#1 North Carolina Tar Heels
Best Player: G Cameron Johnson
(16.9 pts, 5.8 rebs, 2.5 asts, 1.1 stls, 0.3 blks)
Biggest X-Factor: F Nassir Little
(10.0 pts, 4.7 rebs, 0.7 asts, 0.5 stls, 0.5 blks)
Rebounding: There are good rebounding basketball teams, and then there is North Carolina. The Heels are far and away the most physical and hard-working team of rebounders in the nation. That’s reflected in their number one overall ranking in rebounds per game, as they average 44.2. They dominate the glass and they are one of the best teams in terms of second chance opportunities due to it. It will be a huge advantage for North Carolina if they can continue to outwork opponents on the glass.
Offense: North Carolina’s offense is extremely efficient and balanced, and that same balance is a huge reason why the Tar Heels average the third most points per game in the nation at 86. Cameron Johnson, Coby White, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, and Kenny Williams are all capable of scoring 20 on any given night. Roy Williams’ team ranks 8th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. This kind of balance and efficiency will only help UNC as they try to make a deeper run at another national championship.
Defense: If North Carolina does have a weakness, it would come with defense and turnovers. They aren’t the best defensive team in the country. The good thing here is that it seems like Roy Williams team has cleaned up errors on the defensive end. They’ve played better on this end as of late. The big number to watch? The Tar Heels surrender 72.5 points per game to opponents, which ranks 210th in the entire country.
Limiting Turnovers: This is probably a more glaring weakness than UNC’s defensive abilities. They are not very protective of the basketball and they are very turnover-prone. A lot of this can be attributed to their fast-paced style of play, but this doesn’t excuse this as a whole. North Carolina turns the ball over an average of 13.1 times per game, which is 283rd out of all Division I programs. It’s not bold to say that ball security will be a focal key for the Heels as they hope to continue their road to Minneapolis.
#2 Kentucky Wildcats
Best Player: F P.J. Washington
(14.8 pts, 7.6 rebs, 1.9 asts, 0.8 stls, 1.2 blks)
Biggest X-Factor: G Ashton Hagans
(7.7 pts, 2.5 rebs, 4.4 asts, 1.7 stls, 0.1 blks)
Shot Blocking: Kentucky is extremely long and athletic as a team, so it’s certainly not surprising to see that they are a top ten team in terms of their shot blocking abilities. They actually do rank right at 10 in shots blocked per game, as the Wildcats average 4.8 swatted shots a night. If they can continue to stiffen up inside, it will be hard for teams to get to the basket and score against them.
Getting to the Free Throw Line: A lot of Kentucky’s strong offense comes from their ability to attack the basket and draw fouls. They get to the free throw line a lot, which could be the crucial difference maker down the stretch in a defensive battle. They’ve made 609 free throws as a team this season, which is the 5th most in the nation. The best part of this strength is the fact that Kentucky is very solid when it comes to actually converting at the charity stripe, as they shoot 74.4% as a team from there, which is the 53rd best mark in the country.
3-Point Defense: Kentucky isn’t awful at any one area in particular, except their three point defense. They don’t defend the perimeter particularly well, which is surprising considering they have athleticism and length all over the floor. Opposing teams shoot 34.4% from three against Kentucky, which ranks 194th in the nation. They’ll have to be strong against the long ball, make teams take tough shots, and get into their comfort zone if they want to go to Minneapolis.
Experience: We all know that John Calipari’s team isn’t experienced, as most of these guys are freshmen. P.J. Washington, Reid Travis, and Nick Richards are going to be heavily leaned on as the main experienced players. I’m interested to see how freshmen like Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and E.J. Montgomery step up on the biggest stage in all of college basketball.
#3 Houston Cougars
Best Player: G Corey Davis Jr.
(17.1 pts, 3.4 rebs, 2.8 asts, 1.0 stls, 0.1 blks)
Biggest X-Factor: G Galen Robinson Jr.
(7.9 pts, 3.1 rebs, 4.9 asts, 1.3 stls, 0.1 blks)
Defense: Houston is one of the better defending basketball teams remaining in the Sweet 16. The Cougars play a physical, inspired type of basketball that helps them wreak havoc on opponents. They rank 12th in the nation in the KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency at 91.2. They only surrender 61 points per game, a number that ranks as the 7th least in the nation. Kelvin Sampson’s squad forces turnovers and they certainly force bad shots, evidenced by opposing teams shooting 36.6% from the field and 27.8% from three against them, both of which are the best such marks in Division I.
Rebounding: Like many teams still playing in the second weekend, Houston is very strong when it comes to dominating the glass and grabbing rebounds. Armoni Brooks leads the team in rebounding, as he averages 6.4 boards per game. As an overall unit, the Cougars grab an average of 41.1 rebounds per game, a number that is the 3rd most in the country. Rebounding is going to be key for Sampson’s team, especially when they go head to head with a Kentucky squad who has the size advantage on them.
Avoiding Foul Trouble: Similar to some of the other Sweet 16 squads, the Cougars struggle to avoid foul trouble, as they sometimes tend to play sloppy defense and commit bad fouls. Houston will need to avoid these plays and attempt to force teams to make shots, and not surrender a plethora of free throw attempts. The Cougars commit an average 18.9 fouls per game, a number that ranks as the 336th worst in the NCAA.
Free Throw Shooting: A serious issue throughout the year for Kelvin Sampson’s team, free throw shooting may just come back to haunt the Cougars in the end. Houston is just not efficient from the charity stripe, and that’s not a recipe for extended success in March. They shoot 70.2% from the free throw line as a team, which ranks 191st amongst all Division I programs. Down the stretch in a close game, it may too be much to ask for the Cougars to convert at the line, and it could be their fatal flaw.
#5 Auburn Tigers
Best Player: G Bryce Brown
(15.9 pts, 2.0 rebs, 1.9 asts, 1.1 stls, 0.1 blks)
Biggest X-Factor: C Austin Wiley
(7.3 pts, 4.2 rebs, 0.1 asts, 0.2 stls, 1.3 blks)
3-Point Shooting: Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers are sixth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency according to the KenPom, and a lot of this can be attributed to their efficient shooting from beyond the arc. Auburn has made the most three pointers out of all Division I teams with 421. Even better, they shoot the three ball particularly well, hitting them at a 37.8% clip as a team, good enough to rank 32nd in the country. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are the Tigers best three point shooters, but there’s plenty of other capable guys on the roster.
Forcing Turnovers: Auburn’s opponents turn the ball over 17.4 times per game, which easily ranks as the top number in the entire country. They are second in the nation in steals per game, as they average 9.4 on a nightly basis. A big contributor for the Tigers on the defensive end is Chuma Okeke, who averages 1.8 steals per game. If they can pressure their opponents like they normally do, Auburn will force plenty of turnovers and be able to run in transition for many opportunities.
Limiting Turnovers: While Auburn thrives in forcing their opponents to turn the basketball over, they struggle to protect the rock themselves. They have guys like Brown, Harper, and Okeke who are often prone to sloppy play and silly turnovers. The Tigers turn the ball over an average of 11.9 times per game, which is the 228th worst such mark in the nation. They’ll have to avoid sloppy turnovers if they want to continue their road to Minneapolis.
Avoiding Foul Trouble: Another weakness for the Auburn Tigers is their sometimes frequent fouling issues. Often when watching the Tigers, some of their best players get into foul trouble on sloppy plays, and they are forced to sit on the bench for a significant amount of time. They should try their best to avoid such a scenario from here on out. As a team, Auburn commits an average of 18.4 fouls per game, which ranks 334th amongst all Division I programs.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed! Be sure to share your thoughts with me on Twitter @TBeckmann24! Peace!