UNC’s tournament defense will start in Charlotte, NC, in the tournament’s West region, as the Tar Heels open as the #2 seed for that region, facing #15 Lipscomb on Friday. The ACC also showed its dominance, earning a tournament-high nine berths despite the fact that Louisville and Notre Dame saw their bubbles burst. The ACC also has three of the top 8 overall seeds, with Virginia the #1 overall seed in the South and Duke as the #2 in the Midwest.
But UNC will have to get through the, ahem, Wild West if it wants to make it to the Final Four in San Antonio. Let’s take a closer look at the competition.
#1 Xavier Musketeers (28-5, 15-3 Big East)
The Musketeers enter the tournament as Big East regular season champions, and can take solace in the fact that they have only lost to three teams all season (Arizona State, and two losses apiece to Villanova and Providence). Outside of those games, the Musketeers have amassed a plethora of evidence that points to the fact that this Xavier team is best equipped to bring the program its first Final Four appearance. This squad has already made history no matter what, as this is the first #1 seed that Xavier has ever earned.
Player to watch: Senior Trevon Bluiett is the leading scorer (19.5 PPG) on a top-ten offense (6th in rating, 10th in PPG). He’s improved in every year he’s been on the team and has never averaged below double digits in points per game. He might be a household name by the end of the tourney.
Key stat: Although the Musketeers as stated above rank 6th in offensive rating, they are 48th in defensive rating, so if the basket isn’t kind, it’s not a sure thing they’ll be able to grind out a win if they need it.
Record against UNC: The Heels lost their only meeting with the Musketeers all the way back in 1950, by a score of 92-58.
#16 North Carolina Central Eagles (19-15, 9-7 MEAC)
The Eagles rode a fairytale MEAC tournament to their third NCAA tournament berth in 4 years, with a solid chance to get their first tournament win in school history in the First Four. Whether or not they’ll reach the hallowed ground of being the first #16 seed to upset a #1 in men’s tournament history is another thing entirely, as their offense does not even rank in the top 200 in points per game.
Player to watch: Center Raasean Davis has played well in his first year for the Eagles after transferring from Kent State. He averages 15 points and 8 rebounds per game and shoots 67% from the field.
Key stat: As a team, the Eagles shoot 69% from the line, good for 274th in the league. If it all comes down to the charity stripe...
Record against UNC: The Heels have won both of their meetings with their friendly neighbors in Durham, in 2011 and 2014.
#16 Texas Southern Tigers (15-19, 12-6 SWAC)
The Tigers will also be looking for their first tournament win in school history in the First Four. This is their second consecutive year qualifying as the SWAC Tournament champion, and the Heels met them last year also as a #16 seed. This will be their seventh berth in the tournament and their third chance to win one of the play-in games. They present a bad matchup for the Eagles, because this team is capable of scoring.
Player to watch: Demontrae Jefferson is listed at 5-7 and 150 pounds but leads the team in scoring at 23.4 points per game.
Key stat: This team gets to the line, yet another reason why they’re a bad match for NC Central: they rank sixth in free throws per field goal attempt.
Record against UNC: That tournament game last year was the teams’ first-ever meeting; UNC won 103-64.
#8 Missouri Tigers (20-12, 10-8 SEC)
Another group of Tigers! This one has a chance to make a deep tournament run based on how their star player returning from injury performs. Michael Porter Jr. is projected to be a top-10 pick in the draft this year, and he missed almost the entire season. If he can shake off the rust after his long absence and return to top-10 form, the Tigers might be able to bust some brackets.
Player to watch: As mentioned above, it’s gotta be Porter.
Key stat: In opponent true shooting percentage, the Tigers rank 20th nationally. Their defense can force a bad shot.
Record against UNC: The Heels and Tigers met often in the 1980s but have not met since 2000. The Heels are 5-4 all-time against Missouri.
#9 Florida State Seminoles (20-11, 9-9 ACC)
The Noles are UNC’s only ACC company in the West Region. Though they lost five of their last eight games, the Seminoles still snuck in as an at-large, and weren’t even close to the bubble by virtue of not being one of the First Four teams. Florida State is the only team in this region that UNC has lost to this year, so a potential rematch in the regional final would be interesting. But FSU will have to shake off that season-ending skid to set that up.
Player to watch: Terance Mann leads his team in points per game, just barely, and will look to finish his junior year off strong.
Key stat: Florida State ranks near the top of the NCAA when it comes to shot-blocking, coming in 22nd in block percentage.
Record against UNC: The Heels are 49-13 against their fellow ACC members.
#5 Ohio State Buckeyes (24-8, 15-3 Big Ten)
The Buckeyes are back in the tournament after a two-year hiatus. With wins against then-#1 Michigan State and Purdue (in Purdue), they can make a strong case that they can hang with the best when it counts. And the only team they’ve lost against that didn’t also make the tournament was Penn State (who they lost to three times). So let’s just say that OSU’s opponents will be watching a lot of that PSU footage.
Player to watch: Keita Bates-Diop is the Big Ten Player of the Year and a potential first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
Key stat: In the SRS, Ohio State is ranked 15th, which suggests that they’re properly seeded.
Record against UNC: The Heels have lost only once (1992) in 12 meetings with OSU, including a 86-72 win earlier this season.
#12 South Dakota State Jackrabbits (28-6, 15-1 Summit)
Finishing the season with a team-record 28 wins and 6 losses, the Jackrabbits enter their fifth NCAA tournament and third in a row. They are, as of yet, winless in tournament history and will hope to break that duck against the Buckeyes. Their closest call yet was against Maryland in 2016 as a 12-seed, losing by only five points. Will they be able to perform better than that against Ohio State?
Player to watch: Junior forward Mike Daum is 6th in the NCAA in scoring at 23.8 points per game, which is actually less than his sophomore average of 25.1!
Key stat: The Jackrabbits shoot 40.3% from deep, good for 12th in the league.
Record against UNC: The Tar Heels have never met the Jackrabbits.
#4 Gonzaga Bulldogs (30-4, 17-1 WCC)
So, naturally, UNC ends up in the same region as the team it met in the final last year. If the two met again this year, the stakes wouldn’t be as high—just a regional final this time around—but the possibility of it happening is a fascinating subplot to watch as the tournament unfolds. The Bulldogs last year showed they were capable of competing for a national championship; this year they will try to show they can win it.
Player to watch: Gonzaga has a remarkably balanced team, but late in games watch out for Killian Tillie, who’s hit half of his 90 attempts from deep.
Key stat: The most recent NCAA Tournament champion won the title a year after finishing runner-up.
Record against UNC: Outside of the matchup last year, the Heels (2009 Tournament) and Bulldogs (2006) have split two games.
#13 UNC Greensboro Spartans (27-7, 15-3 Southern)
What a story it would be if UNCG busted brackets and met UNC in the regional final, huh? UNC alum Wes Miller has, in his sixth full year at the head of the Spartan basketball program, brought the Spartans to their first NCAA tournament berth since 2001 and their highest seeding of all time. It’s easy to imagine the Spartans being a fan favorite for Tar Heels as well.
Player to watch: International player Francis Alonso leads the Spartans in scoring this year, at 15.6 points per game.
Key stat: Spartan opponents shoot 31.7% from deep, a defensive figure that ranks 22nd nationally for UNCG.
Record against UNC: The Heels won three games against the Spartans played in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
#6 Houston Cougars (26-7, 14-4 American)
The team formerly known as Phi Slamma Jamma is returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 and only the second time since 1992. An even longer drought is that the Cougars haven’t won a tournament game since 1984, the year they lost in the final to Georgetown. This year, they see their best since since those days, and their best chance to break some of those long droughts.
Player to watch: Rob Gray, a North Carolina native, leads his team in scoring at 18.6 points per game.
Key stat: Houston’s defense ranks tenth in the nation at effective field-goal percentage allowed per game.
Record against UNC: The two haven’t met since 1992, but UNC’s only loss in six total games came in the 1967 third-place game.
#11 San Diego State Aztecs (22-10, 11-7 Mountain West)
In their first season of the post-Steve Fisher era, the Aztecs and new head coach Brian Dutcher have not missed a beat in earning their tournament berth the old-fashioned way. The Aztecs haven’t lost since February 10th and appear to be playing better and better. They’re hitting their stride at the right time and have an opportunity to keep a great story going.
Player to watch: Despite taking an overall reduced role in his senior season, Trey Kell dropped 28 points in the Mountain West championship game.
Key stat: The Aztecs rank 31st nationally in defensive rating.
Record against UNC: The Heels and Aztecs have met twice, in 1988 and 1990, with the Heels winning both games.
#3 Michigan Wolverines (28-7, 13-5 Big Ten)
The Wolverines finished the season strong, winning the Big Ten Tournament title and cementing their spot in the tournament. They have had a lot of rest since their last game, and it’s unclear whether or not that will serve to be an advantage or disadvantage. The Wolverines have been painstakingly close so many times across the past decade in their search for their second national title. Is this the year?
Player to watch: German Moritz Wagner pushes seven feet tall and can drill it from three. Sound familiar?
Key stat: Michigan finished 13th nationally in the SRS, suggesting they may be overseeded.
Record against UNC: UNC won its matchup with the Wolverines earlier this year and is 4-2 against them all-time.
#14 Montana Grizzlies (26-7, 16-2 Big Sky)
Montana is dancing for the first time since 2013. They haven’t scored a win in the tournament since 2006, and haven’t made a Sweet Sixteen since 1975. Facing their neighbors in the North may or may not be the best way to break those streaks, but the Grizzlies have shown that they’re capable of answering the call.
Player to watch: Michael Oguine saved his best play for the Big Sky Tournament, putting in some of his highest scoring games of the season.
Key stat: About ten percent of defensive possessions by the Grizzlies end in a steal.
Record against UNC: The two schools have never met.
#7 Texas A&M Aggies (20-12, 9-9 SEC)
The Aggies enter the tournament with a bad taste in their mouths, having lost their SEC Tournament opener to a Collin Sexton buzzer-beater. They need to turn that momentum around quick as a potential match with UNC awaits before the Aggies can reach the Sweet 16. They beat West Virginia and USC during a 7-0 start to their season, and that team needs to come back for the tournament.
Player to watch: Robert Williams, potential first-round pick shooting 62% from the floor and a rebound short of a double-double.
Key stat: A&M’s strength is also one of UNC’s: the Aggies are 5th in the NCAA in rebounds per game.
Record against UNC: The two schools have not met since 2001 and only three times overall, with UNC 2-1 in those games.
#10 Providence Friars (21-13, 10-8 Big East)
The Friars have already had a clutch March, closing their Big East Tournament run with three consecutive overtime games culminating in a loss to Villanova in the final but probably peaking with a semifinal win against Xavier. The Friars have also met UNC in two of the past four tournaments, and there’s a good chance it could be three for five by the end of the tournament.
Player to watch: Senior Rodney Bullock leads his team in scoring at 14 points per game.
Key stat: The Friars ranked 11th in strength of schedule this season.
Record against UNC: Including two wins in the 2014 and 2016 tournaments, the Heels are 4-1 all time against Providence.
#2 North Carolina Tar Heels (25-10, 11-7 ACC)
You already know what it is!
#15 Lipscomb Bisons (23-9, 10-4 Atlantic Sun)
The Bisons are making their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament after a win in the A-Sun Tournament final. They’ll meet UNC in their first-ever NCAA Tournament game, so here are some quick pointers. Yes, their official team name actually is Bisons with an “s.” Lipscomb University is located in Nashville, Tennessee, so Charlotte isn’t too far a trip. They’ve been in D-1 since 2003 and have only had two coaches all-time.
Player to watch: Garrison Mathews averages a tidy 22.1 points per game and can get hot from deep.
Key stat: Lipscomb plays at the fourth-highest pace in the entire nation.
Record against UNC: The two schools met in their season opener during the 2010-11 season: UNC won 80-66 with Tyler Zeller leading the Heels with 15 points.