final five seconds at Kentucky about a week later -- inexplicably failing to call timeout after Henson’s shot was blocked with five seconds left -- it was a perplexing reminder that this team had some growing to do.

The UNLV loss pushed the Tar Heels out of No. 1 in the rankings, a spot to which they never re-climbed. The loss to Kentucky gave the Wildcats the bragging rights … and a bunch of folks hoped there would be a re-match in the Final Four. That will become another one of those ‘what-ifs,’ especially if UK wins the national title.

NINE-GAME HOME WINNING STREAK: Yawn.

Williams wanted to play Texas on the road instead of at the Smith Center, wanted some sort of test between Dec. 6 and Jan. 10. Instead, the Tar Heels got a nine-game home winning streak against the likes of Evansville, Nicholls and even ACC freshman-laden foe Boston College. It padded their record, but also their egos -- and set up the embarrassment that came next.

33 POINTS: UNC’s 90-57 loss at Florida State was so lopsided, so humiliating, that Williams ended up taking his team off the court early -- leaving three walk-ons and two freshmen to play it out and deal with the rushing crowd (the coach later said he didn’t mean to abandon the quintet).

Many analysts, and some fans, wrote the Tar Heels off during that Jan. 14 game, questioning their heart, their desire, their toughness. Until the end of the season (maybe even now), UNC kept the number '33' written on a board in the locker room, a reminder (and motivator) of what happens when you think it’s going to be easy, when you don’t play with focus and drive.

“That was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done in my life, because it was to the point where I never thought I’d leave a game early because we’d lost by that much, and they were going to storm the floor,’’ Zeller said in the days after loss. “And it was just something I hope to never experience again.”

LOSING DEX: What’s worse than playing in the most lopsided loss of the Roy Williams era? Losing a starter just three days later. It happened in the second half at Virginia Tech, when Strickland was driving toward the bucket and ended up on the baseline, screaming in pain.

UNC’s starting shooting guard/backup point guard/best perimeter defender was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his knee, and he became the second perimeter player sidelined, joining McDonald (out since the beginning of the season) on the bench in street clothes.

Sophomore Reggie Bullock filled in admirably at shooting guard, increasing his defensive focus while also burying shots. But from the beginning, Williams predicted that backup ball handler would be where Strickland was missed the most. And in the end, he was.

ZELLER BOUNCES BACK: Scribbled on the sidewalk outside the Smith Center prior to the Feb. 11 win against Virginia was a simple message: “Believe in Zeller.” Perhaps more importantly that game, the big guy believed in himself.

Just three days after a nightmarish loss to Duke -- during which Zeller missed two free throws, accidentally tipped in a Blue Devils shot, and was the defender on freshman Austin Rivers’ game-winning 3-pointer in the closing minutes -- the senior came back to record 25 points and nine rebounds against the Cavaliers. When he left the game for good, it was to a standing ovation.

“Z’s fine,’’ Henson said after the game. And Zeller was more than fine. That performance was the beginning of Zeller’s push to ACC Player of the Year honors.

REVENGE AT DUKE: This was the UNC team everyone had expected to see from the beginning of the season. Angered by the video board replay of Rivers’ game-winning shot at the Smith Center, the Tar Heels rushed to a 22-5 lead in the opening eight minutes of the March 3 re-match at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and ended up winning, easily, by 18.

This time, there was no hope for any comeback -- except for the Tar Heels, in the minds of those who had written them off.

“One thing that we talked about is people are going to put you on a pedestal to knock you down,’’ Marshall said after the game. “That’s what happens. We weren’t going to be perfect unless we went out and won every game by 30. That’s not what happened … we learned from our mistakes, we continued to get better. And now it’s all starting to come together.”

MARSHALL VS. NCSU: One dimensional? Bah.

The point guard proved he could do more than pass when he posted a career-high 22 points with 13 assists at NC State in late February. In the ACC tournament semifinals he took it another step: scoring when it mattered the most.

With 10.2 seconds left, on March 10, Marshall buried a bank shot -- making contact with Wolfpack guard Alex Johnson, who wanted a charge called. Senior Justin Watts sealed the win for his team (which was playing without the injured Henson) with a steal.

[+] EnlargeUNC's Kendall Marshall and Stilman White
Robert Willett/Getty ImagesWith Kendall Marshall injured, Stilman White got the start against Ohio in the Sweet 16.
But the NBA scouts had to be impressed with Marshall's points, especially since had already set the ACC record for assists in a season during his first conference tournament game. Later, when pondering his NBA choice, Marshall had to know it, too.

STILMAN WHO? He should have been more scared. Later, he even admitted it. Instead, starting his first-ever college game -- and in the NCAA Sweet 16, to boot -- freshman point guard Stilman White was calm. Even a little confident.

With Marshall sitting on the bench in street clothes, his fractured right wrist in a brace, White recorded six assists and zero turnovers in the Tar Heels’ overtime win against Ohio. It was the stuff those of cheesy made-for-TV movies. Only it was true. And it resonated.

“It was one of the great stories in North Carolina basketball,’’ Williams said of White, who finished with 13 assists and zero turnovers in two NCAA starts.

THE PAINFUL DECISION: Williams admits he got his hopes up the day after the Ohio win, when Marshall was able to practice a bit to see if he could possibly play in the Midwest Regional final against Kansas. “We got him to run up the court, pass and catch and dribble. Being a one-armed player, he was still pretty good,’’ Williams said.

The coach thought his starting ball handler might just be able to contribute in his specially-fitted brace … until Marshall walked into a meeting room Sunday morning, and it was too painful to pass, dribble and shoot.

Without him -- and with Bullock playing in a knee sleeve, Henson competing on a newly sprained ankle, and Barnes struggling to hit shots -- the Tar Heels panicked, then collapsed in the closing minutes to the Jayhawks, falling short of their Final Four goals.

In the locker room, there were tears and ice bags and laments for the moments that were. And the ones that might have been.

“You can talk about talent, talent, talent … but it was off the charts, what this team had to face,” Williams said. “And I’m really proud of our team.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

After winning the 2005 national title, North Carolina lost its top seven scorers -- but saw the youth-laden 2006 squad exceed expectations and advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

After winning the 2009 title, the Tar Heels lost their top four players -- and saw the 2010 team fail to even make the NCAA tournament.

Which way will next season's UNC team (which lost in the NCAA regional finals last Sunday) go, after absorbing the early departures of power forward John Henson, wing Harrison Barnes and point guard Kendall Marshall -- plus the graduation of ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller and reserve Justin Watts? Much will depend on cohesion, leadership and injuries, three things that didn’t go the Tar Heels’ way in ’10.

A few other very early questions to ponder:

1. Will James Michael McAdoo return?

The freshman’s father, Ronnie, said Wednesday that his son plans to travel home this weekend to discuss the situation (some mock drafts list him as a top-10 pick), but that right now, he expects the forward to be back in a Tar Heels uniform next season. McAdoo’s (6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg) return would be key, because with starters Henson and Zeller gone, he’ll have the most experience (and be to the go-to guy) in the post.

Defensive-minded forward Desmond Hubert should also get plenty of minutes, and should be helped by an offseason to put on weight and work on his offensive moves. UNC also adds two big guys in freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson. And UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi is still looking for a new home; might he end up in Chapel Hill?

2. Will the ballhandlers adjust quickly?

Point guard, UNC coach Roy Williams has often said, is the most difficult position for a freshman to grasp, especially in the Tar Heels’ fast-paced system. But the onus will fall on McDonald’s All-American Marcus Paige -- a 6-foot-1 Iowa product who Williams called “a great floor general” -- to do so.

With limited options, he’s the favorite to start next season. But just as important will be his back-ups. UNC doesn’t just lose Marshall, but Stilman White, the former third-string freshman who had to start two NCAA tournament games after Marshall broke his wrist, and because Dexter Strickland suffered a season-ending knee injury in January. White will leave for a two-year Mormon mission after this semester. Strickland, meanwhile, is still rehabilitating after surgery, but said last week he hopes to be able to play again in about two months.

UNC will also have another ballhandler available in sophomore Luke Davis. After transferring from Gardner-Webb, he sat out last season as per NCAA rules, but has had a year to learn the system.

3. How are the knees?

While Strickland is still recovering, the good news is that shooting guard Leslie McDonald, who redshirted in 2011-12 because of reconstructive knee surgery last summer, was able to practice with the team in the final months of the season, and should be eager to get back to his sharpshooting ways come the fall.

With so many wings on the team -- McDonald, Strickland, Reggie Bullock (who took over as starting shooting guard once Strickland was injured), P.J. Hairston and incoming freshman J.P. Tokoto -- it will be interesting to see how the minutes are divvied out. But the shooting guard and small forward positions should be a strength, because of the experience and depth that returns there.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams reiterated on his Monday night radio show that he planned to start meeting individually with his players this week -- including those who might be pondering an early jump to the NBA.

“I’ll bring those guys in and just see what they’re thinking, and I’ll start my calls around to the NBA teams to get as much information as I can, and try to at least get the process started this week,” Williams said.

Junior John Henson, sophomores Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, and freshman James Michael McAdoo are all considered first-round draft picks. Underclassmen have until April 10 to decide this season, as per NCAA rules.

“I would think some decisions would come quicker than others,’’ Williams said. “… It all depends on what those kids say to me, and what their parents feel, and going from there.

“But I don’t think it’ll be long and drawn out or anything, because it’s only two or three weeks before they have to make up their mind anyway."

Some other notes from Williams’ final radio show of the season:

    [+] EnlargeStilman White
    Jeff Curry/US PresswireUNC coach Roy Williams said that the seldom-used Stilman White filled in admirably for injured star Kendall Marshall.
  • Williams called freshman Stilman White’s 13-assist, zero-turnover performance during two NCAA games in place of the injured Marshall “one of the great stories in North Carolina basketball. What that kid did, I hope he’ll remember the rest of his life.” White is still planning to go on his two-year Mormon mission after this semester, Williams said.

  • Henson, who missed three games with a sprained left wrist before returning for UNC’s final three NCAA games, was only about 60 percent of what he was before he got hurt, Williams said. The forward was also hobbled by a sprained ankle during Sunday’s loss to Kansas. … Shooting guard Reggie Bullock was also at less than 100 percent Sunday after hyperextending his left knee in Friday’s win over Ohio. Bullock ended up wearing a sleeve on his knee.

  • The Tar Heels only have a couple of slots open on next year’s schedule, which includes a trip to the Maui Invitational, and games at Texas and Long Beach State.

  • Williams was talking about his four-man incoming freshman class when he told a funny story about forward Joel James: “First time I saw him … I’m sitting under the basket, and the ref calls a foul. And he looks at me -- and we hadn’t even started recruiting him yet --and he says, ‘Coach, I didn’t touch him; I swear I didn’t.” And I said, ‘Big fella, I agree. Ref, you screwed that one up.’ I made a friend that day, and we decided to recruit him. [He was] 310, now he’s down to 260, and has a chance to be one of those great success stories.”

  • All four of those incoming freshmen will arrive at UNC for the second session of summer school.

  • As a member of the NABC, Williams does plan to attend the Final Four in New Orleans. But it’s not a lot of fun, he said, when his team is not there with him. “When will I be able to put this game behind me?” he said of the loss to Kansas. “October 15 or something like that. I’ve got a memory like an elephant; it lasts a long time.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
ST. LOUIS -- If North Carolina had managed to pull out a win Sunday, point guard Kendall Marshall said, maybe he would have been able to return for the Final Four.

But he sat out his second straight game with a fractured right wrist, he said, “because if I did play I wouldn’t have been effective.”

“If I’m just standing off to the side, catching and passing, it was a struggle,’’ he added. “Maybe with three or four more days, maybe I could have helped the team. But I can’t really catch a pass right now.”

[+] EnlargeStilman White
Jeff Curry/US PresswireStilman White had 13 assists and no turnovers in his two NCAA tournament starts.
Coach Roy Williams said he had some hope after Saturday’s practice that the sophomore point guard -- who fractured his wrist last Sunday, had surgery Monday and had the cast removed Wednesday -- might be able to contribute in the NCAA Regional Final game against Kansas.

“We let him run up and down the court and catch and pass a little bit; and I really got a little excited at that point,’’ Williams said after Sunday’s 80-67 loss to the Jayhawks. “ But I think that it got even sorer last night after just that little activity. We weren't even on the court probably 25 minutes doing anything. At that point during practice I thought he had a chance to go. But last night, I got less confident, and then this morning it just didn't feel right for him.

“You hate that for that kid. You hate it for our program, hate it for our team. But Kendall Marshall is all about winning and is all about team. And if you've ever watched him play, you realize that he's one of those point guards that cares about his team maybe more than anybody I've ever seen. So you hate it for him.”

SWITCHING IT UP: The Tar Heels said they had not seen a triangle-and-two defense all year, so Kansas coach Bill Self’s decision to switch to it in the second half made a big impact.

“I don’t know what they were playing, but they sagged the big man into the lane,’’ forward John Henson said. “And I think that really disoriented our defense. Me and [Tyler Zeller] couldn’t figure it out, and that’s why we’re here right now.”

Small forward Harrison Barnes said that what makes the triangle-and-two so difficult is that there is always “help” defense present. On one play, the sophomore said, he got Jayhawk Travis Releford to bite on a pump fake. But after he had taken one dribble, there was another defender there.

Barnes said the triangle-and-two was not on UNC’s scouting report.

Self said the Jayhawks played that defense the last eight or nine minutes of the game. During the final eight minutes, UNC scored only three points.

WHITE DELIVERS: Freshman point guard Stilman White, who made his second straight start in place of Marshall, was red-eyed after the game, disappointed in the outcome and wondering what more he could have done.

But Williams said he was proud of his former third-string ballhandler who finished with four points, seven assists and zero turnovers.

In two NCAA tournament starts -- the only starts in his career -- White had 13 assists without a turnover.

“My gosh, the little rascal sitting beside of me, Stilman, just competed his rear end off,’’ Williams said after the game. “It wasn't smooth for him because it's hard all of a sudden to be thrust into this role, three practices before this regional. But, boy, he did some really good things, and I just admire him and admire what he did and admire how he competed. And you look down there and he played 28 minutes today and 32 yesterday, that's 60 minutes. And the little rascal had zero turnovers and hadn't been in this position all year.”

BRIEFLY: Williams said he expects he’ll have initial discussions with his players about the NBA draft by the end of the week. … Henson used a pain-relieving shot, and numbing cream, on his still-healing left wrist before the game. He also sprained his right ankle early the game, and never looked quite comfortable playing on it.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
ST. LOUIS -- It was an eerily familiar scene Sunday: a moist-eyed Harrison Barnes emerging from a long lament under a locker-room towel; talking about what went wrong, the sudden-ness of losing, the disappointment of falling one game short of the Final Four.

A season ago at Newark's Prudential Center, UNC’s loss in the NCAA regional final felt like it could be a beginning – a learning process for a young team that wasn’t supposed to make it that far.

This time, though, the 80-67 crumble to Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome felt like the end – a goodbye from a squad that expected to go so much farther.

“This year, going into this season, we had a lot of weapons,’’ Barnes said. “We just didn’t have them all at the end. That was the most devastating thing. We didn’t have Kendall [Marshall], we didn’t have Dex [Strickland], we didn’t have Leslie [McDonald]. That’s no excuse. We had an opportunity to win it, we just didn’t.”

Even with McDonald and Strickland (shooting guards relegated to the sidelines since last summer and January, respectively, with knee injuries) sitting in the stands -- and Marshall (the starting point guard who missed his second consecutive game with a fractured wrist) on the bench in street clothes -- the Tar Heels looked as if they could do again what they’ve been doing so often the past two seasons: overcome.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson"We had an opportunity to win it," said sophomore Harrison Barnes, here in the locker room after Sunday's loss to Kansas, "we just didn't."
With freshman Stilman White playing fearlessly in his second straight start, UNC pushed back from multiple Jayhawks surges. When Kansas made a 7-0 run in the first half to take a 40-33 lead, UNC countered with an 8-0 rally.

When the Jayhawks opened the second half with another 7-0 run, the Tar Heels came back again, this time 6-0.

That’s why, when Barnes went to the free throw line to try to knot the score with 3:58 left, teammate James Michael McAdoo (15 points) wasn’t worried. “I was like, ‘All right, we’re good,’” the freshman forward said.

Except, they weren’t.

Barnes made one of two free throws to cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 68-67 lead. But then a turnover by Tar Heels sophomore Reggie Bullock turned into a 3-pointer by Kansas’ Elijah Johnson. Barnes, then forward John Henson (who played most of the game on a twisted ankle) missed jumpers. And White – who finished with 13 assists and zero turnovers in his two starts in place of Marshall – fouled Tyshawn Taylor for a 3-point play to give the Jayhawks a 74-67 advantage.

That’s when, as coach Roy Williams said, “we panicked a little bit out there.”

Utilizing a triangle-and-two defense – something the Tar Heels hadn’t faced in a game before this season – Kansas finished the game on a 12-0 run.

UNC, meanwhile, misfired on its final seven shots after the Barnes free throw and finished with its worst field goal percentage in a half in NCAA tournament history (7-31, 22.6 percent). The Tar Heels also recorded their worst 3-point percentage in an NCAA tournament game (2-17, 11.8 percent).

Yes, they missed Marshall, a Cousy Award finalist who had been key to calming, and creating for, his teammates.

But the Tar Heels also missed the rebounding advantage they had prided themselves on all season (Kansas beat them on the boards 41-35). And they missed the accuracy of Barnes, their leading scorer who finished 5-for-14 Sunday and 20-for-61 in four NCAA tournament games.

“I missed a lot of shots I usually make and big-time players come through in big-time games,” the sophomore said. “And it just wasn’t there tonight.”

Now the question is, will it ever be again (at least in a UNC uniform)?

Barnes, Henson, Marshall and McAdoo (who are all considered first round NBA draft choices) shrugged off questions about their futures, saying they weren’t thinking about their next steps during the NCAA tournament. So it’s still unknown who or how many will leave along with scholarship seniors Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts; White (who is leaving for a two-year Mormon mission after this semester); and walk-ons David Dupont, Patrick Crouch and Stewart Cooper.

A year ago, after crying under towels in the locker room, Barnes, Henson and Zeller ultimately returned, saying the goal was to win a national title. There was a sense, even before their official decisions were announced, of what could be.

Sunday, there was more disappointment about what might have been.

“We got to this point last year, and we couldn’t get over the hill,’’ said Henson, who playing with a pain shot and numbing cream on his still-healing left wrist. “And this year, the same way. It hurts. But that’s just how basketball is.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

UNC notes: Big night for Zeller

March, 24, 2012
3/24/12
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ST. LOUIS -- Earlier this season, when North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller was racking up double-double after the double-double, he said he didn’t know what it would take to record a 20-rebound game.

After Friday, he does.

“Overtime,’’ he said, grinning after UNC’s 73-65 OT win over Ohio.

The 7-foot senior finished with 20 points and 22 rebounds, becoming only the fourth player in the past 30 seasons to record 20 points and 20 rebounds in a Men's Basketball Championship game and the first since Tim Duncan in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He joins quite a trio:

  • [+] EnlargeUNC's Tyler Zeller
    Shane Keyser/Getty ImagesTyler Zeller became the first player since Tim Duncan in 1997 to score at least 20 points and grab at least 20 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game.
    In 1997, Wake Forest’s Duncan finished with 22 points and 22 rebounds against St. Mary’s.
  • In 1995, Maryland's Joe Smith had 31 points and 21 rebounds against Texas.
  • In 1983, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon recorded 21 points and 22 rebounds against Louisville.

Zeller credited his size (Ohio's tallest starter was 6-8) for the performance. But injured point guard Kendall Marshall said there's more to it.

"The steps that he's made each year have been great. He's a senior, he knows that this is his team,'' Marshall said. "He wants to lead us ... the effort he puts in every day is a testament to the kind of player he is, and I'm extremely happy for him. We wouldn't be where we are without him."

WHITE’S DEBUT: Freshman Stilman White admits he probably wasn’t as nervous as he should have been, making his first collegiate start -- in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

But that worked in his favor. Saying “my main goal was not to turn the ball over very much,’’ he achieved that, finishing with a career high six assists, plus zero turnovers, in 32 minutes. He also buried the last two free throws of the game.

“He was really something,’’ coach Roy Williams said.

Of the eight Tar Heels who played, White was the only one who did not commit a turnover.

“I’ve got a great team; I’ve just got to get the ball to some great players,’’ he said.

ROUGH NIGHT FOR BARNES: It was a frustrating night for sophomore Harrison Barnes, who shot 3-for-16, including a missed game-winner at the end of regulation.

"The youngster has an ability to make plays and he's not afraid to try to make plays,'' UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Some kids will always say, 'Yeah, I want to have that shot,' but he's the kind of kid that does really want it, and he focuses on the play, not the result.

"So we all have a tremendous amount of confidence. It didn't work out there at the end of regulation, but give the defensive player credit, too."

Barnes went on to score five of the Tar Heels' 10 points in overtime -- a jumper and two free throws. He finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 turnovers for the game.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

Zeller comes up with elite effort

March, 24, 2012
3/24/12
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Tyler Zeller’s historic game was barely enough to help the North Carolina Tar Heels reach the Elite Eight.

This win over the Ohio Bobcats kept an impressive streak alive. The Tar Heels have now won each of their last 11 Sweet 16 games and are 5-0 all-time in Sweet 16 games against double-digit seeds.

How the Tar Heels won

Zeller finished with 20 points and 22 rebounds. He’s the fifth player to have a 20-point, 20-rebound game with at least four blocked shots in the Men’s Basketball Championship since 1975, as noted in the chart on the right.

Zeller's eight offensive rebounds were one more than Ohio had for the entire game.

Reggie Bullock supported the effort with a rare statistical combination.

He’s the fourth player in tournament history to have at least 10 rebounds, five assists, and five 3-pointers, joining Mitch Richmond (1987 Kansas State), Hersey Hawkins (1988 Bradley), and Ray Allen (1996 Connecticut).

Stilman White, starting in place of injured guard Kendall Marshall, was the only Tar Heels player who didn't turn the ball over. He's the first North Carolina player to play at least 32 turnover-free minutes, and finish with at least six assists in the Round of 16 or later since Kenny Smith in 1985.

How Ohio hung in
North Carolina won despite committing 24 turnovers, its most in a game since 1989, when it had 26 against Loyola Marymount. Ohio’s defense entered forcing an average of 17 turnovers per game, best among those teams left in the Sweet 16.

The Tar Heels also survived an inefficient game from Harrison Barnes, who took a season-high nine 3-pointers and finished with a career NCAA tournament-low 12 points.

Barnes was 16-for-31 in the paint in the first two games of the tournament, but just 0-for-1 in this contest.

Oh, so close
This was the seventh time that a team seeded 13th or lower played in the Round of 16. None has won, but Ohio was the first of those teams to take the game to overtime.

Ohio's D.J. Cooper, just missed the game-winner in regulation for Ohio. He went 3-for-20 from the field, tied for the second-worst shooting percentage by a player since college basketball went to a shot clock in 1986.

The only one to fare worse in a game with at least 20 shot attempts was Loyola Marymount's Bo Kimble in 1988 -- a 3-for-21 effort that also happened to come in a loss against North Carolina.

Ohio finished the season 1-5 when Cooper took at least 17 shots (Ohio was 28-3 in all other games).

Looking ahead
What’s next for North Carolina?

The last time a No. 1 seed played an overtime game in the Sweet 16 was 2006, when Villanova and Connecticut did it.

Both of them won those Sweet 16 games and lost in the Elite Eight.
ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall said it was difficult watching from the bench as his team beat Ohio 73-65 on Friday. With his surgically repaired right wrist in a splint, he even had to be careful if he clapped.

"I had to pull back a couple of times, but I got a good fist-pump with my left hand going,'' he said. "That was my go-to a couple of times after a big play."

[+] EnlargeUNC's Kendall Marshall and Stilman White
Robert Willett/Getty ImagesWith Kendall Marshall out with an injured wrist, Stilman White got the start and had two points, six assists and no turnovers.
The sophomore, who fractured his wrist Sunday, would not talk about the state of his injury after the game, saying he wanted to concentrate on his team's victory. Meanwhile, coach Roy Williams said after the game that he has "no idea" if the Cousy Award finalist will be able to play in the NCAA Midwest Region finals on Sunday. The top-seeded Tar Heels will face No. 2 seed Kansas.

Asked if the player was able to do anything in the shootaround before the game, Williams said: "No."

"And I would love to give you guys an answer, but I really can't,'' he continued. "I have no idea. He is much better. And he's gotten off some of the medication and he's much better. He brushed his teeth today. He didn't jump down and do 10 one-handed pushups, which I told him he was going to have to do before I would let him play.

"Is there a chance he would play Sunday? There's a better chance he would play Sunday than it was today. I really didn't ever expect him to play today, but Oral Roberts University, they said expect a miracle, so I guess I was hoping for a miracle type of thing.

"But we tried to prepare all week that he was not going to play and that's what we'll try to prepare for for Sunday. But if he can play, needless to say, I would take him."

Marshall said Thursday there were two factors that would determine if he would tell Williams he was ready to play: pain, and range of motion.

He had surgery to insert a screw into the wrist Monday, and his hard cast was removed Wednesday. Doctors told him his injury is healing fine, that the bone is strong and the blood flow has been good. If he were to play, doctors told him he would not risk further damage, Marshall said.

If Marshall is once again a scratch Sunday, expect freshman Stilman White -- who recorded six assists, zero turnovers and two free throws in Friday's win -- to make his second straight start.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.


ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina sophomore Reggie Bullock was playing defense near Ohio’s bench, with somewhere around 12 minutes left in regulation, when he overheard a Bobcats assistant coach say it: “They can’t win without Kendall Marshall.”

And boy, that made him mad.

“That just got to me, for someone to say that my team can’t fight, can’t win without our starting point guard,’’ said Bullock, usually one of the most mild-mannered members of the team. “That lit a fire under me.”

And he took it out on the Bobcats, right when the Tar Heels needed it the most.

With Marshall (UNC’s Cousy Award finalist) on the bench in a suit because of a fractured wrist, and top scorer Harrison Barnes struggling to make just about anything, it was Bullock’s blaze -- from beyond the 3-point line and on the boards -- that helped push top-seeded UNC to a 73-65 overtime victory.

Bullock scored 12 of his 17 points after his accidental eavesdrop. As a result, the guard who missed the entire NCAA tournament last season because of knee surgery will be playing Sunday in the Midwest Regional Finals. The Tar Heels will play Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome.

“I think Reggie really grew up as a player tonight,’’ said Marshall, who declined to discuss the state of his fractured right wrist after the game. “People take it for granted, but he didn’t play in the NCAA tournament last year. This is his first time going through this. And … to have the [guts] to take those big shots and knock them down, that’s big-time. One of his downfalls is how unselfish he is. But he was huge for us tonight.”

Indeed, with little-used freshman point guard Stilman White (2 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers) making his first start and senior wing-turned-backup-ballhandler Justin Watts (4 rebounds, 3 turnovers, 1 assist) backing him up, UNC built, then lost, a 15-point lead. Even against a smaller Ohio team -- its tallest starter was 6-foot-8, compared to UNC’s starting frontcourt of 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Barnes -- the Tar Heels seemed out of sync without Marshall, who set the ACC record for assists in a season before breaking his wrist last Sunday.

[+] EnlargeNorth Carolina's Reggie Bullock
Shane Keyser/Getty ImagesUNC's Reggie Bullock scored 12 of his 17 points after overhearing a slight from Ohio's bench.
And they were sloppy, turning the ball over a season-high 24 times.

UNC also got a scare with 16:29 left, when Bullock limped out of a game after his surgically repaired left knee buckled while he was trying to grab a rebound.

“All I could think was, ‘Not another one. Not another bad knee,’’’ said Barnes, who had already seen two other UNC guards, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland, sidelined by knee injuries this season.

But Bullock checked back in with 15:21 left, overheard the Ohio assistant’s comment, and told his team about it during the 12-minute TV timeout.

Then he got busy taking out his angst on the court.

With 11:26 left, he buried a much-needed 3 to give his team a 42-38 cushion.

With 7:36 left, he did it again, this time giving his team a 51-47 advantage.

And with 40 seconds left -- and with the 13th-seeded Bobcats leading by one -- he hit another big 3-pointer that gave his team a 63-61 lead.

“Right when I caught the ball, I heard my whole bench, from managers to everybody, say ‘Shoot!’” Bullock said. “And right then, I just pulled the trigger and I saw it go in. And I just was like, I was just thinking to myself, ‘It's like my time to perform.’ And it was a big shot for our team and all my teammates just believing in me to make those shots.”

A jumper by Ohio’s Walter Offutt (26 points), and then a miss by Barnes, sent the game to the five-minute extra period. But it was Bullock -- who else? -- who opened overtime with -- what else? -- a 3-pointer.

"He was,'' Zeller said, "incredible."

The 6-7 athlete from Kinston, N.C., wasn’t the only standout in the survival. Zeller, who finished with 20 points and a career-high 22 rebounds, became only the fourth player in the last 30 seasons to record 20-20 in a Men’s Basketball Championship, and the first since Tim Duncan in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Henson added 14 points and 10 rebounds.

But Bullock (6-for-13 overall, 5-for-10 on 3-pointers) was especially key on a night when Barnes made only 3 of 16 shots. And when Ohio got hot in the second half, making 50 percent of its shots after going 8-for-35 in the first half.

“I think we feel like we got away with one,’’ Zeller said. “Ohio played the better game, they hit a lot of shots, I think we just were able to make a lot of plays at the end that made us capable of pulling it out.”

Including a few from Bullock, who also grabbed 10 rebounds to record his second career double-double.

“I want Kendall out there, but he wasn’t able to be out there -- he was helping us fight from the bench,’’ Bullock said. “And I wanted to show that our team could still compete.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.


ST. LOUIS -- Quick thoughts from North Carolina's 73-65 overtime victory over Ohio in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Overview: On a night when it didn't have star point guard Kendall Marshall, No. 1 seed North Carolina couldn't have been more thankful for Reggie Bullock after its overtime win against No. 13 seed Ohio. A sophomore, Bullock helped bail out a sloppy Tar Heels team that clearly wasn't at its best with its floor leader out and leading scorer Harrison Barnes struggling to find his groove.

Bullock's clutch 3-pointer with 39 seconds remaining turned a 61-60 deficit into a 63-61 lead. Ohio forced a tie on its next possession when Walter Offutt was fouled while making a layup. Offut squandered the opportunity for a 3-point play when he missed the ensuing free throw. Offut blocked Barnes' game-winning shot attempt on the other end to force overtime.

Bullock came up huge again moments later when he opened the extra period with a 3-pointer to put his team ahead 66-63. The shot set the tone for the game's final five minutes, when North Carolina cruised to a victory by outscoring the scrappy Bobcats, 10-2.

Bullock finished with 17 points and made five of his 10 attempts from beyond the arc. The victory had to be special for the Kinston, N.C., native, who missed last season's NCAA tournament with a knee injury.

Fearless as Bullock was Friday, the best player on the floor was North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, who 20 points and a career-high 23 rebounds. Eight of Zeller's boards came on the offensive end, which helped North Carolina outscore Ohio 14-4 on second-chance points.

Barnes, who averages a team-high 17.4 points, was just 3-of-16 from the field Friday and finished with 12 points. Offut had a game-high 26 points for Ohio on 10-of-18 shooting.

Gutsy as the victory may have been, North Carolina's chances of advancing to the Final Four appear to be in jeopardy without Marshall, who is generally regarded as one of the top two or three point guards in all of college basketball. Marshall, who injured his wrist in last Sunday's victory over Creighton, averages 9.7 assists and is the key reason the Tar Heels have been able to play at a fast, frenetic pace all season.

With combo guard Dexter Strickland out with a knee injury, North Carolina's only option Friday was to turn to freshman Stilman White, who entered the game averaging 4.3 minutes and 0.7 points on the season. Considering the circumstances, White did a more than admirable job Friday. His only points came on a pair of free throws, but he had 6 assists in 32 minutes and didn't commit a single turnover.

Still, the Tar Heels will have a tough time beating either Kansas or North Carolina State on Sunday without Marshall, whose status is uncertain.

Turning point: Bullock's 3-pointer at the beginning of overtime set the tone for the extra period and appeared to deflate Ohio. Bobcats guard D.J. Cooper missed a 3-pointer on the other end on Ohio's next possession, and UNC responded with a 17-footer by Barnes. At that point, the Tar Heels had a 68-63 lead and momentum they would never relinquish.

Key player: Bullock's 3-pointers were huge and Zeller, as he's been all season, was steady from start to finish. But in this situation it's hard not to praise White for his performance on such a big stage. As coach Roy Williams likes to say, White helped the Tar Heels by not hurting them.

Key stat: North Carolina has now won 11 consecutive Sweet 16 games.

Miscellaneous: North Carolina opened the game on a 26-11 run before allowing an 11-3 march by Ohio to end the half. It was 29-22 at intermission. ... Ohio shot just 23 percent in the first half. ... Barnes missed 11 of his first 12 shots.

Up next: The Tar Heels will take on No. 2 seed Kansas. The teams haven't met since the 2008 Final Four. Kansas won that game and went on to win the NCAA title with an overtime victory over Memphis two nights later.
ST. LOUIS -- Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper received so many messages after his 13th-seeded team topped South Florida to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 that he couldn’t keep count.

But the most special one came from his mom, Dionne.

“She has this habit of texting me during the game -- even though I can’t read them until after," he said, noting that he’ll sometimes have five or six waiting for him after the final horn. “In this one, she told me how proud she was of me, and how much she loved me. She always does … but that was an especially good feeling, in that moment.”

[+] EnlargeD.J. Cooper
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIOhio point guard D.J. Cooper can score, but his defense has proved to be just as dangerous.
The goal now: to experience a similar feeling (and moment) after his team’s matchup with top-seeded North Carolina on Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome.

With Tar Heels point guard Kendall Marshall’s availability in doubt after surgery to repair his fractured wrist Monday, Cooper’s play will be especially key to whether the Bobcats -- the lowest-seeded squad to make a regional semifinal since Bradley in 2006 -- keep their postseason run alive.

The 5-foot-11 athlete from Chicago averages 14.9 points, but more importantly, 2.3 steals a game on a team that ranks fourth in the nation in swipes per contest (9.3 per game) and sixth in turnover margin (plus-4.2).

That’s important against a foe that might have to start a freshman point guard (Stilman White) who is averaging only 4.3 minutes per game.

“All year, coach has been talking about playing with our hands up, keeping it tight, being able to guard our yard," Cooper said. “And that’s what we have to do Friday, too, no matter which [point] guard we’re playing against.”

Also key against the Tar Heels will be getting back in transition. Not only does UNC play fast but it boasts one of the best frontcourts in the country in 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Harrison Barnes. The tallest contributors in the Bobcats’ rotation are 6-8, and no one averages more than five rebounds per game.

Still, Henson called Ohio a dangerous team.

“They're shooting better than they shot all year, 3-point wise, playing more confident," he said. “I mean, even in practice, when our [scout] guys are running their offense, it's tough to guard. So it's going to be a challenge, and we're going to play hard and see what happens.”

Ohio coach John Groce said his team is preparing as if Marshall will play but has contingency plans if he does not.

And even though he doesn’t know exactly who his opponent will be, Cooper is sure of one thing: His mom will be sending texts throughout the game, offering comments and feedback.

“It’s fun to look back and read what she was thinking," he said, smiling.

He hopes that looking back after Friday’s game will give him that especially good feeling again.

WHO TO WATCH:

OHIO: Cooper. The junior is a do-it-all guy, averaging 20 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists in the NCAA tournament. “He's really a gifted kid who, the last couple games, has really been dominant for them," UNC coach Roy Williams said.

NORTH CAROLINA: White and Justin Watts. UNC’s bigger guys should be able to have big games -- if the fill-in point guards can get them the ball. White and Watts, the third and fourth ballhandling options at the beginning of the season, have 24 assists combined this season. Marshall, by comparison, had 21 in his previous two games. Williams has stressed that these two don’t need to play like the Cousy Award finalist, but they do need to protect the ball from the thief-prone Bobcats and get it into the hands of the playmakers.

WHAT TO WATCH: Outside vs. inside.

Ohio has made 15 of 34 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament, led by Cooper and Walter Offutt. That’s been an Achilles' heel for the Tar Heels, who struggled against foes (at Florida State and versus Duke, for instance) that got hot from behind the arc.

North Carolina, meanwhile, is at its best when its frontcourt is playing its best. UNC needs Zeller, Henson, Barnes and James Michael McAdoo to use their size advantage on the boards -- and to finish plays.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

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