Midwest Region Sweet 16 Prediction & Free Pick: #1 North Carolina vs. #5 Auburn

Date | AuthorCorey Pabst

Last Updated: 2019-03-25

A whirlwind of a weekend has a field of 64 teams narrowed down just sixteen; and while we are usually left with a handful of surprises forging on into the Sweet Sixteen round, this year we only have but a few. In the Midwest Region, the one, two, three, and five seeds remain; but Auburn, as the fifth seed, was the betting favorite over Kansas on Saturday night, so actually every team the betting world expected to move on, did.

Therefore, we are left with the best of the best in the Midwest Region; and to see who will earn their place in the Elite Eight game for a trip to the Final Four, we will tune into the Sprint Center, in Kansas City, MO, on Friday night.

The first Midwest Regional game of the evening will feature the Roy Williams and his number-one seeded North Carolina Tar Heels – looking to make their second trip to the Elite Eight in just two years – laying four-and-a-half points to Bruce Pearl and his Auburn Tigers, who will hope to earn only their second Elite Eight appearance in program history.

North Carolina’s path to the Sweet Sixteen has been one without much resistance; blowing by 16 seed, Iona (197th KenPom), 88-73, and making easy work of PAC 12 regular season champion, the ninth-seed Washington Huskies (49th), 81-59.

The Iona win was even more dominant than the scoreboard would indicate, as Carolina: dominated the glass, 48-26 and out-attempted the Gaels by 20, while making 15 trips to the free-throw line, equaling Iona’s free-throw attempt total. UNC shooting only 32% to Iona’s 37% from distance, and Iona’s 93% from the line made things look a little closer, but make no mistake, the Tar Heels dominated.

Carolina’s three-point shooting percentage picked up drastically in round two, with the Heels going 43% from beyond the arc; the final score reflected drastic improvement in shooting percentage – with the lopsided 22-point victory. Once again, the Heels owned the glass; out-rebounding Washington, 48 to 24; but it was really the lights-out shooting performance that earned UNC this easy round two victory, as they went 51% overall from the field.

If the Tar Heels stay as hot as they were on Saturday, there is nobody in the country that can keep up this team; but whether we can expect them to stay hot, or regress back to their season-long shooting percentage will be a major question to consider as they take on an Auburn team that is coming off an outlier shooting performance of its own.

Auburn’s journey hasn’t been quite as free from adversity as has UNC’s, as the Tigers barely got by 12-seed New Mexico State (53rd) in the first round, squeaking by with a, 78-77, win. They did have as high as a 13-point lead late in the second half over the Aggies but let them back into the game in the final minutes. Auburn would prevail, but statistically, were lucky to do so; for while the game played out evenly in shot-attempts – with Auburn winning by seven – NMST got to the free-throw line seven more times than did Auburn, and out-rebounded the Tigers by 15. Their 39% from downtown kept them in the game, with NMST only shooting 28%, but the Tigers have relied on three-point shooting all year, and on the season have averaged 38%.

In second round, Auburn got even hotter from beyond the arc, going 43% on 30 attempts, and absolutely embarrassed a decimated Kansas team, 89-75 – leading by as much as 27 points midway through the second half. Again, though, if it wasn’t for a spectacular performance outside, then the scoreboard could’ve looked a lot different. Auburn only got up two more shot attempts than did Kansas on the game, while Kansas got to the free-throw line three more times than did Auburn. Kansas also out-rebounded the Tigers by 11, forced four more turnovers, and committed four less fouls. Shot percentage was the difference here, and 43% vs. 32% from three will create a lopsided score more often than not. Whether Auburn can stay lights out from downtown will likely tell the story when it comes to their matchup with North Carolina on Friday night.

The Auburn offense (6th overall, KenPom), which will continue to live-and-die by the three ball (7th), will face one of its biggest tests of the year, in the North Carolina defense (11th). The trio of Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, and Chuma Okeke will likely have to shoot somewhere near or better then their 38% three-point percentage to keep this game close, and while the North Carolina defense great overall, it could present some opportunities on the perimeter for the Tigers; as a defense that has allowed 37% of its points from outside (33rd), and an only slightly above average, 33% from three (94th) on the year.

The amount and quality of three-point attempts that Auburn can generate would be one thing to watch in this matchup, however. We’ve seen how much the Tigers have struggled on the glass, and with a major height advantage (18th to 206th) and as one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the country (7th), Carolina won’t allow many second chance opportunities. This height advantage may come into play on the perimeter as well, as open looks may be limited by two-inch average differential in height per player. This could be a factor not quite fully reflected in the number.

The UNC offense (8th), led by Freshman PG Coby White, Senior SF Cameron Johnson, and Senior C Luke Maye should have the biggest advantage overall in this matchup, against one of the worst defenses, statistically, left in the tournament (44th). An inability to the clear the glass (333rd) has been the primary weakness, and as been demonstrated thus far in the first two rounds, rebounding is Carolina’s major offensive strength (16th). If UNC is attacking inside, where Auburn allows a subpar 51% (213th), and getting put-backs off second chance opportunities, the shot-attempt differential could be extreme; and if both teams shoot to projected percentages, which is all we can expect, then UNC could certainly present some major problems for Auburn in the paint.

Pick: UNC -4.5 -110

If the season long statistics project a four-point spread, then the move down to 4.5 from five which has occurred is justifiable. I’m not sure I agree with it, however, because North Carolina presents some serious matchup concerns for Auburn.

Auburn has gotten by in these first two rounds, and for much of the season, off three-point shooting, and as we saw in the first round, in shooting just one-percent below their 38% average, the Tigers were in trouble.

Consistently losing the floor game (shot attempts/free throw attempts/rebounding) will eventually catch up to a team, and as one weak in this regard, North Carolina is not the team you want to face.

Experience (38th) has been another major factor that has played into Auburn’s success, but on Friday night, they will get a Carolina team that starts three seniors. And it’s not only experience in the starting lineup that UNC has, but also at Head Coach, with Roy Williams, who has been coaching twice as long as Bruce Pearl (31 years to 15) and has three NCAA Championships (Pearl 0) and nine Final Fours (Pearl 0) to his name.

It’s been a great story – with Auburn finally getting back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2003; but a team that is happy to be here is often just a stepping stone for one that will not be satisfied with anything less than a Championship.

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