If this weekend seems familiar for Kentucky Wildcat basketball fans, it is. It was just December when Kentucky faced off against the UCLA Bruins and the North Carolina Tar Heels in a two week period. I know that John Calipari sets his out of conference schedule to prepare his teams for the NCAA Tournament, but this is just crazy.
It was a much different Kentucky team that faced UCLA and North Carolina earlier, and we can see that this team has improved dramatically since that time. The Wildcats got revenge over the Bruins in their rematch and now face a Tar Heel team that they beat 103-100 in one of the best regular season games.
John Calipari has gone 5-2 against Roy Williams, and the Tar Heels and the Wildcats have won four of the past five meetings. This will be the second regional final between the two teams in the Calipari era as Kentucky advanced to the 2011 Final Four after a 76-69 win over the higher seeded Tar Heels.
This time around, UNC is the team that has revenge on their minds. And it is not the same Tar Heel team either. Theo Pinson did not play in the first game, and Joel Berry was a bit hobbled, as he was coming off an injury. Kentucky still needed 47 points by Malik Monk to put the Tar Heels away.
Everyone is healthy now, so get ready for a battle. It's just a shame that this is an Elite Eight game and not a Final Four showdown, Let's meet the Tar Heels.
#2 G - JOEL BERRY - (JR, 6'0, 195) 14.7 PPG, 3.6 APG, 3.1 RPG
#1 F - THEO PINSON - (JR, 6'6, 211) 5.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.7 APG
#44 F - JUSTIN JACKSON - (JR, 6'8, 210) 18.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.8 APG
#4 F - ISAIAH HICKS - (SR, 6'9, 242) 12.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG 1.4 APG
#3 F - KENNEDY MEEKS (SR 6'10, 260) 12.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 1.1 BPG
Joel Berry is the force that drives this North Carolina team. Berry hits 40.2% of his three-pointers and 44.2% overall. He is a solid floor general that has already taken his team to one NCAA Finals and has an A/TO ratio of 1.95 and is a force defensively with 1.4 steals. Although he was coming off an injury, Berry was spectacular in the first game, scoring 23 points and dishing 7 assists with just 3 turnovers.
Justin Jackson had a huge game in Las Vegas against Kentucky with 34 points. He is at his best in transition but has also added a solid three-point shot to his game this year. He hits 38.3% of his three-pointers and 44.8% overall. Almost half of his shots are of the three-point variety, and he has a nice passing touch with a 1.68 A/TO.
Theo Pinson was missed in the first game, and he is the type of guy that does a lot of things that do not show up in the stats. He's a solid defender and a good passer with an A/TO of 2.57. He hits 40.2% of his shots but just 25.8% from long range. Pinson has been starting since Kenny Williams was lost for the season, which gives the Tar Heels the unusual four-forward lineup.
Isaiah Hicks provided energy and scoring off the bench the last couple of years, and he now brings that to the starting lineup. His range is a bit limited, but he hits 60.1% of his shots, and he has transformed into more of a scorer. He had 10 points and 3 boards previously and got into foul trouble, which he tends to do.
It's been a roller-coaster career for Kennedy Meeks, but he has been playing well down the stretch, and he averages close to a double-double on the year. He hits 54.4% of his shots and is tough to move under the paint. He has 6 blocks in the NCAA Tournament and is playing some of his better defense, although he is still a bit slow and is very susceptible to being burned on pick-and-rolls. He had 12 points and 7 boards in Las Vegas but fouled out.
#5 F - TROY BRADLEY (FR, 6'10, 240) 7.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG 0.6 APG
#32 F - LUKE MAYE (SO, 6'8, 235) 5.5 PPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 APG)
#00 G - NATE BRITT - (SR, 6'1, 175) 4.7 PPG, 2.4 APG, 1.8 RPG
#14 G - BRANDON ROBINSON (FR, 6'5, 162) 1.9 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.8 APG
#21 G - SEVENTH WOODS (FR, 6'2, 180) 1.6 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 1.3 APG
Freshman Troy Bradley is very solid coming off the bench and has three double-doubles. He's a solid rebounder and is tough to push out of the way. He hits 58.2% of his shots but does not have much range. He has a pretty good game against the Cats in December with 8 points and 4 boards in just 15 minutes.
Luke Maye is coming off a huge game against Butler in which he had 16 points and 12 rebounds. He has pretty good range and hits 48.0% of his shots and 38.9% from long range. He scored 11 against Kentucky earlier with 3 rebounds, but he could be an x-factor type of player for the Tar Heels if he is hot.
It's easy to dismiss Nate Britt as not much of a scoring threat, but he is exactly the type of player that can get hot and torch you. He hits 35.5% of his shots and 33.3% from long range, but he does so much more than shoot. He handles the ball well, is experienced, and has an A/TO ratio of over 2.54 and plays good defense. He was ineffective in Vegas with 0 points or assists in 14 minutes.
Freshmen Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods are depth at the two guard and the wing, and they have both been inconsistent at times this year. Robinson has really struggled with his shot and hits just 23.3% of his three-pointers. He has only scored 2 points in his last four games. Woods is the more freakish athlete and stronger defensive player. He hits 28.3% of his shots and is a bit limited on his shooting range. In a combined 11 minutes against Kentucky earlier, this duo did not score and just took one shot.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
I know the general story surrounding this game is that both teams have improved over the course of the season and while that may be true, that adage points to the Wildcats more than the Tar Heels. In December, the Tar Heels were a team that returned eight of ten players from the NCAA runner-up game. Kentucky was a freshman-dominated team playing in their first six weeks together.
The one concern I have about this team is in the paint. The Tar Heels are a great rebounding team, and they have an eye opening rebounding margin of 13.1 boards a game. Kentucky actually beat the Tar Heels in this stat in Las Vegas 39-35 and will need a similar effort. The Tar Heels block just 3.2 shots a game compared to Kentucky who has 5.4.
I know the big narrative about this game will be the experience factor for UNC and it is true, they will start all juniors and seniors. However, this Kentucky team has been tested in the regular season unlike many in recent memory. This is a team that has proven that they can fall behind early and not panic and they know how to close out a game. I compare this early struggles of this team to the 2011 squad, which incidentally beat UNC to go to the Final Four.
If you want a true example of how much this Wildcats team has gotten better, consider that they beat a tough UCLA team with an off night from Bam Adebayo, who had 2 points and 4 rebounds. Adebayo led the team with 5 assists, however. And that is what I love about this team. If their starters do not have a big night scoring, they still contribute in other ways, and someone else steps up. Derek Willis had an off night shooting (3-11) but had 8 rebounds and 4 assists. That effort was not there earlier in the season either.
Both teams are dramatically better on defense than the earlier game, so this should be a bit more of a grind. The Tar Heels do shoot and pass a bit better, but I like Kentucky's bench a bit more with guys like Hawkins and Mulder able to step up and contribute. No disrespect to the Tar Heels as this should be a Final Four game, but I like how Kentucky is gelling and coming together right now. Look for another classic game, but Kentucky will prevail 79-75.