Date: Friday March 29th
Opponent: North Carolina Tar Heels
Location: Sprint Center - Kansas City, Missouri
Network: TBS, Auburn Radio Network
It’s been a long week, but we’ve made it to Gameday! Auburn will take the court tonight in Kansas City versus the Top Seed in the Midwest, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Auburn makes it’s 1st Sweet 16 appearance since 2003 when they ran into some guy named Carmelo Anthony and the Syracuse Orange, who beat them 79-78 on their way to a National Championship. One of Auburn’s best players on that 2003 team was Marquis Daniels, who of course is now back at Auburn coaching this year. Auburn makes it’s 5th Sweet 16 appearance all-time and are 1-3 in this round. With a win tonight, Auburn would make the Elite 8 for only the SECOND time in program history. In comparison to UNC, who’s won 6 National Championships (in the NCAA era), appeared in 20 Final Fours, 28 Elite Eights and make their 34th appearance in the Sweet 16. For a Tar Heel perspective on tonight's game, you should also read the Q&A I conducted with the Tar Heel Blog on Wednesday.
Get to Know North Carolina...
This will be one of the biggest challenges Auburn has faced all season long. The Tar Heels have the ability to run with Auburn, something few teams can do. They also have depth in both the frontcourt and backcourt. Expect to see North Carolina play 10 guys as well. Offensively, they are explosive, averaging 86 points a game this year while giving up 73. Only Gonzaga and Belmont score more points a game than the Tar Heels this year.
North Carolina’s leading scorer is senior Cameron Johnson (#13) at 16.9 points a game. He’s listed as a guard, but he’s 6’9”. He also averages 5.8 rebounds a game and he’s a 46.3% shooter from 3-point range. He averages 3.5 made 3-pointers a game. Johnson is one player that I’m really concerned about going into tonight’s game.
While Johnson worries me greatly, the Tar Heels player I’m most concerned with is freshmen point guard Coby White (#2). He averages 16.1 points, 4 assists and 3.6 rebounds a game. He also averages 2.7 turnovers a game, which he’s improved on as the season has gone on but he is turnover prone and Auburn’s pressure defense will be a big factor in tonight’s game. White is also a high-volume shooter. He’s taken at least 10 shots in the last 19 games. He was 4-7 from 3-point range against Washington on Sunday and for the season, White is shooting 36.4% from 3.
Senior forward Luke Maye (#32) is known for making big shots. He hit a 3 to beat Kentucky to send the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 2017, his sophomore season, and he’s been a star on this team ever since. Maye is averaging a double-double this year averaging 14.9 points and 10.6 rebounds a game. If there’s one area that UNC has a huge advantage in this one, it’s rebounding and Maye is a big reason why. He’s had 5 games this year with 15+ rebounds. He had 20 points and 14 rebounds in the team’s last game against the Huskies.
The next player is a big question mark, freshmen forward Nassir Little (#5). Right now, as of this writing, he’s a game-time decision as he’s dealing with flu-like symptoms. Head Coach Roy Williams said yesterday that if the game was today (Thursday), Little wouldn’t be able to play. Little is averaging 10 points a game, coming off the bench but is playing his ball of the year, scoring 19 and 20 points in the Tar Heels 2 NCAA Tournament games. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to play tonight.
Senior guard Kenny Williams (#24) is next up for the Tar Heels. He averages 8.5 points a game this year but scored 18 points in their regular season finale win over Duke. While his percentages aren’t the greatest from 3 (28.7%), he’s capable of knocking down 3-4 3s in a big game.
Auburn High’s own Garrison Brooks (#15) is next up for North Carolina. He’s averaging 8 points and 5.7 rebounds a game this year but his defense has been his strong spot this year. I would imagine he will quite amped up to face off against his hometown team tonight.
Other guys you’ll see on the floor tonight for Carolina include forward Sterling Manley (#21), and guards Brandon Robinson (#4), Leaky Black (#1) and Seventh Woods (#0),
This is an excellent free throw shooting team as well. Each of North Carolina’s top 5 scorers shoot right around 80% from the line so the advantage in a close game late goes to UNC in this department.
What to Look for from Auburn...
Auburn averages around 11 3-pointers made a game this season. If you look at the Tar Heels 6 losses, this is the number of 3s they gave up in each of those 6 losses: 11, 11, 9, 11, 11 and 5. With the exception of their loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels have struggled in games where they have given up a lot of 3-pointers. That’s the one advantage Auburn has going into this one. If the Tigers can shoot the ball the way they did, especially in the 1st half against Kansas, they’ve got a shot to knock off the Tar Heels.
Bryce Brown was incredible on Saturday night against Kansas, scoring 25 points and made 7 3-pointers, including his first 5 attempts. He is now 2nd all-time in 3-pointers made in the SEC at 372 3-pointers. He’s made 131 3s this season, the most in Auburn history. For this magical run to continue, Bryce is going to need to shoot the 3 nearly as well. As important will be his defense as I would imagine you’ll see Brown guarding Coby White a bit in this game. Containing White will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
The point guard matchup of Coby White vs. Jared Harper that I’m excited to watch. Both point guards are extremely quick and can score the basketball. Harper will look to continue his success on the offensive end as he averaged 17.5 points and 5 assists in the 2 games in Salt Lake City. Harper needs to score at least 15, maybe 20 tonight to keep Auburn in this game.
Tonight would be an incredible night for Chuma Okeke to knock down 4 or 5 3-pointers. The sophomore forward will force the Tar Heel defense to spread out and perhaps open up the paint a bit for the like of Horace Spencer and Austin Wiley. Chuma averaged 12.5 points a game but plays his best games against the best teams. A performance like he had against both games against Tennessee would be nice tonight.
This may be a bold prediction and a crazy prediction but I think the X-Factor in this game is Austin Wiley. Wiley played 13 minutes and scored 6 points in the win over Kansas. He’s looked better on both sides of the ball the more time he’s gotten back on the floor. I just feel like tonight may be the night Wiley goes off. Wiley had one of his best games of the season against another ACC foe, Duke, when he scored 17 points and 9 rebounds.
Auburn has lost both of their games against ACC foes from the state of North Carolina this year. So it’s kinda ironic that tonight’s game will mean that Auburn will have faced all 3 ACC teams from the Triangle Area of North Carolina (Duke, UNC, N.C. State).
Perhaps the 3rd time’s the charm for Auburn?
In 5 of UNC’s 6 losses, they’ve scored 73 or less points. When the Tar Heels have scored more than 74 points, they are 29-1 this year. Holding this team under 74 points would mean Auburn did a masterful job on defense but the reality is this, the winner of this game probably has to score 90 tonight.
This is not a game where Auburn can celebrate a made basket. This is not a game that Auburn can be slow getting back on defense. If you listen to Sonny Smith on the radio, you’ll hear him constantly say “get back” when the Tigers score. Nothing could be more truer tonight because the Tar Heels can score in bunches and score in a hurry. Perhaps, the fast chaos style will help Auburn as they play better when they play fast.
This should be a fun one, a high-paced, high-scoring track meet, unlike anything we saw in the late window last night. Virginia beat Oregon 53-49 last night and I can see one or both of these teams eclipsing the number of points Virginia scored last night in the 1st half. Auburn has won 10 in a row and are playing with house money at this point. Few thought they could make it here and yet here they are. They’re definitely the underdog now as they are now the lowest seeded team remaining in this tournament. I like Auburn’s chances when they are the underdog. There’s also a lot of people out there that can’t wait to see Auburn fail and that’s just all the more reason to keep this run going.
In my opinion, Auburn has nothing to lose at this point, they’re playing to make history, yes, but this team isn’t just happy to be here. Why not us? Auburn’s made it this far so why not keep this run going? Regardless of the result tonight, Auburn should be super proud of what this team has accomplished. I’ve picked Auburn to win each of these 10 games. Do you seriously think I’m going against them tonight? Heck no, Auburn makes more history!
Auburn 91 North Carolina 86