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#1 UNC vs #5 Auburn: Three Things to Watch

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The Sweet 16 matchup involves two of the country’s most prolific offenses.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Washington vs North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Sweet 16 kicks off today and North Carolina tips-off tomorrow against Auburn. Late March is both the best and scariest time of the year, especially when your favorite team is a strong national title contender. Roy Williams has been almost unbeatable in the Sweet 16 since he’s been back on UNC’s sideline, going 8-1 in nine trips. The Heels will look to continue that dominance against the Auburn Tigers.

It’s the first time these two teams have met since 1985, when a sophomore Kenny Smith led Carolina to victory in….the Sweet 16. Here’s to history repeating itself!

While we wait, here are three things to watch in tomorrow’s game.

Track Meet. Maybe.

This is going to get a lot of play, so forgive us for not being original. Bruce Pearl indicated earlier this week that his Tigers are not scared to run with UNC. That’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for’em.

North Carolina is 29-1 when scoring 74 points or more. The lone loss was the 92-89 miscue against Texas, when the season was in its infancy. Of those 29 wins, just seven have been within single digits. Only two of those seven have been within one possession (Miami at home, and at Clemson). Per KenPom, UNC is the 6th fastest team in the country with an Adjusted Tempo (AdjT) of 74.1 possessions per game and a raw tempo of 75.8.

However, getting a handle on how much Auburn “runs” is difficult. They only rank 157th in the country with an AdjT at 67.8. Their average possession lasts 16.5 seconds, just 64th nationally.

People may be mistaking “shoots an ungodly amount of threes” with “playing fast”. Auburn has made 38.2% of their three point attempts, which account for 43.5% of their overall scoring production. Their 421 made three-point field goals lead the nation and their 1113 attempts are second most in the country. That shooting frequency and success may account for a lower amount of possessions (fewer rebounds, thus fewer possessions) but to say they “run” might be a stretch.

For reference, NC State, St. Francis, Stanford, Florida State, Duke, Gonzaga, Iona, Tennessee Tech and Elon all play as fast, or faster, than Auburn. North Carolina’s record against those teams? 11-1.

If Auburn truly tries to run with the Heels, the game could be over by the first media timeout of the second half.

Coby White

Everyone loves Coby. He’s good at what he does. Few players have been more fun to watch. North Carolina would not a championship contender without him. None of this is disputable.

However, Roy Williams has never made the Final Four with a freshman point guard at UNC. Bobby Frasor and Marcus Paige lost in the second round, while Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall lost in the Elite Eight. Add whatever caveats you want to explain why Coby is “different” or “better” than previous freshman point guards, but the facts are what they are.

It’s also really hard to win a title with a first year player running the offense. Only two teams in the last 30 years have accomplished that feat. Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015. As we saw in the closing weeks of the season, the offense has sputtered late in close games and execution suffers.

Coby has a propensity to over dribble, go incredibly cold from deep, and/or fail to keep facilitating the offense. Before shooting 6-11 (4-7 3P) against Washington, he had gone a combined 15-45 (3-21) in the three previous games against Louisville, Duke, and Iona. That is not a typo. Can this team afford that kind of streakiness from a score-first point guard as the competition heats up?

Interestingly, it’s White’s facilitating that seems to be a better barometer of success. In White’s 28 games, North Carolina is 18-2 when he contributes 4 or more assists. The only losses were against Michigan and the ACC tournament semi-final against Duke. He had four assists in both games.

They are 10-4 in games where he has 3 or fewer assists. Three of those wins were against ACC bottom feeders Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Boston College. Two more wins came against Elon and St. Francis. You can draw your own conclusions on the importance of White’s passing abilities compared to other facets of his game.

If this game is as fast as people expect, then there will be ample opportunity for White to get everyone involved.

Pick your Poison: Bryce Brown or Jared Harper?

I’m not a 3-time NCAA champion like Coach Williams , but if Kenny Williams is healthy one would expect Roy to give him the assignment on Auburn shooting guard Bryce Brown. The 6-3 senior for the Tigers averages 15.9 points on 40.8% shooting from behind the arc. He attempts a team-high 8.7 three-pointers per game. He’s a shorter, more explosive version of Cam Johnson…if Cam only played one position, did nothing but shoot, and never rebounded or handed out assists.

Brown is good, but if he’s not hitting shots, he provides almost no tangible value. Averaging 2.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 2.0 turnovers a game, Kenny (and maybe Brandon Robinson) will be tasked with preventing Brown from touching the ball. That’s easier said than done and will likely be made more complicated by UNC’s philosophy on transition D (where they usually sprint back to the paint and then close-out on shooters, instead of finding their man wherever he is on the court). However, Auburn has seven players that average at least one three-point attempt per game. Five of those seven players average better than 35% from deep. Gotta start somewhere when drawing up a game plan, right?

One of those additional sharp shooters is point guard Jared Harper. The 5-11 junior averages 15.3 ppg while attempting 6.7 three-point shots a game. His 37.9% success rate is fourth best on the team, which is silly to think about. Unlike Brown, he’s more than just a shooter, averaging 5.7 assists per game. The Heels will do everything they can to make Brown a non-factor, but if Harper is given free rein to create in transition, the Tigers will stay close for most of the afternoon.

Which poison will UNC pick?