Playing to strengths key to UNC-Auburn Sweet 16 matchup

The Tar Heels will look to cool off the Tigers' hot 3-point shooters while exploiting a decided advantage on the glass

Point guard Coby White is the speedy catalyst that makes UNC's uptempo offense go (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

  KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Roy Williams likes to say that everything always looks better when the ball goes in the basket.

  Friday, when his North Carolina basketball team takes on Auburn in the NCAA Midwest Region semifinals at Sprint Center, things will look a lot better for the Hall of Fame coach if the ball isn’t going in the basket.

  At least when the Tigers are shooting it.

  “When they’re making shots like they did in the first half against Kansas, it’s hard for anybody to beat them,” Williams said, referring to the first half shooting blitz that helped the fifth-seeded Tigers to a second-round rout of the fourth-seeded Jayhawks in Salt Lake City.

  “That’s the facts. You hope they miss some on their own and you hope your guard them and that helps influence them missing some. It was really impressive what they did.”

  Auburn (28-9) made nine of its 17 3-point attempts in that blistering first half against Kansas while racing out to what proved to be an insurmountable 51-25 halftime lead. The Tigers finished the game with 13 treys, the 16th time they’ve made that many in a game this season — including four of the last five.

  But as dangerous as Bruce Pearl’s team can be from long range, its shooting hasn’t always been reliable.

  Proving to be the ultimate feast-or-famine team, Auburn has also struggled through seven games in which it shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range. Among them was a loss to NC State on Dec. 19 in which it hit on just five of 25 treys.

  “We’ve got to play our best basketball to beat North Carolina,” Pearl said. “But we’re here, so we have an opportunity. We’ve got to be able to make plays defensively and make shots offensively. That’s important for us.”

  To hear Pearl talk about the matchup with the Tar Heels (29-6), you’d think his team was a massive underdog rather than the SEC tournament champion playing its best basketball of the season.

  “The reason why I think they’re a tough matchup for us (is that) they lead the nation in rebound margin at plus-10 and we’re a minus-four in our own league,” Pearl said. “So their strength is our weakness. If we can somehow hang in there on the boards, we have a fighting chance. If we can’t, we don’t.”

  While UNC does have an edge on the glass, where they got twice as many rebounds as both of their first two NCAA tournament opponents last week — 52-26 against Iona and 48-24 against Washington — there’s also a bit of sandbagging involved in the Auburn coach’s characterization of the Tar Heels.

  That’s because the Tigers’ 3-point shooting is just as much of a strength compared to UNC’s weakness in defending it.

  Although the Tar Heels have improved considerably down the stretch — allowing only one of its last 11 opponents to shoot better than 36.6 percent — they rank 100th nationally in 3-point shooting defense.

  It’s an area in which Williams said his team has to bring its “A” game in order to have a chance at winning.

  “You’ve got to get out and guard them,” the UNC coach said. “You try to stop them from getting out in transition because that’s where they shoot a lot. Don’t turn it over and don’t take bad shots that lead to run outs.

  “The other thing is you’ve got to be tough enough to guard your man so nobody has to help every possession. Because as soon as you help they find the open man and everybody can shoot it. They’ve got a whole team of green lights.”

  As fast as Auburn likes to play, UNC’s preferred tempo is even faster. Pearl called the Tar Heels “the best transition offensive team” in college basketball and said that when they get a defensive rebound, they’re “three seconds away from a layup. He was especially complimentary of freshman point guard Coby White, who he called “a dynamic talent.”

  “As far as our game plan is concerned, we’ll try and slow it down when they have the ball,” Pearl said. “But we can’t slow down ourselves because that’s how we try to play also.”

  In the end, the team that controls its opponent’s tempo the best figures to be the one that survives and advances to play another day in this tournament.

  That and the one that sees the ball go through the basket the most.