(1) North Carolina vs. (5) Auburn
Initial Thoughts: Auburn and North Carolina didn’t exactly come out guns blazing in their respective NCAA tournament debuts. North Carolina trailed by as many as 8 points to the 16-seed Iona Gaels late in the first half, while Bruce Pearl and the Tigers had to sweat out a furious rally from a pesky New Mexico State squad to escape with 1-point victory. After ridding themselves of those toxic habits in the first round, the Tigers and Tar Heels showed out in a big way in the Round of 32. UNC ripped apart Washington’s 2-3 zone while Auburn blitzed Kansas with a barrage of threes from all over the floor, setting up Friday night’s tilt between two of the most prolific offenses in America.
Auburn on Offense: Closing off driving lines is first and foremost in Roy Williams’ hierarchy of man-to-man defensive principles. The Tar Heels are always disciplined in their gap coverage as help-side defenders actively jump to the ball whenever an opposing driver begins to attack. As with any defensive scheme, tradeoffs must be made and this focus on walling off dribble penetration is susceptible to surrendering open drive-and-kick threes, especially if the opponent is willing to let it fly from well beyond the 3-point arc.
In their sluggish performance in the first round, this is where the Tar Heels got burned. The perimeter help side defenders were lethargic in closing out to 3-point shooters, particularly in the first half, and the trigger-happy Gaels promptly took advantage of the Tar Heels’ apathy. Below is one clip of such an instance where UNC simply doesn’t recover with the proper urgency, giving just enough daylight for one of the Gaels’ many 3-point marksmen to get the shot off.
Even more alarming was another ‘laissez-faire’ close out later in the first half, at which point Iona had already established that they were not going away quietly. While minor defensive lapses in the early portion of the game are excusable, why this type of hesitancy lingered well into the first half is a bit perplexing…
My colleague Jim brought up a fair counter point when I initially raised this concern. Put simply, North Carolina was playing Iona, a 16-seed with little-to-no chance of keeping pace with the Tar Heels for a full 40 minutes, likely leading to some deflated energy on the defensive side of the ball.
Roy Williams will need to tighten up these screws before Friday, otherwise the Tar Heels could be in a world of pain if they bring anything short of a fully engaged defensive effort for 40 minutes. Much like the Gaels, Auburn will space the floor with five deadeye shooters on the floor at all times (with the minor exception of Austin Wiley’s occasional minutes). Auburn also plays with a similar reckless abandon as Iona, fearless to pull from anywhere at any time, especially Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, who need no help in getting their own shot from behind the arc. North Carolina must be on high alert at all times and stay tightly connected to all five guys on the floor. If not, Auburn could demoralize the Tar Heels with another 3-point outburst and jump out to a double-digit lead early.
North Carolina on Offense: The battle of the 3-point line in this matchup is somewhat of a double-edge sword. If the Tigers are finding open space and cashing in on their long range opportunities, North Carolina may find itself playing catch up – but if those bombs aren’t falling, the Tar Heels will snatch those long misses and it will be off to the races going the other way. With how much Auburn loves to crash the offensive glass, the Tigers are prone to getting beat down the floor by opponents willing to fight ‘fire with fire’ and push the tempo right back in their face – and if there’s one team you don’t want to engage in a track meet, it’s North Carolina and its hyper-efficient primary and secondary fast break.
When Auburn is able to get its defense set and force UNC to play in the half-court, its ball screen coverage will have to be razor sharp against the highly precise Tar Heel passing attack.
Iona had success in some spots defending the Tar Heels’ pick-n-roll utilizing more conservative ball screen coverage. The word ‘conservative’ is not a word in Bruce Peal’s vocabulary, so expect the Tigers’ versatile quartet of forwards – Chuma Okeke, Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore and Daniel Purifoy – to be flying all over the floor in constant pursuit of steals and chase down blocks. This could be a slippery slope against an elite passing team like the Tar Heels, especially when you factor in the length they have across all five positions needed to throw laser sharp dimes over the top of traps, hard hedges and double teams.
Key Factor(s): Everyone is quick to cite the cliché “live by the three, dive by the three” mantra to describe Auburn’s perceived high-risk, high-reward style of basketball. But, it’s important to remember – Auburn does not necessarily need to shoot the lights out to win this game. In fact, of the last 24 games Auburn has played (includes all conference games, SEC tournament games and the two NCAA tournament games), they’ve won five different times shooting worse than 38% from downtown (for context, Auburn’s season-long 3PT% is 38.2%). In back-to-back games in early February, the Tigers shellacked Alabama by 21 points despite making only 28% of their triples and then beat Florida by double-digits shooting a pedestrian 36% from behind the stripe.
Also, if you’re betting on North Carolina here, I wouldn’t bank on a stone cold shooting night from Auburn. Over that same timespan (since the beginning of SEC play in early February), the Tigers have connected on better than 35% of their trey bombs in all but four games. As frantic and chaotic as the offense can look, don’t let that fool you into labeling Auburn as just a bunch of streaky shooters – they are just straight-up good shooters, evidenced by the 16th best team 3PT% in the nation, per kenpom.com.
Final Predictions: I must admit that my initial gut feel for this game was screaming North Carolina. Yet, after a deeper look at the tape from the Iona matchup, along with a few of the other ACC games this season in which the Tar Heels showed minimal urgency closing out to 3-point shooters, I’m now a teensy bit worried Auburn might stay kerosene-hot from downtown if it can get into a comfort zone offensively. That said, ultimately I think North Carolina scores at will, both in the half-court and out on the break, and lights up the scoreboard at a faster rate than the Tigers to advance to the Elite-8 in what should be a shootout Friday night at the Sprint Center.
SU Pick: North Carolina
ATS Pick: North Carolina -5
O/U Pick: Over 165
(2) Kentucky vs. (3) Houston
Initial Thoughts: The dichotomy between the Coogs and the Cats embodies one of the more fascinating dynamics in the modern-day college basketball landscape. To those without an alumnus loyalty to either program, who you gravitate towards in this matchup can say a lot about your college basketball fandom. Some are most enthralled with the laundry list of blue-chip prospects littered up and down the Wildcats’ roster and devoutly believe “talent trumps all”. Others prefer to cling to the age-old saying of “experience matters in March” and could give two s*&% about the Cougars’ lack of high-end NBA talent.
Regardless of what side of the fence you stand on, the fissure between these two program identities sets the stage for a fascinating matchup on Friday.
Kentucky on Offense: There isn’t anything innovative about what Kentucky does on the offensive side of the ball. Many of John Calipari’s quick-hitters and set plays are geared toward getting a particular player a shot in a favorable matchup. Given the army of trees Coach Cal has at his disposal in the front court, a good chunk of these are routed toward post-ups and seals down on the block, most of which ran through PJ Washington when he was fully healthy. The emergence of Tyler Herro as a 3-point assassin has helped bring some balance to the offense and Cal will often feature possessions in which Herro will run off baseline screens for an open catch-and-shoot triple on the wing. Regardless of where the ball goes, this remains a player-first offense as Calipari prefers to let his supreme crop of individual talent shine through, rather than risk getting in the way with an overly complex offensive system.
However, without another feared shooting threat next to Herro on the perimeter, and with defenses so concerned about the Cats’ size inside, the offense can look a bit congested at times. This may not be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but I doubt Cal cares how pretty it looks. With a beast in Reid Travis roaming the paint, who is often paired with two stretched-out bigs in 6’10 EJ Montgomery and 6’11 Nick Richards, Kentucky is more than fine chasing down its own misses and playing volleyball at the rim to score efficiently. And when this doesn’t generate easy stick backs, it typically results in a foul and trip to the charity stripe, which is the Wildcats’ other reliable avenue of scoring. Combine that enviable size up front with two elite perimeter rim attackers in Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans and you can see why so many opposing defenses have no choice but to foul to keep UK from getting easy buckets at the rim.
Houston on Offense: Compared to Kentucky, the Cougars offensive success this season been rooted more so in their systematic execution as opposed to individual playmaking. Kelvin Sampson’s multitude of half-court set plays is the foundation for this, as he leverages his well-rounded roster to put a plethora of guys in optimal positions to score. Veteran point guard Galen Robinson is the head of the snake, a savvy floor general who’s been groomed under Sampson for four straight seasons and understands how to direct Sampson’s offense. Dejon Jarreau is the change-of-pace point guard who comes off-the-bench to spell Robinson - he’s a more lethal penetrator and creator with his burst of speed and plus positional size at 6’5. Both are excellent passers and have dished out a heathy portion of open threes on a platter to the sharpshooting duo of Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks this season.
For as much as Davis and Brooks’ shooting explosions have hogged the video highlights, Fabian White, Breaon Brady and Brison Gresham set the tone for the Coogs offense down low. You may not think of Houston as being a 2nd and 3rd chance reliant offense, but the advanced data indicates Houston’s most reliable path to putting points on the board is when this physical band of brothers gets after it on the offensive glass. Even against a burly Ohio State frontline anchored by Kaleb Wesson, this trio corralled 8 offensive rebounds in Houston’s 15-point victory in the Round of 32. Don’t be surprised to see Houston actually assert itself as the dominant interior presence, even against UK’s elite size and strength inside.
Key Factor(s): The social media speculation on whether or not PJ Washington will play has ballooned in to an out-of-control wildfire. After Gary Parrish alluded to some intriguing Calipari comments on the Eye on College Basketball podcast, which implied Coach Cal was not being fully transparent about Washington’s status, PJ himself teased Big Blue nation with the following video posted earlier today…
… this tweet was then quote tweeted by John Calipari, who added the vague response of “Uh oh…”
All we know for sure is that Washington’s cast has been officially removed and he is clearly able to walk around on his own power, an encouraging sign for Kentucky fans who hope to see him give it a go on Friday. Calipari did confirm he practiced today, but no definitive decision has been released on whether or not he will lace ‘em up against Houston. The reason for overanalyzing this injury is that on a team flushed with blue-chip talent, Washington was the one guy who emerged as the clear-cut alpha dog and carried the Wildcats for much of the SEC season. His interior physicality would come in handy against the older and thicker Coog frontline, but Reid Travis packs plenty of punch in the paint to keep the Cats from being pushed around in the middle.
Final Predictions: I don’t have a strong preference for either side here and feel much more confident in the under. The total of 134.5 might seem low at first glance, but we’ve discussed how Kentucky has been content to play at a much slower pace this season and Houston is equally as picky in choosing when to attack in transition. Both teams are armed with prolific long-range shooters, but their most consistent source of offense comes by way of the paint and, in this matchup, both teams will be banging their heads against the wall trying to score against the other inside. The result should be an ugly backyard brawl that’s decided by a few possessions or less, but I think the talent gap wins out in this one, giving Kentucky a slight edge to march on to the Elite 8.