Washington runs a zone defense, a philosophy coach Mike Hopkins adopted after 22 years on Jim Boeheim's staff at Syracuse. So after scoring a bucket during their second-round matchup against North Carolina, the Huskies hustled back to organize their complex defensive scheme. UNC inbounded to its freshman point guard, who raced down the court, flipped the ball behind his back and finished a runner off the glass. He did it all without breaking top speed, going from end to end before Washington could even get set. In less than five seconds, the Tar Heels answered with two points of their own.
If that type of point guard play doesn't get you excited, you might not be much of a basketball fan.
It was a peek into just how good Coby White is. A quick, shifty guard, his fluidity makes you think he has a track and field background. White's relentless pace keeps pressure on opposing defenses and gives the Tar Heels an advantage that’s so very difficult to prepare for.
“I think it’s rare another team can go up and down the court with us for 40 minutes, and at that pace,” North Carolina senior guard Kenny Williams told assembled reporters. “We’ve seen a couple of times where teams will try it, and late in the game they’ve gotten tired. Eventually, if we continue to play at that pace, that big run that we’re used to seeing will happen at some point.”
On the day White beat the zone, that big run did come for UNC. The Tar Heels dismantled Washington, 81–59, to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons. They’ve played in two of the past three national title games, and are now just three wins away from another return visit. For White, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds in the victory, it’s his first trip to the Sweet 16 and his first time experiencing the lights, the cameras and the action of the NCAA tournament.
UNC is loaded with talent, from veterans Williams and Luke Maye—who have both played in two national title games—to one of the best shooters in college basketball in Cam Johnson, to future first-round pick Nassir Little—who comes off the bench—to gritty big man Garrison Brooks, who came back into the game vs. Washington after losing a tooth. But White, with his frenetic pace and stylish ways, is the one who sets the pace.
The 6’5” guard from Goldsboro, N.C., stands out when he’s on the court, and not just because of his bouncy afro, which makes him appear two to three inches taller than he is. He has a unique skill set that can give opposing defenses nightmares—a blur with the ball in his hands, but he's also a good enough shooter to drain a three in your face if you sag off him.
“He’s wired to score the ball,” Williams said before the ACC tournament. “He’s so dangerous because he’s always in attack mode.”
Getting buckets is nothing new for White. It's what he did in high school while starring for Greenfield School. White was a starter all four years there, and even though he was only about six feet as a ninth-grader, he always had an ability to finish over taller defenders.
“He was small as a freshman, but he just had a knack for scoring,” Rob Salter, his coach at Greenfield, told SI.com. “His athleticism hadn’t peaked at the time, but I told him he had a great layup package. He finished around the rim with either hand, and he could always shoot the ball. You don’t see many kids that can score at all three levels like he could at an early age.”
Greenfield School also employed an uptempo style, as Salter taught his team the value of pushing the ball up the floor following a made basket—catching the opposition while they were still enjoying the bucket, dapping each other up. That allowed White to make a seamless transition to Chapel Hill. “We play just as fast as Carolina," Salter said. "That's why North Carolina was such a good system for him, because I kind of helped teach the pace that Coach [Roy] Williams wanted."
White grew four inches entering his sophomore season and, as Salter put it, "his athleticism kicked in." It took his game to another level. But after committing to UNC, White suddenly lost his dad, Donald, to cancer before entering his senior year in August 2017.
Wanting to make his family proud, White sharpened his focus that season. "He handled it about as well as any 17-year-old can handle losing their father," Salter said. "Basketball was kind of his escape. He just wants to succeed so bad for his dad, his mom and his family."
"He always told me to play with a chip on your shoulder, play like you're the best player out there," White has said of his dad. "At first nobody really believed in me, but he was the one always there for me. The thing that helped me a lot, he always kept it real with me. He never told me what I wanted to hear. He told me what I needed to hear."
Salter added that White's dad came to practice every day, and the two were best friends, always clowning around together. "Coby achieved everything he could in high school, but we lost in the state championship his senior year, and when we didn't win it he just lost it. I think he wanted it more for his dad than he did for himself. But his dad was just a special person."
He went on to score the most points in North Carolina high school basketball history, breaking the record previously held by JamesOn Curry, who went on to star for Oklahoma State. Roy Williams pegged White as “the best scoring point guard that I’ve coached,” which is high praise coming from a man who has coached the likes of Williams, Kirk Hinrich, Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson and Joel Berry.
White is a floor general, but he has the tools to play either guard position. He's a flat-out scorer, and his ball-handling and playmaking abilities, at his size, make him a unique player who should translate well to the next level. He’s currently listed as a top-10 pick on SI.com's most recent draft board. And his stock just continues to rise the longer North Carolina’s season is extended.
“You look at the NBA point guards today, they all can score the ball so well. The Stephs, the Damian Lillards, the Westbrooks," said Salter. "Today’s point guards have to be able to score the ball, and I think Coby fits that mold."
His game has matured since his first game as a Tar Heel. He cut down on turnovers as the season wore on, started taking smarter shots, and learned when to hold down the turbo button. But Kenny Williams says the freshman never slows down, adding that White was the first point guard he's ever had to speed up for. "I’ve played with Marcus [Page], I’ve played with Nate [Britt], I’ve played with Joel [Berry]. There was always a time for them to slow it down and run a set. But Coby, he’s pedal-to-the-metal for 40 minutes."
"You better have your running shoes on when playing with Coby," Salter said.
North Carolina faces Auburn in the Sweet 16 on Friday, a team that can play just as fast as Carolina can. But trying to match White and the Tar Heels' speed may not be the best tactic if the Tigers plan to pull off the upset. UNC is at its best when it gets out in the open court and Maye, Brooks and Little are getting easy layups. When White gets the ball with a head full of steam, he has options. If the defense collapses on the bigs running the court, Johnson or Williams will be licking their chops, standing around the three-point line awaiting a kick-out for a clean look. And if the defense fails to stop the ball, White will just take it upon himself and get to the rim for an easy deuce.
The Tar Heels have all the ingredients to make it to a third national title game in four years. But in order for them to accomplish that ultimate goal, their young driving force will have to continue to play beyond his years.
“Every team needs a good point guard if you want to have championship aspirations," Kenny Williams said. "And I think that’s what Coby has been for us."