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NCAA Tournament Elite Eight Preview: North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Kentucky Wildcats

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Can UNC overcome Kentucky?

Butler v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I wouldn’t say the Tar Heels are on a magical run back to the NCAA championship game just yet, but so far they look to be in good shape. An easy win against Texas Southern started them off on the right foot, however, a tough win over Arkansas was enough to worry some fans. Thankfully, a resurgent performance in the win against Butler on Friday night put them back into good position for when they face the Wildcats.

The matchup against 2 seed Kentucky will be UNC’s toughest game of the tournament so far, and it’s only going to get more difficult from here if they can win today. The last time these two teams met, things didn’t turn out so well for the Tar Heels. The Wildcats got away with a 103-100 victory in December, but this is a whole new ballgame, as they say.

Things can turn out better for the Heels as long as they stick to what worked on Friday. The frontcourt has led the offense all season long, and they’ll need Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson to be at the top of their game if they want to make it through to the Final Four. The two players scored 50 points just between the two of them against Butler. It will be a difficult performance to replicate, but anything close will do the trick.

The Heels also need to continue dominating the glass and out-rebounding their opponents. This means that Kennedy Meeks will remain key after collecting 11 rebounds on Friday night. Kentucky might be the only team in the country able to challenge North Carolina’s dominance, since they were (a distant) second in total rebounds this season. If Luke Maye decides to have a repeat performance of 16 points and 12 rebounds, that would go a long way.

The key on defense will basically boil down to limiting the influence top scorers Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have over the game. They are the kind of players who can really carry the entire team if they are allowed to dominate. Fox just scored 36 points Friday night against UCLA and Monk put up 47 points against the Tar Heels back in December. They will need to be contained if North Carolina wants to have a chance.

When these two teams faced each other last, Theo Pinson wasn’t in the game. Now that he’s healthy and contributing, the hope is that he will be able to do a better job on defense and the freshman duo won’t have such an easy time on offense. If UNC can keep them off the boards today, it will significantly crush Kentucky’s offensive capabilities.

You can watch North Carolina vs. Kentucky at the FedExForum in Memphis on CBS or starting at 5:05 PM.