North Carolina has played angry since the start of the second half against Iona. The Gaels led the Tar Heels by 5 in the NCAA Tournament first round Friday in Columbus (Ohio). A 55-35 second-half surge allowed Roy Williams and company to survive and advance. That momentum carried over in Sunday’s 81-59 destruction of Washington.
The No. 1 seeded Tar Heels face another hot team in Bruce Pearl’s 5th-seeded Auburn Tigers. After holding off New Mexico State in the final seconds for a 78-77 first-round squeaker, they sprinted to a 51-25 halftime lead to quickly put away No. 4 Kansas.
North Carolina has only lost 3 times since the start of the new year, and all to tournament teams. Two of them were against No. 1 seeds in Virginia and Duke (who the Tar Heels beat twice during ACC play). Auburn, meanwhile, is on a 10-game win streak that includes a 20-point win over No. 2 Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final.
The winner of this game will face either the Houston Cougars or Kentucky Wildcats, the latter of which could be without star forward PJ Washington (foot) for the second-straight week.
UNC vs. Auburn Preview
*Note: Betting info and updated lines courtesy of OddsShark
- UNC Tar Heels (-4.5) vs. Auburn Tigers on March 29 (7:29 p.m. EST, TBS)
- Over/Under: 163
North Carolina has sustained a few bumps and bruises before Friday’s Sweet 16 tilt. Forward Garrison Brooks chipped a tooth but is expected to play, while guard Kenny Williams is questionable.
The latter produces 8.5 points per game, but shoots under 40 percent from the field. Still, it’d be a lost ball-handler needed for an up-tempo game. He notched 2 points and 3 assists versus the Huskies Sunday.
Fortunately for North Carolina, there’s plenty of other options in the backcourt. There’s a pair of NBA lottery hopefuls in Coby White and Nassir Little. White averages 16.1 points per game, while Little may be finally realizing his potential. Against Washington, he tied for the lead in scoring with 20 on just 10 shots.
Guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown will have to fire back in force, as both 38 percent or more from behind the arc.
UNC vs. Auburn Prediction & Pick
Both the Tar Heels and Tigers are two of the best offenses in the country. North Carolina ranks 8th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency, while Auburn is 6th. While Auburn can play fast, they may need to run a little more to keep up with North Carolina.
The Tar Heels play at the 5th-fastest tempo in the nation, with possessions lasting an average of just 14.6 seconds. This covers up for mediocre shooting numbers, as Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Little crash the offensive glass, especially in transition. North Carolina’s 35.3 percent O-rebound rate is No. 16 nationally.
Auburn, meanwhile, makes up for poor defensive rebounding by forcing more turnovers per possession than any other team in America. The Tar Heels may exploit the glass, but the Tigers may be able to offset that by racking up giveaways.
Chuma Okeke, a 6-foot-8 forward playing slightly out of position at the 5-spot, is likely the most important player for Pearl on Friday. He’ll be tasked with matching Maye and Johnson’s scoring in the frontcourt. Okeke averages 11.8 points and can stretch a defense with a 38 percent rate from 3.
This will be shootout. North Carolina should prevail with its No. 11 efficiency defense, as opposed to Auburn’s No. 44 unit. Basically, the better defense will make the difference in a barnburner.
Prediction: North Carolina 83, Auburn Tigers 78
Pick: North Carolina -4.5