The 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels will try to get one step closer to winning their second national title in three years when they face the 5 seed Auburn Tigers in the Sweet 16 Friday night. The game will be played in Kansas City with the Tar Heels listed as 5-point favorites.
After winning the SEC Tournament and their first two games of the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers enter Friday’s game on a 10-day winning streak. Auburn was a little fortunate to survive their first-round game against New Mexico State, as they made some mistakes late in the game that nearly cost them. However, the Tigers looked sharp in an 89-75 win over Kansas in the Round of 32.
Likewise, North Carolina struggled a little in their first game of the tournament but caught their stride in the second round. The Tar Heels actually trailed 16 seed Iona at halftime of their first game before seizing control of the game in the second half. UNC then cruised to a 22-point win over Washington to reach the Sweet 16.
King of the Boards
In each of their first two games, the Tar Heels have doubled up their opponents in the rebounding department, a stat that explains their lopsided wins. Naturally, Luke Maye has been instrumental in the Tar Heels pushing around their opponents inside, including a 20-point and 14-rebound performance against Washington. However, freshman forward Nasir Little has also been a big part of the team’s success. Over the two tournament games, Little has 39 points and 11 rebounds.
The Tar Heels will once again be trying to use their size to exploit an undersized Auburn team that was out-rebounded by double digits in both of their tournament games. Outside of center Austin Wiley and forward Chuma Okeke, the Tigers don’t have much size and strength on the interior. To make matters worse, Wiley isn’t helping much in the rebounding department these days. Those two could have their hands full with the likes of Maye and Nasir, who could be set up to have a lot of success scoring easy points in the paint for North Carolina.
Who Shall Overcome
If Auburn is going to overcome their size issues, they’re going to have to get the better of North Carolina on the perimeter. The key to doing that lies with Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown shot 7 of 11 from 3-point range against Kansas, totaling 25 points, while Harper chipped in 18 points of his own. As a team, the Tigers shot 52.5% from the field and 43% from the perimeter against Kansas.
Of course, Auburn may need to shoot even better than that against North Carolina. The Tar Heels aren’t exactly a stout defensive team, so the Tigers will have a chance to get up and down the court, enabling Brown and Harper to rack up the points. However, the Tar Heels have great perimeter scorers in Cameron Johnson and Coby White, who both average over 16 points per game. Combined with Maye and Nasir, the Tar Heels have the kind of balanced attack that Auburn can’t match.
This is bound to be an exciting game that features both teams getting up and down and playing at a high tempo. But it’ll be difficult for Auburn to keep up with North Carolina’s athleticism and physicality for 40 minutes. Ultimately, the Tar Heels will be too much and pull away. Bet on North Carolina to cover the 5-point spread.