One team in the South Region’s opening-round No. 8 vs. No. 9 seed game has had an up-and-down season, looking like world-beaters in blowing out Louisville by more than three dozen points, struggling to a double-digit loss to Iowa and suffering an inexplicable loss to Marquette.
The other team is North Carolina.
The Tar Heels will be playing a mirror image — at least when it comes to common opponents this season — when they open March Madness with a game against Wisconsin.
The Badgers enter the tournament with a 17-12 record, 10-10 in the Big Ten. The Badgers lost five of their last six to close out the regular season. Since opening the regular season 8-1, Wisconsin has played below .500 since taking a break for Christmas.
Wisconsin offers a challenge against the Tar Heels, however, because the Badgers are an experienced team battle-tested from the toughest conference in the country. Eight of Wisconsin’s 11 Big Ten losses in the regular season and tournament came against teams that spent time in the top five — Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State.
Six of the eight players in Wisconsin’s rotation are seniors, which will present a major problem against a UNC team that has seven freshmen in its top 10 — an issue Roy Williams blames for the Tar Heels’ inconsistency this year.
“We are ecstatic to be playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Williams said in a statement released after the brackets were unveiled. “This will be an unusual tournament to say the least, but particularly for our coaches, because we have so many young players who will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Wisconsin will be a big-time challenge, but we played our way into our seed and we will have to play very well to advance. But we are looking forward to having that opportunity.”
North Carolina has not won more than three games in a row this year, and the Tar Heels had to fight their way off the NCAA bubble with four wins in their final six.
Wisconsin’s defense could give the Tar Heels trouble. The Badgers are No. 11 in the country in defensive efficiency and are capable of shutting down the inside game, an area in which the Tar Heels rely with their rotation of four big men. Wisconsin’s senior bigs Micah Potter (6-foot-10) and Nate Reuvers (6-foot-11) will be outnumbered, but they should be able to avoid fouls and force the Tar Heels to beat the Badgers from outside.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin —which is No. 68 in the country in 3-point shooting — will attempt to win the outside game at the other end against Carolina’s notoriously shaky perimeter defense.
The winner of the opening game will likely face top seed Baylor, the No. 2 team in the nation, in the second round. The Bears are 22-2, 13-1 in the Big 12 and will face No. 16 seed Hartford in the first round.
Baylor has been dominant at both ends of the floor this year. The Bears are the No. 3 most efficient offense and the top 3-point shooting team in the nation. They’re also No. 46 in defensive efficiency and third in the nation in forcing turnovers.
Carolina has experience knocking off the top seed as a No. 8. In two of the previous three times the Tar Heels have received that seed, they’ve beaten the No. 1 to advance to the Sweet 16 — in 1990 against Oklahoma, and in 2000 when they knocked off Stanford and advanced to the Final Four. In 2013, the Heels were beaten by No. 1 Kansas in the second round.
If Carolina does make it past Baylor, the rest of the region is loaded. Carolina could face Purdue, with All-Big Ten big man Trevion Williams, in the third round, or an experienced and dangerous Villanova team. To get to the Final Four, the Heels would likely have to top either No. 2 Ohio State or No. 3 Arkansas, one of the hottest teams in the nation.
For now, Carolina is just happy to have a shot.
“There were a couple of times during the season when we were wondering whether or not we would make the field,” Williams said, “but our team kept getting a little bit better and better. So I’m just ecstatic for these kids, who have endured so much due to COVID and have an opportunity to continue their season.”