Auburn will be making its first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2003 on Friday night when they take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in Kansas City. Auburn made it this far after defeating New Mexico State 78-77 and Kansas 89-75 in their first 2 NCAA Tournament games in Salt Lake City. Auburn has now won 10 straight games, 9 of them in the month of March. This next game will be quite the challenge for this Auburn team as they will now play North Carolina, one of the best and most complete teams in the country this year.
For a better understanding of North Carolina, I reached out to the Tar Heel Blog for some insight on the Tar Heels. Brandon Anderson (@THBBrandon) was nice enough to respond and answer my questions. Brandon’s answers are listed in bold below.
1. Auburn has played Duke, Tennessee, Kentucky and Kansas this season and yet looking at this North Carolina team, this might be Auburn’s toughest challenge yet. With a certain player up the road from you taking all the headlines this year, you haven’t heard much about these Tar Heels this year. What’s been the biggest key to their success this year?
The biggest key to Carolina’s success this year is their ability to score in so many different ways. This year’s team has multiple shooters, and so there has been a lot more focus on spacing than previous years (as Roy Williams traditionally likes playing inside-out). Coby White and Cameron Johnson are the most dangerous on the team by far, but it’s been the help they’ve gotten from players like Luke Maye, Nassir Little, and at times Garrison Brooks that have made it really difficult for teams to guard them.
2. This is a fascinating matchup because both teams like to run up and down the floor, both teams have veteran players, and they both go about 10-deep in their respective rotations, all of which should make for a fun game. The individual matchup I’m most excited about is the point guards: Coby White and Jared Harper. What are some of White’s biggest strengths and how do you see him faring in a matchup against Harper?
“Coby White’s biggest strength is his ability to score at will. He is the second deadliest shooter on the team, but what’s so impressive about him is that he can shoot almost as well off the dribble as he can in a catch-and-shoot situation. He also has learned how to get to the rim with higher efficiency than he did at the beginning of the season, which really has just been because he’s making smarter choices than he was at the time.”
“I think White will hold up against Harper just fine, but the one thing that he’ll want to focus on is taking care of the ball. if there’s one glaring weakness in White’s game it is his turnover issues, which has gotten better but it is definitely a concern against a team like Auburn. Making the smart, easy passes, and also not being too loose dribbling the ball will be important if he doesn’t want to give Harper and his teammates transition opportunities.”
3. Carolina averages 13 turnovers a game while Auburn is one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers, particular steals with their different defenses. How much of a concern should this be for UNC leading into Friday?
“Going back to Coby White’s weakness, I think Carolina overall has to be very careful with the ball. I really don’t know what to expect in terms of how badly Auburn can hurt them with forced turnovers, as the Heels have done really well against teams that are great at forcing turnovers (Duke) and have also done really, really poorly. Roy Williams most certainly will have taking care of the ball on the bulletin board for this game, and if they’re unable to do so and Auburn gets hot from three, it’ll be really hard for them to come away with a win.”
4. Cam Johnson is the team’s leading scorer and is an excellent 3-point shooter. Just talk about his impact on this year’s team.
“Cameron Johnson has been one of the best three-point shooters that I’ve personally witnessed in a Carolina uniform. Over the summer he had surgery to take care of some nagging pains that he’s had for years now, and when he came back this fall he was a completely different player. He was more agile, aggressive on defense, got to the glass more, and somehow his shot got even better than it had been. I will be shocked if he doesn’t have a solid career in the NBA as a Kyle Korver/Ray Allen-type shooter that teams can rely on to get what he wants from deep, and he’s someone that has made a lot of teams lose sleep this year. Roy Williams bringing Johnson over from Pitt was an amazing decision, and everything he’s been able to do during his two-year stay has been awesome.”
5. It’s hard for me to believe we’ve gotten this far and I haven’t brought up either Luke Maye or Nassir Little. Maye is averaging a double-double this season and Little had 2 excellent games in Columbus. What has Maye meant to the Carolina program and how has Little’s emergence made this team even better?
“Luke Maye’s story as a player for UNC is one that I don’t know if we’ll see it again for a while. Started off as a walk-on, gained a scholarship, became a 2017 NCAA Tournament hero, and was a preseason All-American this year. On the court Maye has shown more growth in his game than I’ve seen in a really long time, and really it’s just come from a lot of hard work. He knows how to out-work teams on the boards, he has a good jumper, and he has a killer fadeaway shot. Off the court he’s an amazing person, was raised in a great home, is excellent academically, and is loved by just about everyone he comes across. It’ll be extremely hard to see him go, and I know he’ll have success in whatever is next for him.”
“As far as Nassir Little goes, his emergence this past weekend has been huge. He was showing signs of figuring everything out earlier in the season, but then got injured and regressed a little bit. The huge thing that Little brings to this team is the threat of destroying teams at the rim, as he has figured out how to use his size and athleticism to his advantage. He also has been working hard to get to the boards, which helps out quite a bit considering that he is normally not on the floor with Garrison Brooks and Luke Maye at the same time too much. If this version of Little shows up Friday, he’ll present a lot of problems in the paint.”
6. UNC has a player with local ties to our area on the roster in Garrison Brooks. Across the board, he’s improved from his freshmen year to his sophomore year. How is Garrison developing and what kind of impact do you see him making in this game?
“Brooks has been one of the best defenders on the team, and the way that he gets it done doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he should. He doesn’t get a lot of blocks and steals like that one guy in Durham, but he locks down players to where they have a hard time just getting the ball into their hands. What I think has been tough for Brooks to a degree is playing the five spot, as he is clearly more of a power forward than a center. Next year will be huge in his development, as Roy Williams is bringing in 2019 signee Armando Bacot, and so I anticipate Brooks sliding over to his natural spot. As he is now, however, I think he’s a hard-working kid that knows his role on this team and plays it extremely well. He has a huge impact on defense when he’s in the game, and so it’s going to important for him to stay out of foul trouble against Auburn if the Heels want to keep them from going on a rampage.”
7. Who’s one other player on this roster that Auburn fans should know about leading into this game?
“The one other player that Auburn fans should know about is Brandon Robinson. He usually plays at either the two or the three spot, and he’s another player that has a really high motor when he’s in the game. He won’t score a bunch of points, but his shooting has actually been extremely good this year, shooting at a 49% clip and is making 45% of his three-pointers. He’s the kind of player that Roy Williams relies on to go in, dive on the floor, minimize bad plays, and really just keep things going while Cam Johnson or Kenny Williams goes to the bench.”
8. Finally, who wins and do you have a score prediction?
“The one thing that makes me uneasy about Carolina is that they’ve had multiple scoring droughts that have made games way closer than they should’ve been, and in the case of the third game against Duke, cost them the game. With that said, I think the Heels will win, but I think it’ll be one of those games that will make fans go get their blood pressure tested when it’s all over. 79-77 will be the final score.”
Writer’s Note: So, from the UNC folks themselves, this will just be your standard Auburn ballgame in which we’ll have our blood pressure tested. We’re used to these down here.
Anyways, we’ll have much more coverage coming in the next couple days leading up to tip-off. War Eagle!