The Forgotten Man

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If you scan the headlines pertaining to North Carolina over the past week, you will find references to the ACC scoring record, a big bad toe, a shooting slump and a freshman with a knack for blocking shots. Good luck finding an article focused on Wayne Ellington, who prefers to keep it that way.

During the media frenzy that is the NCAA Tournament, the cattle call that occurs when locker rooms are opened and reporters are ushered in is comical at best. But if you're wanting a quote from Ellington, you can afford to sit back while your colleagues circle like vultures around Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and the affable Danny Green.

Don't think for a minute that bothers the Philadelphia shooting guard, though.

"I don't really pay attention to that," Ellington told reporters on Tuesday at the Smith Center. "I'm just having fun playing basketball. I don't really pay too much attention to the media thing or how much my name is out there or what people are saying about me, so that really doesn't bother me too much."

But just because his teammates are soaking up the ink of the headlines doesn't mean Ellington has fallen off the proverbial map.

Case in point – following Saturday's come-from-behind victory over LSU in the NCAA Tournament's second round, UNC head coach Roy Williams indicated that his favorite play was when Green – who has been digging his way out of a slump – drained a 3-pointer to give North Carolina a seven-point advantage at 70-63 after missing from the same spot earlier in the possession.

Lurking behind the scenes on that play was Ellington. When Green's first 3-pointer from the left wing clanked off the rim and appeared set on a collision course with media row in the left corner, the junior guard outhustled two LSU defenders to tap the ball back to his teammate, who knocked down the critical long-range bomb.

Without Ellington, Green would have never had that shot at redemption. Without Ellington, North Carolina's national title hopes would be, well, unrealistic.

After struggling early in the season with his shot – which ironically drew the most media attention of the season for the junior guard – Ellington drilled seven 3-pointers en route to a 23-point second-half performance against Miami on Jan. 17. Since then, he has lit up the scoreboards all across the ACC and even through the first two games of the NCAA Tournament.

Ellington averaged just 12.8 points on 43.2 percent shooting (34.6 from 3-point range) through UNC's first 17 games of the season. Over the last 17, his numbers have soared as he's averaging 18.7 points on 52.0 percent shooting (115-of-221), including knocking down 44.8 percent (47-of-105) of his attempts from beyond the arc. He has also increased his rebounding totals from 4.1 to 5.5 during this stretch run.

Williams attributes that turnaround to his starting two-guard's development into a better all-around player.

"Early in the year, he wasn't shooting the ball very well," Williams said following Saturday's win over LSU. "I told him, ‘Take the ball to the basket, defend people, rebound the ball.' There was a stretch there in ACC play that he was our second leading rebounder. He was getting more rebounds than Ed Davis, Deon Thompson and Danny. Tyler was the only one rebounding more. So I think he gained some confidence in that knowing that he's a very good player and the shot doesn't have to go in. That makes it a lot more pleasant when it does."

It's also worth noting that Ellington is the only Tar Heel that has increased his production in North Carolina's four losses, lifting his average by 2.6 points per game while everyone else's has either dropped or in Green's case, remained the same.

Despite his absence in the media's spotlight, the smooth-shooting junior's play has not gone unrecognized by his coaching staff. Assistant coach Joe Holladay found himself thinking about Ellington during a drive around town with his wife on Sunday, and Williams' right-hand man decided to call the Philadelphia native just to tell him how well he thought the guard had been playing recently.

"He thinks that he's going to make everything that he shoots, and he is making most of his shots," Holladay said on Monday. "But his defense, guarding the ball, chasing people around screens and his hustle… Just everything about his game right now is coming together."

Ellington joined Lawson as the leading scorers in Saturday's victory over LSU, scoring 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting. The junior now carries the burden of North Carolina's 49-0 record when he connects on 50 percent or better of his field goal attempts.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few provided some words of optimism for the Tar Heels – especially Ellington – on Monday, telling reporters that he's "a very big believer in transition basketball, especially with this team. That's when we're at our best."

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that's when Ellington's at his best, as well. Cue the Clemson tapes from the past two seasons as examples of what can happen when teams attempt to run with North Carolina.

"A lot of times teams tend to forget about guys who can shoot the ball in transition games like that," Ellington said. "You kind of get lost in transition and they don't run back and they don't find you, so it's easy to get open shots."

Ellington's not concerned about the media attention, or the hordes of fans that run by him to get autographs from either the current or former ACC Player of the Year. He's soft-spoken and always has a smile handy, and seems content to let his play do his talking for him.

"I'm just playing basketball," Ellington said. "I'm just shooting it and not thinking at all. Just playing in the flow, and having fun, most importantly. That's what's really got me playing well – I'm having fun out there and I'm into the game. I'm just losing myself within the flow of the game."

One thing is for sure, though – if North Carolina's opponents make the mistake of forgetting Ellington, the junior guard may just help them forget their chances at the national championship.


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