There aren’t many programs that have dominated the overall series with the University of Kentucky like North Carolina has. UNC has a 23-15 lead in the overall series of the two blue-blood programs. Before Coach Cal came to UK, Carolina had won five straight head-to-head match ups. Since 2009, John Calipari’s fist season as head coach of the Wildcats, UK has won 5 of the last 7, including Malik Monk’s 47 point performance back in December. Today actually marks the fourth time that Kentucky and North Carolina have met in the Elite 8.
Tonight, a battle of the top two seeds in the South Region of the bracket. The Tarheels come in as one of the more experienced teams in the country, with zero freshmen having started a game this season to go with two to three starting seniors on most nights. On the opposite hand, the Wildcats have started at least three freshman in almost every game this season, sometimes even four of the five starters are first years.
Tonight’s match up is slightly different from the game back in December, as North Carolina starting guard Theo Pinson will be taking the floor tonight. He sat out the first match up between these teams due to injury and he is widely regarded as the defensive stopper for the Heels. Carolina is sure to come out with a chip on their shoulder after giving up one of the greatest scoring performances in Kentucky history.
#44 Justin Jackson, Junior Forward, 6’8″
Justin Jackson is now a three year starter for Roy Williams and is one of two positions I think Kentucky will struggle to defend in tonight’s game, just as the Cats struggled in the first match up with the Tar Heels. Jackson is the best player for this Tarheel squad and their offense starts with getting him going.
The leading scorer on the team, Jackson is putting up 18.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He is tall for the 3 position at 6’8″ but can shoot from the perimeter as well as get to the bucket. Jackson is shooting 38.3% from deep and just over 74% from the free throw line this season. He has made 4 or more 3’s in twelve games this season, including making 7 against Davidson back in December. In the first match up with the Cats, Jackson did his best to try to match Malik Monk’s scoring outburst. Jackson finished with 34 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. He shot 10-17 from the field, 10-15 from the charity stripe, and 4-7 from deep.
As mentioned earlier, Jackson is tall and long at the 3-spot for the Tarheels, meaning the Cats don’t have a player that really matches up with his size and athleticism. Any of UK’s three starting guards will be at a 5 inch disadvantage when guarding Jackson. Now, we’ve seen multiple times this year where Coach Cal has taken Briscoe and put him on the bigger scorer for the opposing team, and he used that strategy against North Carolina the first time. However, since that defensive match up didn’t work great for the Cats, look for Cal to try to throw something different in the mix to slow Jackson down.
#4 Isaiah Hicks, Senior Forward, 6’9″
Isaiah Hicks was the 2016 ACC 6th Man of the Year last season and is one of two big bodies that UNC starts in their frontcourt. This is the first season that Hicks is playing more than 20 minutes a game, and he’s making good use of his time on the court.
The senior is scoring 12.3 points and pulling down 5.7 rebounds per game, good for second best on the team. Hicks has been a role player for most of his career, which is why none of his stats will really jump off the page, but the senior has been playing in Roy Williams’ system for 3+ years now and does exactly what is asked of him on a regular basis. The big man can draw fouls on the UK frontcourt and knock down his free throws as well, hitting nearly 80% on the year. In the first game against Kentucky, Hicks put up 10 points and 3 rebounds in only 15 minutes of action, as foul trouble kept the senior on the bench for a large portion of the game.
Hicks’ major downfall is on the defensive side where he tends to pick up a ton of fouls, sending him to the bench lending way for freshman Tony Bradley to play about 15 minutes per game off of the bench. Hicks has fouled 3 or more times in 25 of 36 games this season, including fouling out in 5 games this season.
#3 Kennedy Meeks, Senior Center, 6’10”
It seems not long ago that Kennedy Meeks was jokingly interviewing UK players at the high school all-star games, but Meeks is a completely changed player since then. Meeks was 280 pounds coming out of high school, and he was severely out of shape. Since then, Meeks has lost over 20 pounds, slimmed down, and put on a ton of muscle. It is crazy what four years of D-1 college basketball workouts will do for a player’s body.
Meeks is averaging almost a double-double for the Tarheels, averaging 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest. He’s a solid defensive big man with just under one steal per game, and his shot blocking has really improved from the beginning of the year, averaging almost double what he did in the first match up against UK. Against the Cats, he had 12 points and 7 rebounds, but he joined Hicks on the bench with foul trouble through a lot of the game, fouling out with around 5 minutes to play
Meeks’ game and body type make him a perfect matchup on both ends for Bam Adebayo. In fact, when Meeks fouled out with just about 5 minutes left in the game, Bam fouled out less than 2 minutes later. Both are big players that can move away from the basket. I think Adebayo has shown extreme improvement since the first two months of the year, so look for this matchup to be key to who owns the paint.
#2 Joel Berry II, Junior Guard, 6’0″
Joel Berry II was questionable for the first game against the Cats, but ended up playing 34 minutes and being the second leading scorer for the Tar Heels. In this game, Berry is nursing another injury, as his ankle was re-injured in last round’s game against Butler in the Sweet 16. Berry was named the ACC Tournament MVP last season, and was voted All ACC Second Team this season.
Berry has been North Carolina’s second best player for basically the entire season. Berry is the second leading scorer, leading total assist man, and leads the team in steals as well. He averages 14.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. The junior is a heck of a shooter as well, hitting a team-best 40.2% of his threes this season, as well as leading the team at 81% from the free throw line. In the first game against the Cats, Berry finished with 23 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals.
While Berry has been causing problems for opposing defenses all season, he matches up with Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox. One of the few times this season that De’Aaron Fox has had a three inch advantage on his opponent. Fox had a big game himself against Berry in December, putting up 24 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds, and 2 steals. This match up pits two stellar point guards against each other, one with blazing speed and youth, while the other has the experience of being in this position before. If Berry’s ankle is truly bothering him, look for Fox’s speed to be a huge issue for the Tar Heels.
#1 Theo Pinson, Junior Guard, 6’6″
Theo Pinson was the missing link for the North Carolina Tar Heels for a good majority of the season. As I mentioned earlier, Pinson is the best perimeter defender that Roy Williams has, but he was only able to play 18 of 37 games up to this point in the season. Pinson sat out the first 16 games of the year with a fractured foot.
The Greensboro, North Carolina native doesn’t have huge numbers on the season, as expected for a guy who has played less than half of the games. Pinson averages 5.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game which is good for the best average on the team. While Pinson isn’t a huge scorer, he can knock down the occasional open jumper, so it isn’t like the Cats can forget about him on their defensive end of the floor. He has scored double digits four times in the few games he’s played this year.
The junior’s defense is what brings a totally different element to today’s game for both teams. For Kentucky, the Cats want to continue what Malik Monk had going against the Tar Heels in December. For North Carolina, the Heels want to use Pinson’s perimeter defense to stop Monk from having so many open looks on the outside. I don’t think Malik Monk will struggle too much guarding Pinson; however, Pinson’s three inch and 11 pound size advantage could cause issues for Monk’s scoring. Monk’s second half against UCLA was an uplifting sign for Cats’ fans, as he finished with 21 total points and hit 4 threes.
North Carolina has two solid starting big men, and another really talented big guy coming off the bench. Usually, I’d like UK’s chances against a front court that tends to foul an awful lot; however, Isaiah Hicks is a really big body for Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel to have to defend at the four spot. This is an especially key matchup when you take into consideration what TJ Leaf did for UCLA in two games against the Cats at that position. Look for Kentucky to try to use De’Aaron Fox to go right at the ailing Joel Berry II from the start to test how his ankle holds up.
Survive and Advance.
Go Cats. Beat Tarheels.