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NCAA Tournament Round of 32 Preview: (1) UNC vs. (8) Arkansas

A new chapter against a familiar NCAA foe

Arkansas v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

NCAA South Region Round of 32

Who: Arkansas (8 seed, 26-9, KenPom #37) vs North Carolina (1 seed, 28-7, KenPom #3)

When: 6:10pm, Sunday

TV: TNT

Line: UNC -11

After an NCAA tournament win, Roy Williams is fond of doing the math on the number of teams that started the tournament and the number that remain. To get to do another round of his favorite math problem, Williams and the Tar Heels will need to take down Arkansas, the SEC tournament runners-up.

The Razorbacks are a familiar NCAA foe. Longtime Tar Heel fans will race immediately to the 1995 Final Four loss to Arkansas, which many remember as the game in which Jerry Stackhouse rolled his ankle at the tipoff, after which neither the National Player of the Year nor the Tar Heels ever really got settled, leaving 1995 forever in the discussion of Tar Heel “what if” seasons.

More recent history between the schools is probably more instructive when looking at Sunday’s game. In fact, the most recent NCAA tilt between the Tar Heels and Razorbacks has striking similarities. On March 21, 2015, a 27-8 Razorbacks team that had lost to Kentucky in the SEC title game met the Tar Heels in the second round of the tournament, which seems awfully familiar. Tar Heel fans hope the result is the same too (the Razorbacks were eliminated, 87-78).

There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about that. As was the case in the opening round, the Tar Heels have a favorable draw against a team whose weaknesses line up nicely against Tar Heel strengths. Most notably, the Razorbacks lack size and struggle badly with rebounding.

Arkansas’ five leaders in minutes played feature only one player taller than 6’3” (6’10” Moses Kingsley, 12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg); 6’8” players Dustin Thomas (5.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Arlando Cook (2.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg) are role players that provide little help on the boards. That weakness has been an issue all season, resulting in a national rank of 330th in defensive rebounding. They are faced, of course, with a UNC team whose hallmark all season has been a usually-and-still #1 rated offensive rebounding percentage.

These are not the “40 minutes of hell” Razorbacks of the Nolan Richardson era, either. Arkansas’ defensive efficiency rates 93rd, and has to contain a Tar Heel offense that rates 5th. And while the Razorbacks sport a flashy record, a deeper dive into their record shows no wins over any team currently ranked in the AP top 25 (their best win was likely at South Carolina).

The narrow path to victory for Arkansas looks something like this: get the Tar Heel bigs into foul trouble, getting them off the floor, and take advantage at the free throw line, where Arkansas excels (76.3% as a team). Add a dash of hot 3-point shooting (they average a solid-but-not-great 36.5%), and win the turnover battle (the Razorbacks generate a lot of steals, and are well above average at limiting turnovers of their own), and you have the recipe for an upset.

Of course as any cook knows, the recipe is one thing; pulling it off is entirely another. The reality is that a Tar Heel team playing at or near the levels we’ve seen this season should confidently dispatch Arkansas and begin planning for the regional semifinals, where the plot thickens considerably.