- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Xylina McDaniel looks at all these freshmen sometimes and shakes her head.
"Lord, did I act like them?" she asks, laughing. "And I'm sure I did."
It wouldn't take much for the North Carolina forward to try and recall those days.
They were only a year ago.
But McDaniel is a sophomore now, and that qualifies her as a veteran, a veritable fountain of college basketball experience, on this youthful North Carolina team.
The 19-year-old McDaniel is in the Tar Heels' starting lineup every night with four freshmen.
McDaniel, last year's ACC rookie of the year, referred to herself as an "upperclassmen" during a recent news conference. Technically, it's incorrect, but on a team with six freshmen, three sophomores and no seniors, no one is really arguing.
"She's really had to be that leader, on and off the court," North Carolina assistant coach Ivory Latta said. "And if you are not in the right place or doing the right thing, trust me, she is going to let you know."
McDaniel has been where the rookies are, a young star facing high expectations in her first collegiate season.
And much still is expected of her, this time as a leader, a mentor and an example. On the court, McDaniel directs the action, plays the calming influence, gives directions and hands out confidence boosts. Off the court, she's a sounding board and a resource.
"I get a lot of questions from them," McDaniel said.
And though sometimes they drag their feet, the rookies know McDaniel is there for them.
"Sometimes we are too shy to ask her things," freshman forward Stephanie Mavunga said. "We say, 'Well … never mind.' And she says, 'Just ask me.' She's really patient with us. She just got done doing this and she relates to us. Some of us forget that she's a sophomore."
As a freshman, McDaniel started 33 games, averaging 11.3 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for a team that went 29-7, losing to Elena Delle Donne and Delaware in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
This season, North Carolina is 16-3 overall and 4-1 in ACC play, has won 11 of its last 12 games and moved up to No. 7 in the AP Top 25, the program's highest ranking since January 2010.
McDaniel is averaging 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring -- behind three of those freshmen whom she's mentoring.
"These freshmen are smart," McDaniel said of the group that made up the nation's No. 1 recruiting class last year. "They know how to play the game."
The same can certainly be said about McDaniel. She has been around basketball almost her entire life, groomed for this by her father, former NBA star Xavier McDaniel, best known as the '"X-Man."
Dad has taken care of the basketball skills, worked her and coached her and pushed her until her game was ready for prime time. He coached her AAU teams while Xylina was a high schooler in South Carolina. Heck, he's still coaching her. She can hear his voice as clear as day when he's in the gym. She can hear him even when he's not there.
"No matter where he's sitting, no matter what gym we are in, I hear everything he's saying," she said. "Sometimes I want to tune him out and I can't. I can actually hear what he's saying to me through the TV.
"He's gotten me to where I am. We've spent so much time, late nights, early mornings. I still talk to him every day."
But Xavier McDaniel admits he hasn't covered much ground when it comes to leadership.
"That's a situation where she's got to learn to count on herself," Xavier McDaniel said. "With a team this young, they all can be leaders.
"I've told her that she can learn how to be a vocal leader, how to say something, but also to be an example on the floor. Go out and work hard. Be the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. You can't always talk during a game, you have to show it, too."
Latta acknowledged that Xylina McDaniel has been asked to take on a lot of responsibility in a short amount of time.
"As a sophomore, she should be looking for a senior to take her under their wing," Latta said. "But everybody is looking to her for advice. They look at every little thing, your body language, your facial expressions. We've told her, 'How you play is going to determine how far we go. And she's stepped up to that challenge."
Mavunga said she calls McDaniel her "P.O.C."-- her partner on the court.
"She makes the game easier for me, she's made my transition much easier than it would have been," Mavunga said. "She works really hard, and that's something I can look to. She's only a year older, but she has the experience."
She's only a sophomore, but in a starting lineup that includes four freshmen, Xylina McDaniel has had to step up and be a leader for No. 7 North Carolina.