After what was barely enough time to absorb the gigantic Ohio State win, we find ourselves just hours away from tip-off in the Cats’ second straight Elite Eight appearance. The game will be billed as a matchup of college basketball royalty, and rightfully so. Two of the three winningest programs in NCAA history will battle in Newark for the right to visit to the promised land of the Final Four. For North Carolina, it’s a chance to finish a turnaround after an NIT season a year ago and a sub-standard start to this season. However, while the Heels did do a lot of underperforming before getting on a roll in the last two months, they also won it all in 2009, and that means that this game means infinitely more to Kentucky fans. This team has the opportunity to lift a huge monkey off the back of the program, one that has weighed heavier with the passing of each of the last 13 years. It’s almost fitting that a team very few of us expected to be in this position has the chance to erase the disappointment left over from teams that should have gone further but didn’t. Cat fans will certainly consider this season a success no matter the outcome of the game against Carolina, but now that the team has gotten here, coming so close and falling short again would be a cruel and all too familiar end to what has been a great season. If they can win one more to get to Houston, though, the eruption from the Commonwealth would probably register with NASA.
Now, onto some notes…
–If there’s anything to know about North Carolina, it’s that they like to play fast. They push the ball and try to lure the other team into a full-court game for which they are usually ill-prepared. Kentucky can play fast, but will need to control the pace against the Heels to give themselves the best chance to win. They outplayed Ohio State in a game that was almost entirely played in the half-court, with the Cats’ halfcourt defense looking every bit the caliber of a Final Four team. Carolina’s half-court offense isn’t nearly as crisp as the Buckeyes’, and forcing them to run it as often as possible is the best way to keep the score where Kentucky wants it and keep Carolina from doing what they do best. Limiting Kendall Marshall in transition and the points Tyler Zeller and John Henson get by running the floor could be the biggest key to Kentucky marching on.
–One thing that could be useful for slowing the game down, and limiting foul trouble and fatigue, might be to implement a little of the zone that the Cats have had success with at times during the year. It could be particularly effective against North Carolina, which isn’t an overwhelmingly good three-point shooting team but is bigger up front than the Cats. The zone would hopefully make it tough to enter the ball to the post and force their guards to hit some outside shots, both things that would work in UK’s favor. Kentucky will have to be committed to rebounding out of the zone, because the big front line of the Heels could cause serious problems on the offensive glass if they’re not. But being able to steal some rest on a few possessions and confuse UNC with a different look might be enough to push what should be a tight game toward the Cats.
–Speaking of the Heels’ front line, the anchor of its success is undoubtedly Tyler Zeller. He absolutely torched the Cats in Chapel Hill, scoring 27 points and getting every one of Kentucky’s frontcourt players in foul trouble. He also scored several baskets by simply beating the UK bigs down the floor, and if Kentucky wants to win they have to eliminate those easy points. Foul trouble is always something the Cats have to worry about, but it was basically the difference in the game the first time these teams met, with UNC getting 16 more attempts than the Cats and Zeller shooting a dozen by himself. Of course, the Josh Harrellson that played that day isn’t the same Josh Harrellson that’s playing now, and when he talked to the media he noted the importance of ‘playing big’ and not fouling, which is just what he’s been able to do lately. I expect the battle between the two big men to be a lot less one-sided this time around, and that’s good for the Cats.
–One other thing to watch is how the team handles Harrison Barnes. Barnes is Carolina’s best perimeter scorer, meaning that it would make sense for him to be the unfortunate soul that gets to deal with DeAndre Liggins the most. However, Liggins has been extremely successful disrupting offenses by harassing the opposing point guard, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him lock down on Kendall Marshall if the Heels’ distributor starts to get loose, with a rotation of Lamb-Knight-Miller going after Barnes. The most important thing for whoever is guarding Barnes is to make him work for his baskets and take contested shots. He can fill it up, but making him earn every point is crucial. Forcing him to work on defense can also help slow him down, so it will be interesting to see if the Cats take the ball right at him in an attempt to wear him out a little. However they do it, keeping Barnes in check is as important as anything else Kentucky does in the game.
—This is just a thought, but wouldn’t the fact that the Cats usually spend only a little bit of time watching film and scouting their opponents be an advantage when there’s only one day to prepare for a game? Not being bombarded with a ton of scouting information in a single day between games seems like it would be a positive, and it not only means more focus on improving the team’s own deficiencies, but also that the Cats’ preparation won’t be much different than any other game. Maybe I’m crazy, but I like that.
–Brandon Knight in the first round: Have an off night for 39 minutes, then hit the game-winner.
Brandon Knight in the second round: 30 points in an all-world performance.
Brandon Knight in the Sweet Sixteen: Have an off night for 39 minutes, then hit the game-winner.
Brandon Knight in the Elite Eight: You see what I’m getting at here, right?
–In one bit of recruiting news from the day, Nation of Blue reported earlier that Trevor Lacey is down to Alabama and Auburn, eliminating Kentucky from his list and apparently assuring that he’ll stay in his home state of Alabama. Of course, nothing is official until it’s official, but if the report is true it would seemingly bring an end to the recruitment of a player many thought would be the next commitment. The Lacey recruitment was hot for a while, but the recent focus on big men would seem to indicate that if there’s another spot to be had in Kentucky’s monster 2011 class, it will go to one of them. [**Update: Apparently Lacey spoke with Nation of Blue to correct their report, and he is actually down to Alabama and Kentucky. So there you go.]
–Not only do we want to take UNC down in the game, we want to make sure and own all related internet polls. Therefore, you must follow this link to ESPN, find the UK-UNC polls, and vote for Kentucky. Failure is not an option.
–Finally, the first two tickets to the Final Four were punched, as Butler and UConn both won classics to advance to Houston. Kemba Walker outplayed Derrick Williams to get the Huskies back to the Final Four after missing the tournament last year. It sets up a potential rematch from the Maui Classic if Kentucky can follow suit and get to Houston, and I’m sure the team would love another shot at UConn and Walker after getting handled in Hawaii. In the day’s other game, Brad Stevens proved yet again that he’s not just one of the best young coaches in the game, but one of the best coaches, period. In his tournament run over the last two years, Stevens has beaten the likes of Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon, Bo Ryan, Billy Donovan (who really blew it against Butler), and the mustache from ODU, in addition to coming within a bucket of beating Coach K for the title. Butler is on one of the great runs for a mid-major in tournament history, and Stevens is pretty much as good as it gets now. With his back-to-back Final Four runs, you can expect that he’s finally accomplished enough to get a call from Tennessee, provided things don’t work out with Red Auerbach first.
That’s it for now folks. The time is almost here to take another run at the Final Four. One more day of waiting is a small price to pay if that day spells the end of a much more agonizing wait — the thirteen-year wait to return to college basketball’s biggest stage. A month ago we might have never believed that this team would be one with a chance to do it, but here they are on the cusp of making history and carving out a place for themselves in UK lore. The great and storied history of this program has been deprived of another banner for too long. It’s time. The Heels just happen to be in the way.