Auburn has proved its run through the SEC Tournament was no fluke. North Carolina has lived up to its billing and dominated as a No. 1 seed. Now the two clash in what could be one of the best Sweet 16 games we see on either Thursday or Friday.
The fifth-seeded Tigers have ripped off 10 straight wins to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. Auburn hasn't reached the Elite Eight since 1986. The Tigers have never reached a Final Four in their history.
The Tar Heels are looking to reach the Final Four for the third time in four years. North Carolina has had a great track record in Sweet 16 games under head coach Roy Williams. The Tar Heels have advanced to the Elite Eight eight times under Williams and have lost just once in the Sweet 16, falling to Wisconsin in 2015.
This is the second time these two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn and North Carolina also clashed in the Sweet 16 in 1985. The Tar Heels won 62-56.
Midwest Region: No. 5 Auburn Tigers (28-9) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (29-6)
Time: 7:29 pm ET (Friday)
Where: Sprint Center (Kansas City, Mo.)
Keys for Auburn
The Tigers can bury just about any opponent from the perimeter, averaging 12.2 made 3-pointers over the last 10 games. Kansas got shell-shocked by such a shooting performance. Auburn raced to a 23-point halftime lead over the Jayhawks after Bryce Brown made his first six shots — including five 3-pointers. Brown has made 372 career 3-pointers and needs just three more to rank among the top 30 in college basketball history. Brown averages 15.9 points per game. If he shoots at his normal clip, Auburn will get a much-needed early spark.
Auburn needs to find a way to control the pace. The Tigers killed teams like Kansas and New Mexico State in transition. North Carolina is a whole different animal. The Tar Heels love to get out and run opponents off the floor. Auburn needs to find ways for North Carolina to work for shots and get deep into the shot clock on each possession. Auburn allows opponents to shoot 43.3 percent per game. The Tigers will need to do better than that average to slow down the Tar Heel attack.
Keys for North Carolina
Offensive balance is one reason why the Tar Heels have enjoyed so much success. North Carolina has players who can get points in a variety of ways. The Tar Heels average 86.1 points per game, which ranks third nationally. Coby White can beat opponents off the dribble. Luke Maye excels at banging around off the low block. Cameron Johnson, the team's leading scorer at 16.9 points per game, is terrific off the ball and can shoot lights out at critical times. If the Tar Heels can get all three players going at the same time, they are almost impossible to defend.
North Carolina is at its best when it controls the glass. The Tar Heels dominated both Iona and Washington on the boards in their first two NCAA Tournament games. It is no fluke either. North Carolina leads the nation in rebound margin, collecting 10.5 more per game than opponents. The Tar Heels also lead the way in defensive rebounds (30.6 per game) and rank 11th in offensive rebounds (13.3). If North Carolina controls the glass, Auburn won't get extra chances to burn the Tar Heels on the perimeter.
North Carolina looks as complete and deep on offense as the squad that won it all two years ago. This is a team built for another national championship run. Auburn has had an incredible run in winning the SEC Tournament and getting to the Sweet 16. But the Tigers rely too much on perimeter shooting to get the job done. North Carolina has won 17 of its last 19 games because it has balance on both ends of the court. The Tar Heels have too much size, length, and speed to contain for 40 minutes.
Prediction: North Carolina 80, Auburn 71
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.