After trouncing blueblood Kansas last weekend to advance to the Sweet 16, the No.5-seed Auburn men's basketball team will face its most daunting matchup of the season when they square off against another blueblood program in No.1-seed North Carolina on Friday.
The Tar Heels have won of 17 of their last 19 games, with the last two regular-season losses coming to top-seeded Virginia and Duke.
North Carolina enters the game after pulling away from Washington for a 81-59 victory in the second round.
Many expect a high-scoring, fast-paced game with the Tar Heels being one of the best transition teams in the nation and the Tigers not shy about pushing the ball for a quick bucket early in the shot clock. But if Auburn is going to beat a blueblood for the second time in as many games, the Tigers will have to excel in three areas — three-point shooting, turnover ratio and defensive rebounding.
UNC head coach Roy Williams noted the importance of defending the perimeter, which the Tar Heels struggled with earlier in the season but improved upon lately.
"(They're) probably hotter than anybody in the country right now," said Williams of Auburn. "We've got to go out and guard the three-point shot again, and we've got to make things a little more difficult for them. They're athletic, they go up and down. It could be a high-paced game, but maybe everybody's shooting a bunch of bricks. There's no telling."
The Tarheels are giving up 12-made threes through two NCAA tournament games, but are holding opponents to a 34 percent average from the perimeter.
The Tigers will also need to do an outstanding job on the defensive glass, which they've struggled to do for much of the season. The Tar Heels have been merciless in their first two games, out-rebounding their opponents 100 to 50 while pulling down 35 offensive boards.
The Tigers don't even crack the top 300 in defensive rebounding, coming in at 334 and averaging 22 defensive boards a game. On the flipside, the Tar Heels are 12th in the nation in offensive rebounding, averaging more than 13 a game, as well as leading the nation in defensive rebounding with 30 a game.
North Carolina also turns those offensive rebounds into points, averaging 15.4 second-chance points a game to their opponents 8.7.
Auburn will need to a better job on the glass or the Tar Heels will easily turn to their transition offense, which has averaged 16 fast-break points over their last six games.
Creating turnovers will also be key for the Tigers, to both spark the transition game and limit scoring opportunities for the Tar Heels, who turn the ball over about 14 times a game. The good news? Auburn is one of the best in the nation at turning teams over — the Tigers rank second in the nation in steals and sixth in forced turnovers.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said the Tigers will just have to play their game on Friday and not try to be who they are not, while acknowledging the difficulty of the task ahead.
"I guess the last thing I’ll say will be that North Carolina will not take us lightly or won’t be surprised by our pace or our abilities," he said. "They have a first half to show them that we’ll play the best basketball that we possibly can. I’m sure we’re going to get hit in the mouth by North Carolina from the jump."
The Tigers and Tar Heels will tip off at 6:29 p.m. Friday. The game will be televised on TBS.