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North Carolina Tar Heels vs. UCLA Bruins Prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview

North Carolina Tar Heels vs. UCLA Bruins Prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview

Blue bloods meet in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia with Tar Heels, Bruins both looking to take a step towards another potential Final Four berth

One cannot paint the picture of college basketball history without the distinct shades of blue worn at North Carolina and UCLA.

Two of the game's true blue-blood programs, UCLA and UNC have combined for 17 national championships and 39 Final Fours. Those who made the Bruins and Tar Heels so iconic, you need only say a single name and any basketball fan will immediately know who you mean: Wooden, Kareem, Walton; Dean, Worthy, Jordan.

For these two giants of the sport to meet in the NCAA Tournament is special, and Heels guard Leaky Black summed it up best at North Carolina's media availability on Thursday: "Two big-time programs meeting in the Sweet 16 on this stage. It will be a fun game."

North Carolina (26-9) advanced to the Sweet 16 in Hubert Davis' first season as head coach thanks to a first-round blowout of Marquette, then a white-knuckled overtime win over reigning national champion Baylor.

UCLA (27-7) heads into Philadelphia looking for its second trip to the Final Four in as many years but first needed a late-game rally to get past Akron. After escaping a scare from the MAC champion Zips, the Bruins played a dominant game this past Saturday against Saint Mary's.

East Region: No. 8 North Carolina (26-9) vs. No. 4 UCLA (27-7)

Time: Friday, March 26 at 9:39 p.m. ET (approximately)
Where: Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia)
Spread: UCLA -2.5

Keys for North Carolina

North Carolina's versatility results in numerous ways to attack opposing defenses. The Tar Heels' starting five is among the longest remaining in the NCAA Tournament field, featuring 6-foot-10 Armando Bacot, 6-foot-9 Brady Manek, and 6-foot-8 Leaky Black, but Carolina does not sacrifice perimeter scoring despite its size.

In fact, it's just the opposite: North Carolina is especially adept at stretching the floor, shooting a collective 36.5 percent from 3-point range, and has several players who can score off the dribble.

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin compared Manek, who was roasting Baylor in the second round before his ejection on a flagrant foul, to Utah Jazz star Bojan Bogdanovic.

"[He is] standing there at [6-foot-9] and he can catch it and let it fly in a half a second," Cronin said at Thursday's media availability. "Anybody can space the floor, but you're not going to stretch my defense; he stretches your defense. That's the problem, which now you've got Bacot rolling, you've got RJ [Davis] and Caleb Love driving."

Carolina setting the pace with a high-scoring style that stretches UCLA defensively, then forces the Bruins to play catch-up, could send the Heels to the Elite Eight.

Keys for UCLA

In the impressive win over Saint Mary's last round, UCLA lost Jaime Jaquez Jr. to an ankle sprain. Jaquez practiced on Thursday, but how effective he'll be is a major question mark. Jaquez has been fearless when attacking the rim, emerging as UCLA's primary weapon when it needs a clutch basket.

That's been especially true since Johnny Juzang sustained his own sprained ankle late in the regular season at Oregon. Juzang was averaging a little more than 17 points per game when he suffered the injury and has not hit 17 in any one game since his return.

UCLA needs one of either Jaquez or Juzang to play at near 100 percent. If one of the two cannot produce offensively, Tyger Campbell's improved shooting from the outside might play a critical role.

Despite the injuries, the Bruins have an advantage with their depth. Jaylen Clark and Peyton Watson both provided quality minutes down the stretch of Pac-12 Conference season. Bench play is a potential X-factor in UCLA's favor.

Final Analysis

North Carolina has looked downright unbeatable for three-quarters of its NCAA Tournament run, continuing a late-season uptick that included a dominant win at Duke. The trouble for the Tar Heels is sustaining that level of play.

UCLA has its own lineup issues, however, with Jaquez's uncertainty and Juzang still not playing up to pre-injury levels. One of the two needs a vintage performance.

One facet in UCLA's favor is its ball control. The Bruins don't commit many turnovers, which could allow them to dictate the tempo. Forcing a team with a thin lineup to expend extra time and energy on defense is a winning recipe in this Sweet 16 matchup.

Prediction: UCLA 74, North Carolina 71  

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing.