No. 1 seed North Carolina will face No. 5 seed Auburn in Friday's first semifinal in the Midwest Region, and it shapes up like a track meet on a basketball court.
Following a narrow escape against New Mexico State, Auburn demolished Kansas, 89-75, in the second round. The Tigers raced to a 26-point halftime lead on the way to handing Kansas the fourth-worst NCAA tournament defeat in program history.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl knows the acts only become more difficult by the round.
"I used the terminology that we're not afraid to run with North Carolina," Pearl said Tuesday.
"It wasn't a challenge or trying to say we're not afraid of North Carolina. We've got a good, healthy fear and respect of North Carolina. It's just ... that's how we play too. For us to not try to play fast would go against how we play best also. Even though historically, the way to beat Carolina is to get them in a half-court game and not let them beat you in transition. That's going to be difficult to do because of the way we like to play."
The selection committee put North Carolina (29-6) first in the region, and the favored Tar Heels looked the part through two games, thanks to a team that runs with the best of them. The Tar Heels manhandled Iona and Washington, controlling the boards and the tempo to set up their sprinting, fast-break offense.
"Needless to say, anybody who advances past this point you feel good about a win in the second round," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "I love our toughness, and I love the edge our bench gave us."
Freshman forward Nassir Little has come off the bench to lead UNC with an average of 19.5 points through two tournament games, but he is questionable for the Sweet 16 because of flu-like symptoms, Williams said Thursday. Little is averaging 10.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game for the season.
Pearl sounded more concerned about size than speed in the regional semifinal.
"North Carolina might be the best team left in the field," Pearl said Tuesday. "They're plus-10.5 rebound margin. We're about minus-3.5 rebound margin, for a difference of 14. Rebounding has been a problem for us all year."
Pearl knows the Tigers are about to step up in class. Awaiting in the regional final is second-seeded Kentucky or third-seeded Houston.
"It's really hard to get here," he said, "and it's even harder to finish. This next round is blue bloods on steroids."
Freshman point guard Coby White scored 17 points for North Carolina in the win over Washington on Sunday. Cam Johnson is the team's leading scorer at 16.9 points per game, but White and forward Luke Maye are more than capable of carrying the offense in stretches. White's blazing speed ignites the attack.
"They have really good big guys that are great interior passers and guys that can operate in that high post area. And it's a hard cover for us. It's a hard matchup," Washington coach Mike Hopkins said. "And I thought they got us everywhere. They got us in the high post. They got us on the 3. They got to the foul line."
North Carolina is the third-highest scoring team in NCAA Division I at 86.1 points per game. Auburn is 36th at 79.5. On defense, Auburn ranks 93rd at 68.5 points per game allowed, while North Carolina is 208th at 72.5.
When the brackets came out, it was reasonable to assume that North Carolina would be facing Kansas on their second "home court." Kansas is 44-10 all-time at Sprint Center.
Williams had reason to complain about that possibility, though he did not publicly. He coached at Kansas from 1988-2003, and he is 0-3 against his former team, including in 2013 at Sprint Center.
Auburn, which tends to thrive in chaos on the court, is thrilled to be the closest thing to a bracket-buster in the region. The fifth seed is no pushover, having propelled into the tournament as SEC tournament champions.
"We're playing really good basketball," Pearl said. "We were in the best position that the program could possibly be in to win that (Kansas) game ... I feel like we're in a really good position right now to make history."
--Field Level Media
Revved-up Tar Heels attempt to outrun Auburn