R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
COLUMBUS, OHIO — As a key spark off the bench and a part of North Carolina’s tight eight-man rotation in recent games, Brandon Robinson is giving Coach Roy Williams many reasons to put him on the court.
He is one of UNC’s best 3-point shooters (46.7%), has been the best defender off the bench, and possibly the best passing non-point guard on the team.
Robinson’s got the intensity that makes coaches smile.
Following coach’s orders
There wasn’t that much for Williams to smile about for one half before the No. 1-seed Tar Heels woke up and survived for an 88–73 victory over No. 16-seed Iona in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional on Friday night.
UNC faces No. 9-seed Washington on Sunday at about 2:40 p.m. for a spot in the Sweet 16.
“He was actually calm,” Robinson said of Williams’ halftime feedback.
“It was surprising. I thought he was going to come in here and go off on us. But he was calm, and he told us to just keep pushing it and just play our game.”
Robinson didn’t come with his normal lock-down defense, and neither did the rest of the team as Iona made 10 of 21 3-point attempts in the first half.
The Gaels only made 5 in the second half, but their 15 3s were the most by any UNC opponent in NCAA tournament history.
“First half, we were helping in on the strong side corner and weren’t sticking to our principles well,” said Robinson, who played double-digit minutes for the third time in five games.
“And the second half, we did a good job of not helping on the strong-side corner and just getting back.”
Reset at the half
At halftime, senior guard Kenny Williams was the first to speak — even before Coach Williams — as UNC faced a 38–33 halftime deficit.
But Robinson said that many players spoke up.
“We all kind of stepped up and said something,” Robinson said.
“We all just kind of got together and leaned on each other and said we have to pick up our energy. We didn’t want to go out like that.”
Robinson said that the Tar Heels need to attack better against Washington.
“I just think we didn’t go out and play our game,” he said.
“We were just trying to be too passive and I thought, in my opinion, we played not to make mistakes rather than just going out there and playing.”
Proving his worth
Down the stretch of the season, Kenny Williams knows what Robinson has meant to the team to help bring that aggressive play.
“He comes in, throws his body around and he just gives the team energy,” Kenny Williams said.
“And he’s willing to do whatever he needs do to win. And that’s all it is with him. He just wants to win. You can’t not put him in because he producing. He’s giving you what you want. He’s just an energy guy off the bench. He can give us 10 or 15 good minutes off the bench and give some of the starters a spell.”
Robinson had the rare game Friday where he didn’t even get off a shot, after making six of seven attempts headed into the NCAA tournament.
That’s the threat that has added a dimension to his game and what he brings off the bench.
“He comes in and he gets shots up and that’s big for us,” said freshman Nassir Little, who, along with point guard Seventh Woods and Robinson, make up the reserves in UNC’s eight-man rotation and scored 19 points Friday night.
“Not just on the offensive side. He plays great defense and he provides another passer. I think he’s a very underrated passer. He’s a great playmaker for us.”
Been there before
Robinson is a lot more comfortable the third time around playing in the NCAA tournament.
He was a nervous wreck as a freshman in Greenville, S.C., when UNC was about to play Texas Southern in the first round.
”I threw up before the game, I was so nervous. Now, I’ve been here for two years and I’m just kind of ready for it,” Robinson said.
He made his only field-goal attempt and dished out two assists in the Tar Heels’ 103–64 victory.
He’s fearless on the court and clearly has confidence in his ability, even if the opponents’ scouting reports might not mention him.
“I know who I am as a player,” Robinson said.
“I know how good I am, and I know what I can do, So, I just believe in myself and I don’t pay attention to what other people say. They’ll know me after the game.”
Learning to lead
Considering that most of Robinson’s playing time is when he gives rest to Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson, who both won’t be back next season, a big senior role for Robinson, who has patiently waited for his chance, seems likely.
“He’ll be a good player for us next year,” freshman point guard Coby White said.
“I feel like he’s going to have to take a bigger role with Kenny and Cam leaving. But I feel like he’s ready for it, man. He’s been working for it.”
Senior big man Luke Maye, who scored 16 against Iona, also worked his way into big-time playing time but got his chance a lot sooner.
Robinson’s time is coming.
“He’s been super,” Maye said.
“He plays his role and I think he’s falling into what he needs to do to help this team. I think he’s going to be huge for us down the stretch. He’s a good basketball player. He can play. He works every day in practice. He’s gotten better throughout his career and I think he’s going to be huge.”
Robinson got even more of a chance after Leaky Black went down with an ankle injury on Jan. 29 at Georgia Tech.
Even though Black got cleared to play in the ACC Tournament, he didn’t return to game action until playing five scoreless minutes against Iona.
Robinson hasn’t played point guard, the 4 or the 5 spot like Black, but he has similar versatility.
“I definitely think it gives me more versatility of where the Coach can play me,” said Robinson, who played both at the 2 and the 3 during a five-minute first-half stint.
“And I think he can play me in many situations. I think if he needs somebody to guard or score the ball, he can put me in. If he needs somebody to go out and make a play, he can put me in. If he needs somebody to get a stop, he can put me in.”
Why does Robinson think he’s earned a spot in the rotation?
“I think my ability to come in and make a difference in the game,” Robinson said.
“Every game, I think I do a lot of things good for us and I think I shoot the ball well. I think I get some defensive stops for us. I know how to get my teammates involved by passing the ball well. It gets me on the court, me making plays.”
Robinson doesn’t see Black’s injury as changing his role on the team.
“I don’t think it’s changed much,” Robinson said.
“It’s still about the same, I’m just more confident and I think people just haven’t really seen my game. What I know and what my teammates know. I don’t think people have got a chance to see that. I think they will see kind of a glimpse of it going forward and I hope that I can continue to show people that they’ve never seen before in a game.”
Other than the seniors, White calls Robinson one of the team’s best leaders.
“He contributes whether it’s scoring or taking a charge, talking, being a leader,” White said.
“I think he’s undervalued as being a leader on this team. He’s been a great leader not only in games but in practices and off the court.”
Robinson may just fit right into Kenny Williams’ spot just as he does off the bench this season: taking over guarding one of the opponents’ best players, as well as the ability to take a charge and knock in a perimeter shot.
“Defensively, I feel like he’s locked in mentally,” Woods said.
“We can depend on him to get a stop, take a big charge. Playing for somebody like Coach Williams, if you get stops on defense, you’re going to play. He is guarding the best player on the other teams all season, really. He’s been big for us, making shots. He’s more confident than ever.”
Wanting and waiting for it
Robinson may not be given the chance to hit a historic NCAA tournament shot this season like Maye had two seasons ago against Kentucky.
But he figures to get his shot at a breakout senior season.
In the meantime, he’s ready for a Hollywood ending.
Before the open practice on Thursday, he was watching “Hoosiers” on a tablet.
“I just like watching movies and I like watching basketball movies a lot, so I just decided to watch that,” Robinson said.
With more good play off the bench by Robinson over five more games, he might just help the Tar Heels earn a similar memorable finish.
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