In five hours, Kentucky and North Carolina will square off for a ticket to the Final Four. After the two teams delivered a classic in Vegas in December, how fitting is it that arguably the most compelling matchup left in the tournament belongs to them? Even though the Cats got the best of the Tar Heels three months ago, they come into today’s game as a 2.5-point underdog. Let’s break down the keys to the game.
1. The Revenge Factor
On Friday, it was Kentucky seeking revenge vs. UCLA. Now, it’s the other way around. While both teams are wisely shying away from trash talk, yesterday, Joel Berry admitted the Tar Heels are looking to avenge December’s three-point loss.
That’s what we come to college basketball for, and it doesn’t get any better than this,” Berry said. “We lost to them early in the season, so it was kind of another revenge game for us.”
Making matters more personal for North Carolina is their heartbreaking loss to Villanova in last year’s national championship game. The Tar Heels will have no problem getting up for today’s game.
2. Joel Berry’s ankle
Berry’s been battling an ankle injury over the past few weeks, and he tweaked it again vs. Butler on Friday night. De’Aaron Fox already has an edge on Berry with speed and is coming off the best game of his career; will Berry be able to keep up?
3. Will Theo Pinson be able to slow down Malik Monk?
What has North Carolina fans feeling confident about today’s game? The Tar Heels have Theo Pinson this time around. The junior guard had to miss December’s game because of a foot injury, and if you ask UNC fans, his absence was one of the reasons Malik Monk was able to go off for 47 points.
“Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game,” Kennedy Meeks said yesterday. “That’s just the type of effect that he has. Even though all of us get tired sometimes, I think he’s definitely one of the best defenders, and I think he does a great job of coming in the game and giving us a lift.”
“We just don’t want to give the game that Malik had,” Joel Berry said of the Tar Heels’ motivation heading into today. “We want to be able to stay on him and not let him get 47 on us again, so that’s the biggest thing.”
4. Will Monk’s strong second half Friday night carry over?
After struggling with his shot for most of the postseason, Malik Monk finally warmed up on Friday night, going 8-17 from the floor for 21 points, including four threes. Monk was the reason Kentucky beat North Carolina in December, and judging by this video from today’s shootaround, he’s feeling it again:
– Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) March 26, 2017
Looks like a good omen to me.
5. Kentucky’s defense
As De’Aaron Fox bluntly put it yesterday, no defense was played in December’s matchup. The one area in which Kentucky’s improved the most since then is defense. Kentucky was able to hold a UCLA team that scored 97 on them in December to 75 on Friday night. While most people characterize the Cats by their ability to score in transition, De’Aaron Fox said that now, it all starts with defense.
“That December game, there was no defense in that game. When you’re playing a 40-minute game and it’s 100-103. Both teams have gotten better,” Fox said. “It’s not about our offense. Like I said, if we can buckle down defensively, our offense is going to come. If we’re playing defense, we’re confident in how we play.”
6. Bam Adebayo staying out of foul trouble
Bam Adebayo played only 19 minutes in December’s game because of foul trouble, which his teammates teased him about yesterday.
MALIK MONK: I just remember Bam fouling out with like six minutes left in the game.
ISAIAH BRISCOE: He left us hanging.
MALIK MONK: He left us hanging. That’s all I remember.
BAM ADEBAYO: Did we win?
ISAIAH BRISCOE: Yeah, we won.
BAM ADEBAYO: All right then.
Obviously, getting Bam in foul trouble again is a priority for the Tar Heels today.
“Well, I’m pretty sure I fouled out before he did (laughter), so I mean, you can figure that out,” Kennedy Meeks quipped yesterday. “That’s our main goal is to definitely get their bigs in foul trouble. I think they’re limited in that position. I feel like Bam is definitely a great player, and we want to get him out of the game as much as possible.”
Bam only had two points vs. UCLA, but contributed in other ways, dishing out a career-high five assists and opening up the lane for De’Aaron Fox. Here’s hoping he can walk the fine line of holding his own and playing aggressively without drawing the ire of the officials.
7. Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins
An interesting stat from December’s game that no one seems to be talking about: Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins combined for only three points in 28 minutes, in a game in which the Cats scored 103 nonetheless. Derek and Dom’s contributions are a big reason Kentucky’s been able to pull it together over the past few months; what will they do today to ensure this isn’t the last game of their Kentucky careers?