When the seedings were announced back on Selection Sunday, my Twitter feed was filled with angry Wildcat fans, offended their team was a four seed while the Florida squad they'd just beaten in the SEC championship was a two. Kentucky had lost six of eight SEC road games, a fact I'm sure weighed heavily on the selection committee; when I tweeted that thought, I got this response: "We are praying we see you again soon." Once I figured out what this meant – I'm not too swift – I scoffed. There was no way either Kentucky or UNC was making the Elite Eight. They were both very flawed teams, and this bracket would eat them alive.
Show's what I know.
So here we are, replaying a game from last December, when UNC was the young team that couldn't get it together and Kentucky the ranked opponent who had integrated its new class much better. Carolina's win was a true upset, fueled by Tyler Zeller's 27 points, including 12 of the team's last 16. It was also a game that has little resemblance to the two teams meeting tomorrow. Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones was hampered with fouls, and only scored nine points. Kendall Marshall was still riding the pine, and only played ten minutes and had three each of assists and turnovers. Josh Harrellson only had four points, instead of the double-digit scoring efforts he's had in every game of the tournament. And of course Harrison Barnes was still mortal, finding his shot and easing his way into the college game.
How are the teams now? Kentucky is driven by a high-octane offense that's seventh in the nation in efficiency. And they most often put the ball in the hands of their freshman stars, Jones and Knight. Knight runs the point and leads the team in both scoring and assists, but finds himself turning the ball over a lot against better defenses (He had six against both UNC and Ohio State). Jones, is the force inside, doing the yeoman's work on the defensive boards in addition to the buckets he gets. He's no longer averaging the double-double he was earlier in the season, and if there's one thing Carolina has excelled at this season, it's shutting down opposing team's big men. John Henson kept Jones off-balance all game back in December, and although I'm sure Kentucky will be more prepared this time around, Henson has only gotten better on D since then.
When the Wildcats can't get their points from their two freshmen stars, they turn to their wings, like they did against Carolina. In their first meeting, Doron Lamb led the team with 24 points, and Darius Miller had 13, both coming on a mix of three-point shooting and drives to the hoop. There's a third player in the same mold, DeAndre Liggins, who didn't fare as well against UNC but isn't much worse than the other two. Kentucky is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, but they don't take a lot of them; it's just another weapon in the arsenal. This is a team that thrives on not turning the ball over, and penetrating to the heart of their opponents defense, by either pass or drive.
Kentucky's defense isn't at the level of their offense, but it's not too far behind. They excel at defending inside the paint, with Jones, Miller and Josh Harrellson all contribute to the Wildcats' fifth-in-the-nation block percentage. Of course, UNC one the first meeting by taking it straight to Kentucky inside, as the taller Zeller and Henson provide a much bigger challenge to defend. And while we're on the subject of Harrelson, he's gotten a lot of comparisons to Brian Zoubek based on his late-season surge and his offensive rebounding skills. Unlike Zoubek however, he's not look ing to pass when he pulls down the rebound, and his defense isn't as good.
Kentucky's defense is built around that ability to force their opponent to miss. They don't generate that many turnovers – even UNC only coughed it up 12 times, as bad as they were in the fall – and they're rebounding is good but not spectacular. It's not going to be easy for the Heels, but if they can play the faster tempo game they want to and draw fouls as well as they did in the first meeting, they shouldn't have that much of a problem.
In the end, this game comes down to which team has matured more in the last few months, and I think that's UNC. In addition to Barnes' offensive blossoming, he's come alive on defense, shutting down players like Kyle Singler. And of course, there's Kendall Marshall, who plays on an entirely different level from the guy who was running the point the last time the Wildcats saw the Heels. Carolina's coming off of one of their better perfromances this year, and they should be able to keep the momentum and make it to another Final Four.