Until Zion met Tacko and Duke survived a white-knuckle thriller against UCF on Sunday, the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament had been relatively uneventful. The power of chalk was on display in Columbus, where the greatest drama derived from a comeback that wasn’t completed. Outside of Iowa nearly shocking Tennessee in the second round on Sunday after being down by 25 points in the first half, the games went largely by the book. The top two teams at the site, North Carolina and Tennessee, emerged from their pods to advance to the Sweet 16. It was all as expected.
As Duke-UCF proved, everything can change in an instant, but even if the top seeds for another four days next weekend, the games themselves are sure to be more exciting. North Carolina, which had no trouble dispatching Washington in the second round, figures to be in one of those games when it matches up with fifth-seeded Auburn in one of the Midwest Region’s Sweet 16 showdowns. If you’re sensing a malaise setting over the games Duke isn’t a part of, these two teams meeting in Kansas City couldn’t be a better pair to snap this tournament out of it.
North Carolina and Auburn are two of the hottest teams in the country, which is typical of teams that reach the Sweet 16. Auburn has won 10 straight games with an SEC tournament title mixed in there, while North Carolina is 17–2 in its last 19 games, with its only losses coming to Virginia and Duke. Both the Tar Heels and Tigers can rightfully claim to be among the best offenses in the country. North Carolina ranks eighth in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency, while Auburn is sixth. Efficiency, however, is where the offensive similarities end. These teams are both capable of playing into the 90s, but they do it in radically different ways.
Despite a wealth of playmakers including Coby White, Cam Johnson and Luke Maye, the Heels don’t shoot an exceptionally high percentage: They rank 81st in effective field goal percentage, 74th in three-point percentage, and 99th in two-point percentage. Instead, they dominate by running teams out of the gym. Tempo is the lifeblood of North Carolina’s offense. They’re sixth in the country in adjusted tempo and have the fifth-shortest average length of possession in the country. Those two rankings, especially the former, aren’t generally associated with one of the nation’s best teams. The only teams that play at a faster pace than North Carolina are Florida International, Eastern Kentucky, Savannah State, Texas Southern and Marshall. Most teams that play that fast do it out of necessity; North Carolina does it because they excel at it.
Auburn has that same reputation, but the numbers don’t bear it out. The Tigers are ranked 158th in adjusted tempo and 64th in average possession length. The Tigers will run when the opportunity is presented, as it was against Kansas, but it’s not part of their offensive DNA. The misconceptions surrounding Auburn’s offensive personality are driven by its reliance on the three. The Tigers have scored a whopping 43.5% of their points on threes this season, which ranks seventh in the country. Nearly 50% of their shot attempts have come from behind the arc. They’ve made 38.2% of those shots, good for 16th in the country. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, the Tigers’ leaders on offense, have combined to shoot 554 threes this season.
North Carolina gets its offensive efficiency from pace, additional possessions buoyed by a 35% offensive rebounding rate, and the hustle required to get up the floor before the opposing team’s defense is set. Auburn, on the other hand, gets its efficiency from taking, and making, threes. A lot of threes.
Roy Williams insisted after the win over Washington that he wasn’t ready to talk about Auburn yet.
“Nobody in the history of basketball has ever played one game and then started thinking about the other matchup,” Williams said. “I know who we play next and I know where that [game] is, and that’s about it. I’m very pleased with what we’ve done to get to this stage. We just want to enjoy this one before we start focusing on Auburn.”
The Tar Heels played the second game of the day on Sunday, which meant an early wakeup to get over to the arena for a game that was scheduled to tip off at 2:30 p.m. local time. Still, the players caught at least part of Auburn’s drubbing of Kansas on Saturday night, giving them an idea of what to expect in the Sweet 16.
“From watching the game [Saturday] they shoot a lot of threes. They get them up and they go, so we’re going to have to be ready for that,” said Johnson, the senior who finished with 13 points against the Huskies. “Iona came out shooting a lot of threes and that hurt us, so I’m sure we’ll focus on that come this week.”
Auburn’s offense rides a tailwind from its defense, something that also flies under the radar. The Tigers force teams to take a long time on the offensive end, with an average possession length of 18.5 seconds, the 19th-longest in the country. North Carolina, of course, presents a unique challenge to a team that wants to force its opponents into running a ton of offense.
“I’ve watched [Auburn] a little bit over the course of the year,” said Maye. “They’re a great team. They shoot the three really well and they’ve got a great coach, but anybody at this stage is going to play really well and have a lot of fight.”
That expected fight will be more than welcome in a tournament that was slow in delivering on the drama that typically turns this event into madness. The college basketball world will have to wait for Friday to see this one, but the hope is that it will be worth the unusually long wait.