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Elite Eight - UNC vs Kentucky: Three Things to Watch

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It’s the rematch we all deserve.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-North Carolina vs Butler Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

With UNC and Kentucky squaring off tomorrow night in the Elite Eight, college basketball fans will get the rematch they deserve. In December, the Heels and Wildcats battled in an instant classic. Led by Malik Monk’s 47-point outburst, Kentucky walked away with a 103-100 victory.

Most of the readers of this website are obviously hoping for a different outcome. Here are a few things to watch that could help decide the game tomorrow.

Depth in the Paint

There is no question that UNC’s ability to dominate the interior is largely aided by their depth. The four-headed monster of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Luke Maye, and Tony Bradley have all provided Important production throughout the season. Some of you may have noticed Maye’s first career double-double against Butler.

In that December contest, UNC’s post rotation played 71 minutes and produced 41 points with 17 rebounds. Kentucky’s rotation of Edrice Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Isaac Humphries, and Derrick Willis was on the court for 79 minutes, and accounted for 22 points and 19 rebounds.

Additionally, take a look at season averages below:

UNC MPG PPG RPG Kentucky MPG PPG RPG
Meeks 24.0 12.5 9.1 Adebayo 30.0 13.0 8.0
Hicks 23.3 12.3 5.6 Willis 21.9 7.1 5.4
Bradley 14.8 7.3 5.2 Gabriel 18.1 4.7 4.9
Maye 14.1 5.5 4.9 Humphries 7.9 2.5 2.7

That’s a sizable difference in usage and production that should be exploited---if UNC can stay out of foul trouble.

Theo Pinson

The biggest asterisk for UNC in December was the absence of Theo Pinson. At the time, Kenny Williams was admirably exceeding all reasonable expectations as the starting shooting guard, but Pinson just adds a different dimension. In a three-point game, it’s not unfair to ask if he would have made a difference.

This time, Williams is sidelined due to knee surgery, and Pinson has returned to his starting role. Unfortunately, Pinson has been inconsistent in the NCAA Tournament. Over three games and 76 minutes of action, he has 10 points on 3-10 shooting (0-3 from three), nine rebounds, and six assists. He also only has four steals compared to eight turnovers.

Admittedly, Theo’s contributions extend far past the box score. He can play three positions and presents a few different defensive match-up problems. UNC even went back to a small-ball style lineup against Butler in small increments. However, against a team as talented as Kentucky, especially on the perimeter, a little more consistency from the shooting guard position will be needed.

Perimeter Defense

Speaking of the perimeter, it’s no secret that Kentucky relies heavily on it’s combination of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Often, Kentucky’s success depends on their production. UNC saw that firsthand in December. UCLA got a taste of that when Fox (39 points) and Monk (21 points), combined for 60 of UK’s 86 points.

That was 69.7% of Kentucky’s offensive production. From two guards. Against a top-10 team. That is unequivocally insane.

For the season, Fox and Monk are responsible for 1330 of 3152 points. That’s 42% of the offense. If you add Isaiah Briscoe’s numbers, UK’s starting perimeter line-up has scored 1760 of 3152 points, or 55.8%.

In comparison, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson have scored 1148 of 3154 points, or 36% of UNC’s offensive production. Bradley, Meeks, Hicks, and Maye have scored 1,335 points, eerily similar to the 42% offensive production rate of Fox and Monk. The secret to tomorrow’s game isn’t really a secret, but defensive execution will be paramount.

The Heels have struggled at times against perimeter oriented teams. Whether it’s a weird propensity to foul the three-point shooter or displaying an alarming lack of consistency in defending ball screens, North Carolina hasn’t quite solved that riddle. They’ll get another crack at it tomorrow.

Hopefully the result is the same as 1993 when Donald Williams and crew avenged an early season loss to the Fab Five in the national championship.