Both North Carolina and Baylor cruised to wins of more than 30 points in the opening round, and now the Tar Heels will square off with the defending champion Bears with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line. Such a berth would be the Tar Heels’ first since 2019 and fifth in the last seven NCAA Tournaments, while Baylor would clinch its sixth in the last 12.
Earning a No. 1 seed for the second time in as many seasons — and second all-time — in 2022, Baylor (27-6) is looking to pick up right where it left off in its championship run last season. The Bears won five of their six Tournament games in 2021 by double digits, averaging a margin of victory of more than 15 points per game en route to the national title.
In its opening-round win over No. 16 Norfolk State on Thursday, Baylor set program records in assists (24) and margin of victory (36) in an NCAA Tournament game, led by senior forward Matthew Mayer's career-high 22 points on an 8-of-12 shooting effort while senior guard James Akinjo chipped in with a double-double (10 points, 10 assists).
Speaking of margin of victory, North Carolina's (25-9) 32-point win over Marquette marked the first NCAA Tournament victory for first-year head coach Hubert Davis, clinching the largest margin of victory in an 8-9 game in NCAA Tournament history (previous: 30). The win also was the program's largest NCAA Tournament win since a 39-point win over Texas Southern in 2017, with the Tar Heels' 95 points on Thursday their largest total since their 103-point output in that 2017 win over the Tigers.
Graduate student forward Brady Manek led the way with a season-high 28 points and a season-high-tying 11 rebounds. Sophomore guard and captain RJ Davis distributed a career-high 12 assists as the Tar Heels' 29 assists on 34 field goals marked the highest assist-to-field-goal ratio (85.3 percent) in an NCAA Tournament game in school history.
East Region: No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels (25-9) vs. No. 1 Baylor Bears (27-6)
Time: Saturday, Marc 19 at 12:10 p.m. ET
Where: Dickies Arena (Fort Worth, Texas)
Spread: Baylor -5.5
Keys for North Carolina
The Tar Heels have been impressively strong over their opponents in the rebounding category throughout the season. Building on an ACC-best plus-7.7 rebound margin per game, North Carolina outrebounded Marquette 52-37, led by Manek’s 11 and Armando Bacot’s 10. That dominance on the glass led to a 23-12 margin on second-chance points and a 38-32 edge on points in the paint. More impressively, Bacot’s 10 rebounds cemented him as the program’s single-season leader with 422, passing Brice Johnson (416, 2015-16) after having already surpassed Antawn Jamison (389, 1997-98), Sean May (397, 2004-05), and Tyler Hansbrough (399, 2007-08). An interesting note: all five finished the noted season as the program’s new record-holder, and Jamison, May and Hansbrough earned National Player of the Year honors in the process.
A major boost for North Carolina on Thursday was its ability to cause havoc defensively and force Marquette into 17 turnovers, its second-highest total this season (18 vs. Pittsburgh, Feb. 16). The Tar Heels entered the NCAA Tournament 11-2 for the season when forcing at least as many (or more) turnovers as they commit, and only turning the ball over 10 times while causing 17 their turnovers added win number 12 to that trend.
Keys for Baylor
Baylor’s big win over Norfolk State was nothing new for the back-to-back Big 12 regular-season champion Bears, who entered the Big Dance with a conference-best — and 10th-highest in the NCAA — scoring margin of 12.9 points per game. Counting the win over the Spartans, nearly half (13) of the Bears' 28 victories this season have come by at least 15 points, though only four of the 13 have come since New Year's Day.
Many of those wins have come thanks to leads at the half, as the Bears are 21-3 this season when leading or tied after 20 minutes of play. All three of those losses came in conference play, two of which were against Texas Tech. But the non-conference slate has been much more positive for Baylor, winners of 37 of its last 38 non-conference games (by an average of 22.7 points per game) dating back to November 2019, including 16 straight neutral-site wins against non-conference foes.
Another major factor on Saturday will be the battle inside, as the Bears average 12.76 offensive rebounds per game — the second-best mark in the Big 12 (TCU: 12.97) and a top-15 clip nationally. Flo Thamba leads the team with 2.85 offensive rebounds per game, and the matchup of Bacot against Thamba, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Jeremy Sochan will certainly be one to watch.
Seeing that this inaugural meeting between a reigning national champion and a talented group of experienced playmakers might instinctively suggest that North Carolina is the former and Baylor the latter, but a memorable run last season and consistent play throughout the 2021-22 campaign has the Bears in a great spot with plenty of momentum. A spot in the Sweet 16 awaits the winner, with either 5-seed Saint Mary’s or 4-seed UCLA lurking on the other side.
Prediction: Baylor 74, North Carolina 71
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.