Wildcats and Tar Heels meet for the second time this season with a spot in the Final Four on the line
Kentucky earned a chance to avenge a regular season loss in the NCAA Tournament. Now North Carolina wants to do the same.
The Tar Heels and the Wildcats will engage in a rematch with a Final Four berth on the line in the South Regional Final on Sunday. If this sequel is equal to what unfolded between the two teams in December, plenty of offensive fireworks lie ahead.
Kentucky outlasted North Carolina 103-100 on Dec. 17 behind 47 points from guard Malik Monk. Monk scored 47 points – highlighted by eight 3-pointers – on 18-of-28 shooting. It offset a 34-point performance from Justin Jackson for the Tar Heels. North Carolina shot 53 percent from the field and only committed nine turnovers in the loss, but could never slow down the Wildcat offense long enough for it to make a major difference.
This is the fourth meeting between the two rivals in the NCAA Tournament. All four games have occurred in the Elite Eight. Kentucky is 2-1 in the previous three postseason meetings, most recently beating the Tar Heels 76-69 to advance to the Final Four in 2011.
South Region: No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (32-5) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (30-7)
When: 5:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: FedExForum (Memphis, Tenn.)
Line: North Carolina -2.5
Keys for Kentucky
Being aggressive on offense served the Wildcats well when they faced North Carolina earlier this season. The Wildcats can't hesitate in pressing the attack early and often. Kentucky is at its best when it can get out and run and set up easy transition baskets.
The Wildcats have so many weapons in their offensive arsenal that slowing down their offense is a major chore. North Carolina already knows what damage Malik Monk can do. Monk averages 20.1 points per game and shoots 39.5 percent from distance. De'Aaron Fox can be equally dangerous. Fox dropped a career-high 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting against UCLA to help eliminate the Bruins in the Sweet 16. He is averaging 16.8 points on 48.3 percent shooting for the season.
Kentucky has gone 13 games without topping 90 points since eclipsing the 90-point plateau 14 times in its first 24 games. The odds favor the Wildcats for duplicating those early offensive explosions again sooner rather than later. If it happens, Kentucky's chances of winning are very favorable. The Wildcats are 13-1 when scoring 90 or more points this season.
Keys for North Carolina
Getting early stops will be critical for the Tar Heels. Kentucky proved once already this season that it has enough stamina to prevail in a 40-minute track meet with North Carolina. Forcing the Wildcat offense to work harder on each possession can sap its momentum in a hurry.
North Carolina has had a few shining moments on defense in its first three NCAA Tournament games. The Tar Heels used a 12-0 run over the final three minutes to beat Arkansas in the second round after blowing a 17-point lead. They allowed Butler to shoot just 28.6 percent from 3-point range en route to dominating the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16.
Strong defense has made it easier to blow games wide open behind crushing offense. North Carolina is averaging 89.0 points per game in the NCAA Tournament so far. The Tar Heels have shot better than 50 percent from the field in two of their three victories.
Justin Jackson has provided a big offensive spark in all three contests. Jackson is averaging 20.0 points on 48.9 percent shooting to go with 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
Every time North Carolina and Kentucky face off, the game seems to turn into an instant classic. This latest installment of their rivalry should be no different. Both teams are capable of winning a national championship. It's a safe bet that the scoreboard will get a workout in this one. Kentucky will push North Carolina to the limit. Ultimately, the Tar Heels are playing at a much more dominant level on both sides of the ball in the postseason and will make the extra play or two they need to exact revenge.
Prediction: North Carolina 80, Kentucky 79
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.