KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nassir Little’s breakthrough performances in Columbus last week appeared to give the North Carolina basketball team an explosive new element to add to an already potent lineup as it advances through the NCAA tournament.
But now it appears as though the top-seeded Tar Heels might have to do without their emerging freshman star.
Little spent Thursday afternoon in bed at the team hotel battling the flu while his teammates practiced at Sprint Center in preparation for Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against No. 5 Auburn.
Coach Roy Williams said that Little’s status would be a game-time decision, but that if he didn’t show significant physical improvement, UNC would have to try and advance to the Midwest Region championship game without him.
“He didn’t feel good last night (and) was running a little bit of a temperature this morning,” Williams said. “He didn’t feel like eating. I didn’t bring him over here to the arena with us.
“I can say that it’s hard to make a 180 turn, because there’s no way in the world he could play if we’re playing today.”
Little put together the best two back-to-back games of his up-and-down season by scoring 19 points in UNC’s opening round victory against Iona, then following it up with a 20-point, seven-rebound effort in a win against Washington.
He went a combined 17 of 24 from the floor and showed an ability to bring more than just energy off the bench by scoring 11 straight points for his team to help break open last Sunday’s game against the Huskies.
That’s an element the Tar Heels could use against an Auburn team that averages 80 points per game and is coming off a 14-point blowout of fourth-seeded Kansas in its most recent NCAA tournament game.
“Naz is just someone that can come off the bench and give you 15, 20 minutes and he’ll be a factor,” senior guard Kenny Williams said, adding that he’s confident UNC’s training staff “will do everything they can to get him back feeling stronger and feeling healthy.”
If they can’t, the Tar Heels will have to find someone else to fill the void. Among the most likely candidates are juniors Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods.
According to Roy Williams, adjusting to the absence of a key player is nothing new to this year’s team.
Just last week, the Tar Heels had to battle through long stretches without both Kenny Williams (hamstring strain) and big man Garrison Brooks (cut lip, loose teeth) during the win against Washington.
“We’ve played without Nassir in moments already this year,” the Hall of Fame coach said, referring to the freshman’s issues with an ankle injury and getting poked in the eye during the regular season.
“If he’s going to play like he did (against Iona and Washington), we’re going to miss that greatly because we don’t have anybody that can do those things. Somebody in a North Carolina uniform has got to be able to step up and play (Friday).”
To make sure that no one else gets sick and that all the team’s options remain available for Friday’s game, Little has been separated from his teammates and moved to his own private room at the team hotel.
It also means that his roommate, fellow freshman Coby White, will also have more privacy than usual in Kansas City.
“I’m feeling fine, so they said they told me I now have my own room,” White said. “They don’t want him spreading germs. He’s doing better than he was (Wednesday). He’s fighting it. I know it’s going to be hard for him.”
As for the two other Tar Heels dealing with physical issues, both Brooks and Kenny Williams declared themselves healthy and ready to go at 100 percent against Auburn.
“Once it stopped bleeding, I was okay,” said Brooks, still sporting a fat lip and some newly installed braces to keep his top teeth in place.
“My hamstring is feeling pretty good,” Williams added. “I did a little bit of practice (Wednesday). I’ll practice (Thursday). I don’t think it will be any setback for me.”