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NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region Seeds 1-5

Do the Tar Heels have what it takes to get past the top seeds in their bracket?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Boston College Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA Tournament gets underway tonight. After all the bracket talk and seeding predictions, we’re finally going to get some baseball. Yesterday, Al broke down seeds 11-16 and Jake took a look at seeds 6-10 in UNC’s region. Today, let’s talk about Carolina and the other big names in the Midwest.

#5 Auburn Tigers (26-9, 11-7 SEC)

Depending on how much you believe in Bracketology, the Auburn win over Tennessee may have been the deciding factor in the Tar Heels grabbing a #1 seed over the Volunteers. How did the Tigers do it? They shot the lights out from distance. Repeatedly.

Can they sustain that kind of success going forward? Will attempting to bomb another team with 40 shots from beyond the arc prove to be a viable strategy in the tournament? Let’s find out together.

Player to Watch: Senior guard Bryce Brown averages 15.8 points per game and has made 40% of his shots from three this season. Sophomore forward Chuma Okeke has shot 50% from the field for the Tigers this year, including almost 38% from distance. Do you sense a pattern here?

Key Stat: The Tigers hit 15 three-pointers in their win over Tennessee in the SEC title game. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but Auburn took a total of 40 shots from beyond the arc in the game. Only 11 of their shots didn’t come from long distance against the Volunteers.

Record against UNC: UNC won the only meeting between these two schools way back in 1985.

#4 Kansas Jayhawks (25-9, 12-6 Big 12)

Seeing Kansas lined up in UNC’s bracket with a game in Kansas City looming will always draw some understandable eye rolls, but this is not exactly a normal Kansas team. Bill Self’s squad broke the streak of 14 straight regular season titles and lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 title game by double digits.

Some of that – probably a good amount of that – is attributable to some adversity that the Jayhawks have faced this season. Center Udoka Azubuike had season-ending surgery on his hand back in January, and senior guard Lagerald Vick took a leave of absence from the team to deal with personal matters at the beginning of February. That left Kansas short-handed down the stretch, making the Jayhawks a trendy pick to be upset early in a lot of bracket predictions.

Player to Watch: Without Vick and Azubuike the team has relied on junior forward Dedric Lawson. He has averaged a double-double this season, scoring 19 points per game and pulling down just over 10 rebounds, good enough for best in the Big 12 in both categories. Lawson is a strong three-point shooter at 37% on the season, but he’s also had some trouble with turnovers that could spell bad news.

Key Stat: The Jayhawks were ranked 103rd in offensive rebounding, which likely suffered with Azubuike’s absence. This is one place UNC could absolutely feast if they end up having to face Kansas in the tournament.

Record against UNC: UNC has won six of the 11 games all-time against the Jayhawks. However, Kansas has, of course, won the last three contests.

#3 Houston Cougars (31-3, 16-2 American)

The Cougars had won 16 of their last 17 games with the lone loss coming to UCF before Cincinnati upset them in the AAC title game. Houston might have fallen victim to the adage that it’s difficult to beat a team three times in one season with that result.

It will be interesting to see how Houston responds to the level of competition in the tournament. They only played two teams (Oregon and Cincinnati) ranked in the top 25 at the time they played them this season, but 15 straight wins to open the season is still impressive. The Cougars have a lot of believers, for sure, but they are also in a stacked side of the Midwest bracket that will be a tough hill to climb.

Player to Watch: Senior guard Corey Davis Jr. is the engine that makes Houston go. He averages almost 17 points per game and shoots 38% from distance. Davis does a good job of protecting the ball and scored a career-high 31 points when the Cougars defeated the #20-ranked Bearcats on March 10th.

Key Stat: Houston have averaged 76.2 points per game this season, good enough for 83rd in the country. That feels like a bit of a dangerous number with the level of competition about to ramp up considerably, especially in a tough bracket like the Midwest.

Record against UNC: UNC is 5-1 all-time against Houston. The two teams haven’t met since December of 1992.

#2 Kentucky Wildcats (27-6, 15-3 SEC)

The Wildcats are another team that lost in their conference tournament that might have allowed Carolina to end up with a #1 seed. Kentucky is a formidable opponent as the #2 in this region, but they’ll have to earn a trip to Kansas City with plenty of good competition ahead of them.

It was a sloppy game when they met UNC in the CBS Sports Classic in December. Both teams turned it over 18 times. The duo of Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson, combining for 41 of Kentucky’s 80 points, was just too much to handle. This feels familiar somehow...

Player to Watch: In terms of points per game, PJ Washington is the man to watch for Kentucky. The sophomore forward has shot 42% from beyond the arch this season. However, if the Tar Heels meet them again they’ll need to come up with some kind of answer for Reid Travis down low that they didn’t have last time out.

Key Stat: The Wildcats are ranked 254th in pace this season. Something will have to give if they meet a team who wants to run (ahem), and it’ll be interesting to see which team’s preferred pace prevails. Both teams are ranked among the nation’s best in TRB%, so it would be a huge battle on the boards if these two were to meet again.

Record against UNC: The Tar Heels hold a 21-16 advantage over their Blue Blood brethren all-time. Kentucky won the regular season matchup against UNC this year, but we all know what happened last time the Wildcats were victorious in the regular season only to meet the Heels again in the tournament.

#1 North Carolina Tar Heels (27-6, 16-2 ACC)

Carolina didn’t get the good fortune of starting close to home in the tournament, but they have been road warriors all season. The duo of Cameron Johnson and Coby White has been lethal offensively, and the Tar Heels are one of the best defensive teams in the country. Combine all of that with a team that has played as well as anyone down the stretch and you have a recipe for a team to end up cutting down the nets.

The road to get there won’t be easy by any means. However, the fact that this team was able to take Duke, anointed winners of any and everything, to the wire on a poor shooting night when Zion Williamson scored 31 points? You have to feel pretty good about UNC’s chances.

Player to Watch: Freshman point guard Coby White has been a good barometer for the Tar Heels since he found another gear halfway through the season. Carolina has too many weapons to fully go into “as Coby goes, so go the Heels” territory, but it’s close. His good games are generally good games for UNC and vice versa. White is a huge part of the offense, so that’s not at all surprising. If Coby can get hot and take over a game offensively, the Tar Heels are very hard to beat.

Key Stat: The Tar Heels are tops in the country in rebounds per game. They have been almost unstoppable when winning the battle on the boards, and that plays well into their immense speed advantage. If Carolina can get out in transition, watch out.