The Tigers are riding high on a 10-game winning streak and have advanced to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2003 with a dominant victory over a college basketball blue blood in Kansas.
Now, Auburn has to face another blue blood when the team travels to Kansas City, Missouri, to take on the No. 1-seed North Carolina Tar Heels.
“Carolina has been the number one seed throughout the last four years, and eight out of Roy Williams’ 16 years at North Carolina,” said coach Bruce Pearl. “They’re on a great run right now. They’ve been in the Final Four more than any other program. They’ve been in the Elite Eight 28 times I believe, so for us our kids have been focused on making history.
“You hear that from their mouths, not just mine. What better opportunity to try and make history to go through Kansas and then try and go through North Carolina in Kansas which is a historic place for the NCAA tournament and the game of basketball.”
An undersized Auburn team has mostly been able to outrun its opponents and rarely has faced teams that can match that speed. That won’t be the case Friday night when these two high-scoring teams meet.
The Tar Heels are a unique specimen that has combined their speed and quickness with size on the perimeter and versatility in the frontcourt. These qualities have added up for North Carolina to be the No. 3 highest scoring offense in the country and a steep rebounding margin over the Tigers.
“North Carolina might be the best team left in the field,” Pearl said. “They’re plus-10-and-a-half rebound margin, we’re about minus-3 in rebound margin for a difference of 13. Rebounding has been a problem for us all year, or it’s at least been a challenge. We are one of the smallest teams in the SEC going against one of the biggest teams in the country that plays fast.”
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Here are the players to watch, keys to victory and everything else you need to know for the battle between Auburn and North Carolina.
Players to watch
Cameron Johnson (North Carolina):
Alongside Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson is one of the senior leaders on North Carolina. His versatility on both ends of the floor is a key piece for North Carolina with him leading the team in scoring and steals, while also grabbing 5.8 rebounds a game.
Johnson’s offensive game can be broken down to one word, efficient. He currently shoots 51 percent from the field and 81 percent from the free throw line. Those numbers are impressive on their own, but the best part of his offensive game is ability to knock down 3s at a 46 percent clip – the sixth-best percentage in the country.
“Then you have Cam Johnson at 6-9 who is a big guard,” Pearl said. “He just shoots over the top of everybody. He might be the best catch-and-stick [shooter]. Bryce Brown is the best catching stick shooter in college basketball, and then Cam Johnson is probably next. He’s really good.”
At 6-foot-9, Johnson will pose a serious size advantage to the Tigers and will be able to have an impact no matter who he is guarding or who is guarding him.
Coby White (North Carolina):
Going from the standout senior to the dominant freshman, Coby White has just as much impact as Johnson for the Tar Heels.
Auburn hasn’t played many future NBA lottery picks this season but White is one of the them. According to multiple mock drafts, White is a projected top-10 pick in 2019 and for good reason.
White is quick off the dribble at a speed that does not match his 6-foot-5 frame.
“Well it’s interesting, when we put Coby White’s information on the board yesterday with the team, Jared [Harper] asked if he was really 6’5,” Pearl said. “I said, ‘I bet you he’s probably 6’4, 6’5.’ It’s just that he plays so fast that you don’t think he’s 6’4 or 6’5.
“He’s long, athletic, about as fast as anybody. Lamar Peters from Mississippi State is probably the fastest guy we’ve seen, but he’s 5’10. This kid is 6’4 or 6’5 and that fast. That’s the key to North Carolina’s break.”
White can score from anywhere on the floor and can lock down an opponent when needed. He will likely be lined up against Bryce Brown and given the responsibility of limiting him in the open court, while providing his usual spark on offense.
Matchup to watch
Chuma Okeke vs. Luke Maye
Probably the most watchable match up on Friday is the one between Chuma Okeke and Luke Maye. Both have similar games with their size, versatility, defense and ability to knock down outside shots.
Okeke and Maye are both listed at 6-foot-8 and Maye holds a slight weight advantage but is a little less mobile than Okeke.
Maye averages 14.9 points and 10 rebounds a game. Okeke averages 11.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.
“[Maye] is a great player,” Pearl said. “His release on his three-ball is so quick. I think he’s going to be a great pro. He’s 6’8, but I think he plays bigger. He’s got great hands, he can get his hands around anything and he can finish around the basket.
“He just knows how to pay, and he can extend the defense. He’s a tough matchup for anybody, but we have one of the best defensive forwards in the college basketball – Chuma Okeke.”
Keys to victory
- Auburn has to make its open 3s
- Force turnovers and don’t turn the ball over
- Have success in half court setting to slow down North Carolina’s transition
- Limit rebound discrepancy
- North Carolina has the size advantage, they need to use it to better defend the smaller Auburn guards, rebound and use it to have better passing lanes.
- Don’t let Auburn go on its signature 3-point barrage
- Defend the three-point line in transition
- Don’t turn the ball over
Stats to know
Scoring Offense: Auburn (79.8), UNC (83.9)
Scoring Defense: Auburn (68.5), UNC (72.9)
Scoring Margin: Auburn (+11.3), UNC (+10.9)
FG Percentage: Auburn (45%), UNC (45.5%)
FG Percentage Defense: Auburn (43.5%) UNC (41.2%)
3-pt. FG Percentage: Auburn (37.8%) UNC (37.9%)
Rebounds Per Game: Auburn (34.1) UNC (43.2)
Assists Per Game: Auburn (14.4) UNC (19.3)
Turnovers Per Game: Auburn (11.9) UNC (12.8)
Opp. Turnovers Per Game: Auburn (17.5) UNC (13.1)
Steals Per Game: Auburn (9.4) UNC (6.9)
Blocks Per Game: Auburn (4.7) UNC (3.6)
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