Tar Heels playing their best basketball at the right time

North Carolina plays Auburn on Friday in Kansas City

Roy Williams and the Tar Heels will play Auburn in a Sweet 16 game in Kansas City, and the winner will face Houston or Kentucky for a spot in the Final Four. (John Minchillo / AP Photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Rock bottom came on Jan. 12 on a humbling 83-62 beatdown at the hands of Louisville.

It was North Carolina’s worst loss at Smith Center during the Roy Williams era.

The Tar Heels went just 3 of 22 from 3-point range in that game, played virtually no defense and looked like team going nowhere fast rather than a contender to win the ACC regular season, let alone a national championship.

But here they are in late March, heading to the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region while playing arguably the best basketball of anyone still left in the NCAA Tournament.

So how did it happen?

It’s a process that took place gradually, Williams said. And there may still be more room to grow as UNC prepares to meet fifth-seeded Auburn in Kansas City on Friday.

“Throughout the course of the second half of the season, I think we got better and better and better,” Williams said Sunday following his team’s 81-59 second round victory against Washington at Nationwide Arena. “A lot of our teams have done that because they really focus and our staff really pushes. We don’t get too high over a big win or way down over a loss. We try to get better every single day. If you talk to our team, they’d tell you that’s the focus.”

The Tar Heels (29-6) have responded by winning 17 of their last 19 games, with the only two losses coming to fellow No. 1 seeds Virginia and Duke. In addition to Sunday’s win against Washington, they also beat opening round opponent Iona in Columbus.

True to its goal, UNC showed improvements in both games — specifically in the contribution it got from freshman Nassir Little.

Though it’s taken longer than expected for the former five-star prospect to settle in and find his niche with the Tar Heels, Little finally seems comfortable with his role of providing energy and offense off the bench.

He combined to score 39 points on 17-of-24 shooting with 11 rebounds in his first two NCAA Tournament games. At one point midway through the second half against Washington, he scored 11 straight points and 13 of his team’s 15 to help blow the game open.

It was a postseason emergence that led to comparisons with Marvin Williams — another heralded UNC freshman that came off the bench and blossomed at just the right time in the postseason.

“With the jumping ability and the quickness he has, and the power he has, he can hurt a lot of people inside,” Roy Williams said of the 6-foot-6 Little. “It’s a little bit of maturing, but it’s also him getting healthy again, because I thought during (the regular season) he was going to really take off.

“He had about a four-, five-game stretch that he wasn’t as effective. But the last two games he’s been something else for us.”

Both of those games, however, were against zone defenses that gave Little — along with veterans Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks — more time and space to operate from the high post. In Auburn (28-9), the North Carolina will be facing a team that plays a much more aggressive man-to-man defense and is just as athletic the Tar Heels. The Tigers are also playing their best basketball of the season, following up their SEC Tournament championship with a second-round blowout of fourth-seeded Kansas.

But facing top competition is nothing new for UNC.

“Three of the four one seeds are ACC teams,” graduate forward Cameron Johnson said. “We’ve been playing against the best of the best all year. It’s a demanding schedule. You play a lot of good teams night in night out, so you can’t really take weeks off. So that definitely prepares you for something like this.”

According to Maye, it doesn’t matter what kind of game plan the opposition employs as long as he and his teammates stay true to what they do best.

“The biggest thing for us is to continue to play our game and how Coach wants us to play,” the senior forward said.

“We’re going to try to play the same way we’ve played all year. The biggest thing for us is focusing on ourselves and making sure that we do what we can do on the court to put us in the right position.”