What: NCAA East Regional Final
Where: Prudential Center, Newark, NJ
When: Sunday, March 27th, 4:55 PM
How They Got Here: UNC-at large bid; ACC regular season champion. UK-Automatic bid; SEC Champion
NCAA Results: UNC-def. #15 LIU, #7 WA, #11 Marquette. UK-def. #13 Princeton, #5 WVU, #1 Ohio St.
Just like 2007 and 2009, UNC will play the 5 PM game on the Elite Eight for an opportunity to advance to the Final Four. To get there the Heels will have to do something they have already done once this season and that is beat Kentucky. As a rule I don't like rematching with a team you beat in the regular season. I know there are no stats you can turn to which prove anything one way or the other in this regard. It is just a feeling that the team who lost the game the first time out will be motivated to win the game that really counts. Then again, if there is one constant in NCAA Tournament play it is that previous results whether they be two days ago or three months back mean nothing. Unless it is UNC playing Michigan St.
Since we do have the previous game as a frame of reference it is interesting to note what might be different now. Looking at the box score of that game the one thing that jumps right off the screen is Kendall Marshall only played 10 minutes with three assists and three turnovers. Some Other Kid played the other 30 minutes at PG with seven points, four assists and two turnovers. Clearly the change at point guard makes UNC a different team and also means the Tar Heel team that shows up in the regional final will be quite different than the one in Chapel Hill. Add to that Harrison Barnes' game elevating to the level we expected prior to the season, in part because of Marshall, then you have a team that has remade itself in some ways. However the one consistency between December and now is Tyler Zeller. In the first game Zeller 27 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. It was Zeller breakout game since he posted huge numbers against a quality opponent.
On the flip side, Kentucky got sub-par games from Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight while battling foul trouble among the Wildcat big men. In that game Kentucky hit nine three pointers on 21 attempts six of them by Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. Josh Harrellson was a non-factor due in part to the foul trouble. Since then Kentucky has taken an interesting path. While UNC had made a season on winning close games, Kentucky would routinely lose such games. Kentucky lost five straight games decided by three points or less before finally breaking through with a 68-66 win versus Vanderbilt. In NCAA Tournament play UK has won two close games including the regional semifinal versus Ohio St. where Knight hit the game winner. Harrellson has also become a major factor in NCAA Tournament play averaging 15.6 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Like UNC, Kentucky appears to be playing some of its best basketball in the Big Dance.
The key for UNC is the same as it has been for many games now. Pound the ball inside and see if Kentucky can land in the same type of foul trouble seen in the first game. Barnes could be the real X factor having become the first Tar Heel since Lennie Rosenbluth to score 20 or more points in three straight NCAA Tournament games. Everyone knows by now Barnes loves the big stage and outside the Final Four it doesn't get much bigger than this. That also goes for Marshall, the ACC Tournament not withstanding. These guys live for big games. That is why I fully expect UNC to play a great game and Kentucky to do much the same. The problem I am having is this inescapable gut feeling that the Heels are not going to win this game. Perhaps it is the whole rematch issue that is bugging me. It just seems like this will be it.
Kentucky 74 UNC 70