For the second consecutive game, the Kentucky Wildcats will face a squad that they have already played once this season. On Friday night, the Cats dispatched an offensive powerhouse in UCLA, avenging a previous loss this season in Rupp. On Sunday, UK looks to continue their winning streak when they face a surging North Carolina team that is outscoring its opponents by an average of 19.3 points in the NCAA Tournament. Much like the game against the Bruins on Friday, this is going to be another instant classic that will see two of the country’s best offensive teams go head to head for a berth in the Final Four.
Everyone remembers UK guard Malik Monk’s 47-point explosion in the first meeting between these two teams. The freshman went 8-12 from three and 18-28 overall from the field. However, what’s often overlooked is UNC junior Justin Jackson’s performance, in which he scored 34 points and grabbed 5 rebounds. The junior was absolutely fantastic, and it seemed like every time Kentucky tried to bury the Tarheels, Jackson came up with a huge bucket that kept them within striking distance. In fact, Jackson hit a three with 1:35 left in the game to give Carolina its first lead since the opening minutes. Obviously, we know Malik took over after that, but it’s clear to see how important Jackson’s presence is to this Tarheels team. If the Cats want to get past UNC to make it to another Final Four, they are going to have to be sure to stick close to Justin Jackson the entire game and limit his offensive production as best they can.
This North Carolina team is a little different than most of the teams that Roy Williams coaches. Typically, when you think of UNC you think of a team that is mostly guard-oriented. However, this year Williams has added another dimension to that. UNC’s size and athleticism have shaped them into an incredibly dangerous rebounding team, one that has outrebounded teams by an average of 13.1 a game. That is a staggering statistic. In the first meeting, the Cats were actually able to out-rebound UNC by four. If Kentucky wants to win, it is imperative that every player on their roster crashes the glass. In doing so, you not only limit the number of possessions that UNC gets, but you also prevent them from running out in transition, something that the Tarheels also excel at.
While Monk has proven his ability to score points regardless of who’s defending him, don’t expect UNC to let him score as much as he did back in December’s game. Look for Roy Williams to throw several different defenses and defenders at Monk to get him as out of sorts as possible. Because of that, Fox, Briscoe and Bam are going to have to step up to relieve some of that pressure off of Monk. Look for this to be a game where Bam Adebayo could really shine. After his mere 2 points in the game against UCLA, he should come out aggressive and Calipari will look to get him going early. If Bam can assert himself down low to get UNC’s front court in foul trouble, as well as pull down a large number of rebounds, it could drastically help UK’s chances.
Once again though, this game is going to come down to who can defend the best. Kentucky has proven its ability time and time again throughout the postseason to shut teams down when they need to. Sunday, they’re going to have to showcase that more than ever to try and slow down UNC’s high-powered offense. However, should they perform with the same defensive energy that they’ve shown over the past several games, they should have a pretty good chance to grab that last spot in the Final Four and book a flight to Phoenix.