The top-seeded Tar Heels take on the battle-tested Bulldogs in Memphis
Nine ACC teams earned NCAA Tournament bids. Only North Carolina remains after the first weekend.
The top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels (29-7) earned the regular season ACC championship and have played like champions so far in reaching the Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season. UNC routed No. 16 Texas Southern in its Tournament opener and then used a game-ending 12-0 run to escape with a 73-65 win over No. 8 Arkansas.
Fourth-seeded Butler (25-8) figures to pose major challenges when it faces off with the Tar Heels in Memphis on Friday. Butler has already beaten several high-profile teams, including Arizona, Villanova, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and Xavier. The Bulldogs had no trouble eliminating No. 13 Winthrop and No. 12 Middle Tennessee to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011.
Butler and North Carolina have never met in the postseason. The Bulldogs do have a history of success against the Tar Heels, leading the all-time series 3-2. Butler has eventually been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by an ACC team each of the past two seasons.
South Region: No. 4 Butler Bulldogs (25-8) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (29-7)
When: 7:09 pm ET (Friday)
Where: FedExForum (Memphis, Tenn.)
Line: North Carolina -7.5
Keys for Butler
One thing Butler is good at is slowing things down. The Bulldogs can muck up the tempo enough to fluster good offenses and force opponents to get bogged down in a defensive battle. That's the recipe Butler needs to follow against the Tar Heels to cook up a victory.
The Bulldogs hold opponents to 68.2 points per game. North Carolina is imposing on offense and will test Butler's ability to reduce the number of possessions. Four players average double figures in scoring for the Tar Heels – led by Justin Jackson with 18.1 points per game. Only five opponents have held North Carolina to fewer than 70 points in a game this season. Still, 70 is a magic number for the Tar Heels because they are 1-4 in games where they score fewer than that.
Butler needs to avoid long shooting slumps on the other end to give the defense a chance. The Bulldogs are at their best when Kelan Martin is doing damage inside and outside. Martin is Butler's top scorer (16.0 ppg) and rebounder (5.8 rpg). He can't do it alone. Players like Andrew Chrabascz and Kamar Baldwin need to absorb some of the defensive pressure so that North Carolina can't simply lock onto Martin and focus on shutting him down.
Keys for North Carolina
Few teams have as many offensive weapons in their arsenal that can match what North Carolina can put into action. The Tar Heels have four starters – Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks – who have totaled 1,000 or more career points at Chapel Hill. All four players average double figures in scoring this season.
North Carolina needs to start fast and bury Butler quickly with its offense. The Bulldogs are not built for a fast-paced shootout and could struggle to slow down a Tar Heels offense that scores 85.1 points per game. One way North Carolina can make it happen is through controlling the glass for the bulk of 40 minutes.
No other team consistently dominates the boards as well as the Tar Heels. North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding margin. The Tar Heels collect 47.3 rebounds per game, while limiting their opponents to 30.7 boards per contest. That spells trouble for a Butler team that snags just 34.7 rebounds per game. If the Bulldogs can't keep pace on the glass, they will struggle to do it on the scoreboard.
Butler built a reputation as a giant killer earlier in the decade under former head coach Brad Stevens. It will take a similar David vs. Goliath effort for the Bulldogs to return to the Elite Eight for the first time since those back-to-back Final Four runs under Stevens. Butler is a tenacious defensive team, but North Carolina has far too many options on offense for the Bulldogs to completely subdue the Tar Heels for 40 minutes. The last team standing in the ACC will live to play on for at least another round.
Prediction: North Carolina 76, Butler 68
— 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.
(Photo courtesy of @UNC_Basketball)