By Adam Lucas
According to the stat sheet, Brandon Robinson didn’t set any career highs in Sunday’s 73-71 win over Tennessee. While playing probably his most complete all-around game as a Tar Heel, Robinson scored six points (his career high is seven), grabbed three rebounds (his high is four) and handed out three assists (his high is four).
But in one category, the freshman from Georgia set a mark that may never be broken. In a ten-minute postgame interview, he thanked nine different individuals plus the Smith Center crowd, giving him a one thank-per-minute ratio.
Robinson started his terrific evening early, with two beautiful drives into the paint before finding Tony Bradley and then Kennedy Meeks with a couple of gorgeous bounce passes for easy hoops. Attend any UNC basketball practice, and you’re likely to find Roy Williams extolling the virtues of bounce passes. Here was Robinson actually doing it. It's comfortable for him, because Robinson played point guard most of his life, including several years for his father. If you remember the 2009 team, you probably remember how much Williams loves players who are sons of coaches; Robinson is the latest example.
“I hear my dad (1) in my head in those situations because he stayed on me about making good passes,” Robinson said. “And I hear Coach Williams (2) in my head because I don’t want to turn the ball over and come out of the game.”
Suitably encouraged by some early success, Robinson drained a 15-footer, and then kept his dribble alive while circling all the way around the top of the key. He probed and waited for the Tennessee defense to break down, then sliced to the rim for a layup.
This play was pure Robinson. An assist wasn’t even credited on the play, because Robinson made the entire sequence happen. No one to thank here, right? Well…
“Over time and with game experience, I see more and more,” he said. “I’m getting comfortable with the game and figuring out how to score. Justin (Jackson, and that’s 3) has been big for me. I watch him and look up to him. He’s grown over time, and I try to figure out the way he scores and emulate that in my game.”
A few seconds later, as if afraid he might have shortchanged a UNC senior, Robinson without prompting mentioned a recent game when he had to spend some minutes at the power forward position; it was Isaiah Hicks (4), he said, who provided him with some helpful tips on how to do it.
This is how you build a program. It used to be Hicks who was overwhelmed, and he is now passing on knowledge to Robinson, who was overwhelmed in November, but will one day be the crafty veteran schooling the next Tar Heel freshman. It's one of the most beautiful things about Carolina basketball in the Williams era. The program is building on itself; it doesn't reset every year with a new cast. There are other ways to have success in the year 2016 in college basketball, but this one sure is fun to watch.
With 3:52 remaining in a game Carolina trailed by three, Williams substituted Robinson for Stilman White (not a sentence I expected to write this year). When you watch a Carolina game, it’s not unusual to think, “I wonder what it would be like to get to sit next to Theo and Joel during this game?” Robinson actually has that seat. Even dressed in suits, Pinson and Berry have been active in the last two games, and the rookie--sitting right next to them, soaking in everything--reaps the benefits.
“They always tell me when we run plays to be patient and don’t go away from the play,” Robinson said. “But the biggest thing they tell me (5 and 6) is to stay ready.”
Stay ready, for example, because you might be needed in the final four minutes of a game Carolina was desperately trying to come back and win. Some quality late defense against an attempted drive by Jordan Bowden led to a Nate Britt (“Nate (7) always comes to me, Tony and Seventh and gives us tips on what to do in games and encourages us”) steal.
Twenty seconds later, Robinson wriggled between two Volunteers who were attempting to secure what looked like an easy defensive rebound off a Kenny Williams miss. His effort led to the ball trickling out of bounds and the Tar Heels retaining possession in a one-point game.
“In the beginning of the season, Coach Davis (8) would talk to me during practice and say, ‘Just play like Brandon from Douglas County,’” Robinson said.
Brandon from Douglas County makes effort plays. Funny how those pay off. Because after the Tar Heels kept the ball, Britt missed a jumper, but there was Robinson to tip it in for a three-point Carolina lead.
By now, you’ve already guessed the play was made possible—in Robinson’s opinion—by some helpful advice.
“Coach Rob (9) has been on me the whole year about getting to the offensive and defensive boards,” Robinson said. “I made it a point on that play to get to the offensive boards.”
The crowd’s energy (10) also received praise from Robinson, who most encouragingly went through a four-game stretch recently when he did not make a shot (he was 0-for-9) yet doesn’t seem to have lost any confidence at all. Pinson recently referred to Robinson as “my little brother,” and the duo do seem to have that same ability to play fearlessly.
Sometimes, of course, a little fear can be helpful for a freshman, but don’t tell Robinson that. Or maybe you should. He’d probably thank you (11) for it.
“I try to learn from everybody,” Robinson said. “All the guys who have been here have helped me out. I need to figure out what Coach wants and how to stay on the floor.”