The first thing everybody does when the bracket is revealed on Selection Sunday is look at potential Elite Eight/Final Four matchups. Typically, they never happen because a 15 will knock off a 2 or a 1 will be upset by an 8…or 16 @Virginia (another scare this year). But when analyzing the Midwest Region the dream matchup was the battle of the blue-bloods. Kentucky vs. North Carolina. And we could potentially get this matchup if Kelvin Sampson and Houston or Bruce Pearl and Auburn don’t get in the way. The Sweet 16 is almost straight chalk, so don’t let that change now so we can watch this highly anticipated rematch. And don’t forget revenge of the 2016-2017 Elite 8 where Luke Maye ripped out Kentucky fan’s hearts with that game-winning shot on their way to a national championship. But, before we jump ahead let’s analyze these Sweet 16 matchups.
Auburn (#5) vs. North Carolina (#1)
Let’s start with Bruce Pearl’s squad. The Tigers are one of the hottest teams in the country after rolling through the SEC Tournament and knocking off 2 seed Tennessee in the championship. That got the Tigers to the 5-line, setup for a dreaded 5 vs. 12 matchups. Auburn faced a 30-win New Mexico State team – a tough matchup for a team that just won the SEC championship and avoided the scare with a 1-point victory over the Aggies. If you think it’s incredible how much sweat Bruce Pearl produces during a regular 40-minute ballgame, you should have seen him after pulling this one out.
Auburn then had to go on to battle Bill Self and Kansas in a 4 vs. 5 matchup. Absolutely torched them form the tip. The Tigers were up 26 points at halftime and even took their foot off the gas in the second half and still managed to pull out a 14-point victory. Granted, heading into the year Kansas had sky-high expectations as the No. 1 team but injuries and suspensions led to them falling apart. Auburn took advantage with hot shooting and veteran guard play and are on their way to the Sweet 16. Bryce Brown shot the lights out and went 7-11 from deep. Auburn can shoot their way into a win or shoot their way out of a game altogether. So far, it has been the former.
North Carolina Tar Heels
This team has the potential to cut down the nets in Minneapolis if they can continue this production. This is one of the most balanced teams in college basketball, and if Coby White is playing under control they are tough to beat. Throw in the production they’re starting to get from former top-10 prospect Nassir Little and they will almost be impossible to beat. They’re big, can score from inside and out, and defend. Despite playing with so much pace, the Tar Heels are still 11th in defensive efficiency rating while ranking 8th on the offensive side of the ball.
North Carolina walked away with victories in the first two rounds and this should be their first real test. Coby White is playing like one of the best point-guards in the country and is the biggest factor for them to get out of the Midwest Region. If any of the teams left in the region speed up White and he plays out of control, it’s going to be a long day for North Carolina’s offense. Maye or Cameron Johnson would have to be hitting from three to pull out a victory. The talent around Coby White is very good, but he runs the offense and sets the tone on the defensive end of the ball. Early in their matchup against Washington, White could not miss and it sparked the Tar Heels run to pull away hold a substantial lead the entire rest of the game. North Carolina has always been primed on getting second chance points and offensive rebounds, but high pace and shooting is the key to the Tar Heels cutting the nets down.
Key to the Game:
Like I said, Coby White has to control the ball. He does that and the Tar Heels should win, unless Auburn is stroking it from three which is very possible. On the other side, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper must be hitting shots to keep them in the game. The biggest factor that will decide the game is how well Auburn’s bigs rebound. If Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore are able to grab boards then Auburn will stay in the game. If they’re getting dominated down low on the glass and not creating second chance points for the Tigers, expect North Carolina to run away with this one.
No. 3 Houston vs. No. 2 Kentucky
Coming into the tournament a lot of brackets believed Houston would be the first top-3 seed to get bounced. Everyone thought they were overhyped all year because they play in the AAC and lost their conference championship to Cincinnati. Boy were they wrong. First game against Georgia State? 29-point victory. Second round against Ohio State? 15-point W against Ohio State. Granted, the Cougars dodged a potential matchup with Big 12 champion Iowa State, but they handled their business.
All players who get significant minutes for Sampson’s squad are all 6’8 or smaller, but they can all guard. Houston is ranked 12th in defensive efficiency, while also being balanced holding the 20th spot for offensive efficiency. In the history of Kenpom, every champion has been in the top-20 of both those ratings so don’t write off Houston just yet. Guards win you games in March and the dynamic scorer Corey Davis Jr. averages 17 points per game. The Cougars are coming off two games where they steam-rolled their opponents and have won 33 games this year. This team is no joke.
He’s back (I think). PJ Washington tweeted a video of himself walking around, instead of rolling around in the cast/scooter combo. Cal even quoted with a, “uh oh..” so take that as you will, but it seems as if Kentucky’s leading scorer and rebounder will be out there against the Cougars on Friday.
The Wildcats won their first two games without their best player and getting him back right when they need him. They wouldn’t be able to skate past either Houston or North Carolina without him. Houston loves to double the post and Washington is such a good passer out of the block, something Nick Richards or EJ Montgomery does not give you the luxury of.
The Cats handled Abilene Christian in the first round but had one of the tougher matchups in the tournament in the Round of 32 against Wofford. Wofford is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, something the Wildcats struggled defending all year but managed to hold all-time 3-point leader in NCAA history Fletcher Magee to 0-12 from deep. Survive and advance. The Cats just needed to pull out these two victories to give their best player a chance to recover and that’s exactly what they did. Add PJ into the lineup and see how much better this team looks with their tournament lives on the line.
Final Four Prediction:
Assuming Auburn doesn’t shoot the lights out I have North Carolina winning this game because I believe in the growth of Nassir Little. Give me the Cats in the second game as Washington’s return (potentially) leads to them coming out firing and eliminating Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars. Might be bias, or just because I think they’re just too good to lose prior to playing each other but Kentucky-North Carolina will be epic. A rematch from earlier this year where the Cats knocked off the Tar Heels in the CBS Sports Classic 80-72. I got the same result, and revenge for Calipari as he doesn’t allow Luke Maye a wide-open jumper for the win again in this one. Ashton Hagans is they key here as he had 8 steals the last time these two met. I believe he keeps Coby White in check and the Reid Travis returns to his hometown of Minneapolis.