This Friday, No. 1 seed North Carolina will head to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament where a red-hot Auburn team waits for them in the Sweet 16.
The No. 5 seed Tigers have won 10 straight games including a decisive victory over No. 4 seed Kansas in the Round of 32 and a beat-down of No. 2 seed Tennessee in the SEC title game the week before.
At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, head coach Roy Williams gave a status update for two UNC starters who had to exit the second round victory against No. 9 seed Washington.
Senior Kenny Williams and sophomore Garrison Brooks were both injured in the game and sent back to the locker room, though both returned against Washington.
Williams suffered what his coach called a hamstring strain, but appeared fully mobile when he returned to the court Sunday. The senior said he could still feel the effects of the injury Monday morning.
“I'm gonna be honest with you, Monday morning when I went to tie my shoes, it was a little tough,” Williams said.
His coach didn’t use him in Tuesday’s practice, but said that if the team were to play a game today, Williams would be on the court. Williams’ presence will be key, as he is regarded as North Carolina’s premier perimeter defender. Auburn’s effectiveness from beyond the arc this season has made the team one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country — alongside the Tar Heels. Both teams rank in the top 10 for adjusted offensive efficiency.
North Carolina has also had historic success from the 3-point line this season, but hasn’t kept pace from deep with an Auburn team known for scoring transition threes at an efficient clip.
“Three hundred and five threes (this season) ties our school record for makes in a season, that's pretty impressive,” Coach Williams said. “They've made 421. So 305 is not quite as impressive as it was.”
Brooks, who left the game in the first half against Washington after taking an elbow to the mouth, was initially reported as having a tooth knocked out. His coach said that while he didn’t actually lose a tooth, the hit still did some damage that had to be repaired.
“He had two of (his teeth), I guess, removed from the area where they originally were and slid down the street a little bit,” Williams said. “He got those put back on his own property.”
Brooks later returned to the game and had an impressive second-half defensive showing that earned him defensive player of the game from his coaching staff.
The sophomore forward's interior defense should help complement the perimeter effort of Williams as the Tar Heels hope to force the Tigers out of their rhythm.
Despite Auburn’s prolific scoring, UNC plays at a faster tempo than the team. While the Tigers have the No. 142 tempo in the country, the Tar Heels rank fourth.
First-year point guard Coby White has been the key to making this year’s team one that Kenny Williams says stacks up highly against the teams he’s been on — which includes two Final Four UNC squads.
“I think this is the fastest, just because of Coby,” Williams said. “That kid doesn't know how to go anything less than 100 miles per hour.”
The first-year has 27 points in UNC’s two tournament games so far.
Brooks’ broken teeth opened up a spot for another first-year to play an expanded role. In two games in the NCAA Tournament, Nassir Little has looked more like the NBA lottery pick that he is projected to be. He has a combined 39 points in 38 minutes of tournament action so far off the bench.
Back at full strength, UNC will have a dogfight with Auburn for a possible shot at Kentucky, the same team UNC played in the Elite Eight during its title run in 2017.
But the team isn’t worried about tempo rankings, 3-point records or future matchups just yet. Graduate wing Cameron Johnson said that none of that will matter when the Tar Heels take the court Friday.
“The only way we can keep going forward is by winning the games,” Johnson said. “The only way we can win the games is coming out with a lot of focus and energy and effort, and we know that. No matter what history might say or what anybody else is doing, it's on us.”
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