After winning the ACC regular-season crown by two games, the North Carolina men's basketball team sits atop the South Region of the NCAA Tournament with a No. 1 seed.
The top-seeded Tar Heels (27-7, 14-4 ACC) have their sights set on returning to the Final Four, where UNC beat Syracuse in the 2016 semifinals before falling to Villanova as time expired in the title game. The Orange missed the NCAA Tournament altogether this season, while the Wildcats own the tournament's top overall seed and await North Carolina across the bracket.
But before any potential rematch, the Tar Heels have to survive the South Region. Here are five teams that could give UNC trouble in its path to Phoenix:
No. 2 Kentucky (29-5)
When these two teams met in December, it was arguably the greatest show this college basketball season had to offer. The Wildcats got the best of the Tar Heels on a neutral court, as Justin Jackson's 34 points couldn't top a 47-point masterpiece from first-year shooting guard Malik Monk in a 103-100 thriller.
But Kentucky is more than a one-man show. De'Aaron Fox, one of the top point guards in the country, excels at driving into the teeth of the defense, while forward Bam Adebayo is among the best at getting to the foul line — both areas that have hampered UNC this season. The Wildcats also impress on the defensive end, limiting assists and 3-pointers while avoiding turnovers that can lead to transition buckets.
Like most years, Kentucky's biggest weakness is inexperience. But the three-time SEC champions have the talent to match up with UNC in a potential Elite Eight showdown.
No. 3 UCLA (29-4)
The Bruins topped Kentucky on the road in early December, and another victory over the Wildcats could pit them against UNC in the Elite Eight.
Led by Wooden Award finalist Lonzo Ball — who leads the nation with 7.7 assists per game — UCLA boasts one of the most dangerous offensive attacks in the country. The Bruins rank first in scoring offense and field-goal percentage and play at an even faster tempo than North Carolina. While UCLA struggles to force turnovers or get to the free-throw line, so do its opponents.
The Bruins don't attack the boards as fiercely as UNC, but they also rarely miss on the offensive end and can score from anywhere on the court. If UCLA and North Carolina — which rank No. 1 and No. 2 in assists per game — meet in the Elite Eight, prepare for a fireworks show that rivals any game this season.
No. 4 Butler (23-8)
The Bulldogs did something twice this season that UNC failed to do 11 months ago: beat Villanova.
In each of those two eight-point wins, Butler slowed the tempo of the game and buried the Wildcats with efficient offense. The Bulldogs also erased second-half deficits in each contest, thanks in part to consistent play inside down the stretch.
The Villanova games were a microcosm of this Butler team. The Bulldogs are careful on offense, limit ball movement on defense and are methodical with each possession. It's a strategy that sounds all too familiar to UNC fans who are still reeling from an ugly Feb. 27 loss at Virginia, and it's a recipe that could spell trouble for the Tar Heels in a potential Sweet 16 pairing.
No. 6 Cincinnati (29-5)
Much like Butler, the Bearcats operate at an uncomfortably slow pace for UNC — and it's effective.
Cincinnati owns the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the nation, limiting clean looks inside the arc and keeping teams away from the free-throw line. The Bearcats also excel at generating extra possessions for its offense, which is incredibly careful with the ball and attacks the glass at a high rate for second-chance opportunities.
The key to Cincinnati's success is racking up possessions. The Bearcats are stingy on defense and opportunistic on offense, a combination that can be hard to combat without an efficient attack. If the Tar Heels don't have their A-game on every possession, Cincinnati could ride volume to a victory in a potential Elite Eight matchup.
No. 10 Wichita State (30-4)
Despite earning a No. 10 seed for a mediocre nonconference resume, the Shockers sit at No. 8 in the nation per kenpom.com metrics. And it's not hard to see why.
Wichita State ranks in the top 20 in scoring offense and defense and is among the nation's best on the glass, especially on the defensive end. The team displays an elite 3-point shooting attack and a persistent defense both inside and outside the arc. The Shockers are led by one of the most efficient backcourts in the nation, and the frontcourt is capable of creating chances at the free-throw line when the threes aren't falling. Put it all together, and you get a squad that beats teams by an average of 19.6 points per game — second only to Gonzaga.
This season, the recipe for beating UNC has revolved around elite rebounding, smothering defense and consistent shooting from either the 3-point line or the charity stripe. Wichita State checks every box. And if the Shockers can survive potential showdowns with Kentucky and UCLA, they could pose a true test for UNC in the Elite Eight.
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