North Carolina's 74-66 win over South Carolina in December is the primary thing that makes this game among the easier seeding upsets to pick for those who just scan schedules looking at results.
But does that upset pick survive deeper scrutiny?
Let's take a look back at some key points from December's matchup.
What went well: The Gamecocks are a somewhat turnover prone team, but thankfully for them the Tar Heels can go through low points of their own on the turnover front and December 18 was one such day. South Carolina leveraged those 17 UNC turnovers for 30 points off of turnovers. That seems like it would be a recipe for a win for a team of their composition. Unfortunately, they just lost two other major categories.
What's likely to change: Something that stands out as rather significant for South Carolina in that first game is that 6-foot-4 freshman center Alaina Coates only played nine minutes in that first game with no points and just one rebound. Her absence is important to note because North Carolina won the rebounding battle 43-33 to establish an 18-13 edge in second chance points; Coates is the team's leading offensive (15.13%) and defensive (29.06%) rebounder, which means she could help the Gamecocks narrow that rebounding differential.
In addition, Coates has a team-high usage rate of 28.41% on a team-high 65.8% true shooting percentage for the season. Granted, she only plays 19.4 minutes per game, but take a player that involved away from an offense and you get what happened to USC last time: their effective field goal percentage of 41.96% was almost exactly 10% lower than their season average of 51.97%.
In short, the Gamecocks were a significantly worse shooting and rebounding team without Coates in the game. 6-foot junior Aleighsa Welch picked up the scoring slack with a career-high 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting.
Key player: Elem Ibiam was one of the players highlighted in our blogger's roundtable yesterday and she had a great scoring game against North Carolina with 14 points on 7-for-10 shooting. But she too had a below average rebounding game on the defensive end with just two (you're probably seeing a theme develop here). And given that North Carolina won both the second chance points and points in the paint battle, her rebounding and shot blocking (7.7% block percentage is 19th in the nation) ability could make a difference the second time around.
Key question: Can they turn around the rebounding battle? There's plenty of reason to believe that South Carolina just underperformed against North Carolina the first time around. Even if they shoot as poorly as they did the first time, the numbers might suggest that they probably won't rebound so poorly again.
What went well: UNC really controlled the offensive boards against SC: the raw numbers of 16-14 don't seem like all that much, but the percentages of 45.71% to 34.15% are not only significant but an advantage that they could re-establish based on how well they have rebounded this season. But doing that again given the South Carolina players that had poor rebounding nights might prove difficult.
What's likely to change: Stephanie Mavunga tied her career-high with 20 points in a career-high 34 minutes in the win against South Carolina. Eight of the points came on second chance opportunities off her own offensive rebounds, which she had five of in the game. By the very nature of it being a "career-high", one would have to imagine that she won't repeat that performance, regardless whether the Gamecocks key in on her. But they rebounded so well as a team that it's also not too hard to imagine someone else grabbing those boards in her stead; they might need to get that scoring punch from elsewhere though.
Key player: Diamond DeShields got into some foul trouble in the teams' first meeting and played just 21 minutes - about 6.5 under her average - but still got about her scoring average on a more efficient than average shooting night (6-for-13 shooting from the field) and a better than average night in terms of getting to the line (6). So it's probably worth noting that she has played over 30 minutes per game in 9 of UNC's last 10 - South Carolina is going to get a bigger dose of DeShields and that alone could be trouble - she's an explosive player and if she doesn't pick up silly fouls South Carolina will likely have to deal with her for an additional 10 minutes this time around.
In any event, DeShields could actually be a bigger factor now than she was in December's game and not just because we should expect development from her as a freshman. DeShields has been a high volume shooter this season with a usage rate of 33.9% - there's really no way to avoid the notion that she's a "pure scorer". But strangely, she has been less efficient at home than anywhere else this season.
Breakdown of Diamond DeShields' shooting efficiency at home, road, and neutral sites this season (via WBB State).
Now there is probably some sort of reasonable explanation for this and "sample size" might be the beginning of that explanation - she has obviously played about twice as many home games as either other type of location. But that's a somewhat stunning difference in performance between home and road, especially for a freshman, that almost makes you wonder if a "miles from home" stat would explain something about DeShields (it doesn't: arguably her worst game of the season was her first road game at UCLA).
Yet if there's anything you need to establish that DeShields is a player who just has an uncanny knack for not only rising to but exploding for the biggest of occasions, that's pretty much it: it is fair to say that on average, neither being on the road nor facing hostile environments has really bothered her all that much.
That's a lot of voodoo math, but that's sort of what makes DeShields such an exciting player: she's a volatile player in the best way possible, capable of blowing up at almost any time to make life tough on an opponent.
Key question: Can South Carolina stop all of UNC's weapons? The underrated thing about UNC as we continue to fawn (justifiably) over DeShields is that this is an extremely balanced team that can beat opponents in a number of ways. It's just that DeShields can take them over the top to being nearly unbeatable when she's efficient, which embodies what makes this team so intriguing: with so much youth, you never really know what you're going to get but if 2-3 players are clicking at once there's not much you can do about it.
In the first game against South Carolina, DeShields had a just about average game in below average minutes - it wasn't a heroic performance from DeShields that won it. The Gamecocks were off for their part as well, but there's so much explosive power on UNC's end that it's hard to pick against them right now.
For more on UNC's path through the tournament, check out our Stanford region storystream.