7:29 PM EST, TBS – Line: North Carolina -5, Over/Under: 163
Get ready for a track meet, folks, as the One Seed North Carolina Tar Heels meet up with the Five Seed Auburn Tigers in the Midwest Regional Semifinal from the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s been a whirlwind season for Auburn (28-9, 11-7 in SEC), who after a strong start to the campaign, struggled in the midst of the Southeast Conference play, only to catch fire down the stretch, advancing to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2003. In his In his fifth season with the Program, Bruce Pearl has done a remarkable job of building this team in his image, much in the same vein that he did with Tennessee years ago. The Tigers are explosive, deep, and balanced, while playing at a breakneck tempo that can quickly overwhelm the opposition. On the season, they’ve averaged 79.8 Points (33rd Overall) on 45.0% shooting from the field (139th Overall), including 52.0% from within the arc (104th overall) and 37.8% beyond it (32nd Overall), while dishing out 14.4 Assists (30th Overall). Furthermore, Pearl’s charges have been the most prolific three-point shooting team in the country, leading the nation with 421 Threes made thus far, or in other words, 11.4 per Game. With a Rotation that goes ten deep, six different players have knocked down at least Thirty-Five Three-Pointers this year, led by Senior Guard Bryce Brown (15.9 PTS, 43.3% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 2.0 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.8 PER), who has led the SEC in Three-Point Field Goals in each of the last two seasons, and ranks second in the conference’s history in that particular category. However, their defense oftentimes leads to opportunities in transition, for no team has forced more Turnovers than these kids, racking up a staggering 17.5, with 9.4 of that figure being Steals (2nd Overall). Jared Harper (15.3 PTS, 40.0% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.1 STL, 20.1 PER), Chuma Okeke (11.8 PTS, 48.8% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.8 STL, 1.2 BLK, 23.9 PER), and the aforementioned Brown are pests on the perimeter, swarming passing lanes in an attempt to start their Break. After a humiliating 53-80 defeat at Kentucky back on February 23rd, Auburn stood at 18-9 with their chances of returning to the NCAA Tournament in serious doubt. However, Pearl managed to incite quite the abrupt turnaround, with his troops winning their final four games to close out the Regular Season, including a crucial victory over No. 5 Tennessee in the Finale (84-80). They then followed that up with four more consecutive wins in the SEC Tournament, once again besting the Volunteers in the Final, this time hammering them by Twenty Points (84-64).
When we last saw Auburn, they rebounded from an early scare against Twelve Seed New Mexico State, whom they barely survived in a 78-77 thriller, by absolutely embarrassing Four Seed Kansas in an 89-75 triumph. This one was never close, folks, and served as a perfect example as to just how good this team can be when they are firing on all cylinders. Granted, the Jayhawks were shorthanded and have struggled this season, and saw their lengthy reign over the Big XII come to an end, but they were absolutely HUMBLED by the Tigers, who handed them fourth-worst NCAA Tournament defeat in the long, storied history of their Program. Things got out of hand early, as Pearl’s troops raced out to an early seventeen-point lead in the opening eight minutes of action on the strength of knocking down Six of their first Eight Threes, before entering Halftime up 51-25 and shooting a blistering 55.6% from the field. Kansas began to find their shot in the Second Half, but could do nothing to stop Auburn, who simply continued to dominate on the offensive end of the court. When it was all said and done, the Tigers shot 52.5% from the floor, including 13-of-30 from beyond the arc (43.3%), handed out Seventeen Assists, while committing just Seven Turnovers. Brown led the way with Twenty-Five Points on 9-of-13 shooting (69.2%), including 7-of-11 from downtown (63.6%), while Harper and Okeke accounted or a combined Thirty Points on 10-of-23 shooting (43.4%), including 4-of-12 from three (33.3%), Five Rebounds, Ten Assists, and Four Steals. Defensively, they harassed the Jayhawks throughout the affair, forcing them into more Turnovers (16) than Assists permitted (13).
Meanwhile, for the third time in the last four years North Carolina (29-6, 16-2, 1st in ACC) find themselves as a One Seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they hope that this particular run will culminate just as the previous to had, with a trip to the NCAA Tournament Final. There is a strong argument to be made that this team just may be Roy Williams’ most COMPLETE one, or at least since the 2009 edition that raced it’s way to a National Championship. We would settle for proclaiming them to be one of the veteran Head Coach’s most balanced outfits, thanks in large part to their ability to stretch defenses with their perimeter shooting. In recent years the Tar Heels have struggled mightily when it comes to the Money Ball, but in 2018-2019 they’ve seriously opened things up, knocking down 36.5% of their attempts from beyond the arc (70th Overall), and netting 305 treys (47th Overall), or in other words, an average of 8.7 per Game. To put that into perspective, the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 incarnations of the Heels ranked 268th (32.7%) and 154th (35.5%) in Three-Point Percentage, and 183rd (224) and 78th (283) in Three-Point Field Goals made, though still managed to power their way to the National Championship Game without the luxury of that particular dimension of offense. Rather than completely selling out and bombing away from beyond the arc with reckless abandon, this is has simply been another weapon in Williams’ arsenal, for Carolina’s offensive juggernaut is still very much as prolific as ever; on the season, they’ve averaged 86.0 Points (3rd Overall) on 46.5% shooting from the field (60th Overall), including 52.0% inside the arc (105th Overall) and 36.5% beyond it (70th Overall), and dishing out 661 Assists (2nd Overall). Furthermore, they continue to own the glass, averaging 44.3 Rebounds (1st Overall) and besting the opposition by an average margin of 10.5 boards, and force 14.0 Turnovers per Game (), which serves to fuel their Break. As is the case with their opponent tonight, offensively it’s about QUANTITY more so than quality, with no team piling up more opportunities on the offensive end (67.0 FGA/G). While not quite as deep as Auburn, there is plenty of star power to be found in this Rotation; Cameron Johnson (16.9 PTS, 50.9% FG, 46.3% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 25.0 PER) has been arguably the most improved player in the country and the primary reason for the team’s three-point shooting resurgence, while Luke Maye (14.9 PTS, 43.0% FG, 28.9% 3FG, 10.5 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 19.3 PER) and Kenny Williams (8.5 PTS, 39.3% FG, 28.7% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.5 PER) bring a wealth of experience from those two previous National Championship Games, with Freshman Point Guard Coby White (16.1 PTS, 42.9% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 19.4 PER) looking like the next in a long line of quality floor generals to come through Chapel Hill.
When we last saw North Carolina, they followed an easy 88-73 thumping of Sixteen Seed Iona, with an impressive 81-59 demolition of Nine Seed Washington last Sunday Night. Some thought that the Huskies could pose some problems for the Tar Heels due to their implantation of Syracuse’s vaunted Zone Defense, though that notion was quickly dispelled early on in this affair, with Carolina leading 41-33 at Halftime. They emerged from Intermission with a torrent of offense, putting together a 13-0 run in the first five minutes of play, and never looked back. On the night, Williams’ troops had little trouble with a defensive strategy that they’ve become quite familiar with over the years, shooting a stellar 50.8% from the field, including 9-of-21 from beyond the arc (42.9%). Freshman Forward Nassir Little (10.0 PTS, 48.5% FG, 28.0% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.6 PER) and the aforementioned Maye accounted for a combined Forty Points on 16-of-30 shooting (53.3%), and Twenty-One Rebounds, while Johnson and White added Thirteen and Seventeen Points respectively. Little posted his second consecutive strong performance of this Tournament after largely operating in the background throughout the year, following Nineteen Points against Iona, with Twenty Points off the Bench against the Huskies, with the Freshman shooting 70.8% overall. In fact, the Thirty-Seven combined Points from Little and White were the most scored by a pair of Freshmen for Carolina in the NCAA Tournament since 2006. The furious pace of play eventually overwhelmed Washington, who shot a dismal 38.3% from the field, including 9-of-29 from downtown (31.0%), committed more Turnovers (10) than Assists (8), and were absolutely pummeled on the glass (Minus-25). Furthermore, at Fifty-Nine Points, the Heels relinquished their fewest total since relegating Vermont to Fifty-Eight back in 2012.