NCAA Basketball

College Basketball Elite 8 Preview: Kentucky vs. North Carolina

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(4) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (2) North Carolina Tar Heels
Prudential Center – Newark, NJ
Sunday, Mar. 27, 2011
Time: 5:05 pm EST (approx.)
Television: CBS (Jim Nantz, Play-by-Play; Clark Kellogg, Color)
Radio: 84-WHAS (Tom Leach, Play-by-Play; Mike Pratt, Color)

When Kentucky faced North Carolina in the beginning of December, they faced a team that was struggling to live up to the hype of a preseason top ten ranking. They also faced a player in Harrison Barnes that was struggling to live up to preseason All-American honors despite the fact that he had never stepped foot on a college basketball floor.

I started my preview of the game like this.

This isn’t the same type of team that Roy Williams is used to running out there. They were ranked in the top ten to start the season, but they are nowhere near a top ten team and this proves how irrelevant preseason rankings really are.

We are talking about a team that missed the dance last year. True, they did bring in the much-heralded recruit, Harrison Barnes, but seven games into the season it appears that the Tar Heels are struggling in the same areas that they struggled in last year.

They enter the UK game with a 4-3 record, with their four wins coming over Lipscomb, Hofstra, UNC-Asheville and College of Charleston. None of these teams are world beaters. They have faced three BCS schools (Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois) and lost all three games. None of which were really close. Man I hate using the BCS term.

They have the talent. Their entire teams consists of McDonald’s All-Americans. But, they are really struggling to play together. They are lacking a leader and a go-to guy on the court. They thought they had one in Barnes, but early on it appears that he is feeling the pressure and forcing things a bit.

Harrison Barnes is a great basketball player and more than likely will eventually live up to the hype. But, just as the Tar Heels received a lot of unjust preseason hype by being ranked in the top ten, Barnes, too, was overhyped as he was selected to the preaseason all-american team. Something I imagine that was caused by the success of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins a year ago.

Well, as the Tar Heels entered conference play they began to gel as a team and started to actually live up to that hype. They finished ACC play with an impressive 14-2 clip and rode a nine-game winning streak into their conference tourney final loss to Duke. Carolina is 22-3 since a 78-76 neutral-site loss to Texas back in December.

A lot of their improved play has to do with Barnes’ emergence as an All-American candidate, but if you asked head coach Roy Williams why his talented Tar Heels finally began to click as a unit, I’m sure he’d point directly at freshman point guard Kendall Marshall. Marshall took over the starting duties from junior Larry Drew II in mid-January and North Carolina saw near immediate improvement. The improved play led to fewer and fewer minutes for Drew, who eventually left the team at the beginning of February.

Here’s what I said about Drew and Marshall prior to their UK/UNC  showdown in December.

North Carolina really struggles with their guard-play and this is where Kentucky can really take advantage. Junior Larry Drew II (6-2, 180) is their starting point guard for now. In the first seven games he is averaging just 3.6 points and 3.4 assists while committing 2.1 turnovers and shooting a horrific 22-percent from the floor.

Freshman Kendall Martin (6-3, 186) is inching closer and closer to taking the point guard duties away from Drew. He has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is averaging more points than his junior counterpart, with 4.3 points.

With Marshall in the lineup, this North Carolina team stopped struggling with their guard play and became what everyone expected them to be, a National Title contender.

Still, their best overall player is Barnes (6-8, 210). He is a versatile player and is good in all areas. His 15.6 points-per-game tie him with Tyler Zeller for the team lead and his 5.8 rebounds rank third. Early in the year he was really struggling with his shooting. He entered the UK game shooting just 34-percent from the floor and in their three losses prior to the UK game he was a combined 6-for-33, which is good for 18-percent, including an 0-for-12 performance against Minnesota.

As the season has progressed his shooting has improved dramatically. He is now shooting 42-percent from the floor and leads the team in threes made with 62 while shooting 35-percent from distance.

His performance in North Carolina’s victory over Clemson in the semifinals of the ACC tournament exemplified his improvement and rebuilt confidennce. He made six three-pointers on the way to a career-high 40 points as the Tar Heels defeated the Tigers 92-87 in overtime. His point total was the highest tallied by a freshman in the history of the ACC tournament.

One area where the Tar Heels could have an advantage over the Cats is their frontcourt. Junior center Tyler Zeller (7-0, 250), sophomore forward John Henson (6-10, 195) and the senior transfer out of Alabama, Justin Knox (6-9, 240), provide UNC with the depth, size and ability underneath to cause Kentucky problems.

Zeller is the best of the bunch, and after battling injury problems during his first two years he finally had a healthy season this year. Williams knew that getting Zeller healthy would be monumental for his Tar Heels because during his first two seasons he was extremely effective as he has scored a point every two minutes of action. Not a bad ratio.

This season he is averaging a career-high 15.6 points and is shooting an impressive 54-percent from the floor. He is second on the team in rebounding with 7.2 per game.

He is often used as a screener and is really good at reading opposing defenses. He is extremely effective at rolling off of screens and getting to the rim along with floating off of them and knocking down 15-footers. Despite his size, Zeller is not likely to go through defenders to get to the basket. Henson is very similar in his style of play. Look for both of them to go around or use the jump hook to go over post defenders.

Henson is averaging a double-double for the Heels, as he is the team’s leading rebounder with 10.1 a game and is third on the team in scoring with 11.9 points. He has 17 double-doubles on the season and has recorded nine strait, dating back to their win over Maryland on February 27. He shoots 50-percent from the floor and leads the team in blocks with 3.3 a game.

What Kendall Marshall brings to the Tar Heels is a player that has the ability to get their stud McDonald’s All-Americans the basketball in position to succeed, whether it be in the half-court or transition. He is the team’s leading assist man with 6.2 and has six games this season where he has recorded over ten dimes, including a 16-assist performance against Florida State in the regular season and two in the NCAA Tournament (10 vs. LIU, 14 vs. Washington).

He has 73 assists in the month of March, which is good for 9.1 a game.

UNC wants to get out in transition, so this should be an up-and-down game. In the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels have recorded 102, 86, and 81 points.

Also, if the ‘Cats jump out to a lead at any point they must be wary of a North Carolina comeback. During the ACC Tourney comebacks became a bit passe  for UNC. The Tar Heels trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half of their quarterfinal against Miami, before rallying for a 71-69 victory. The final score marked the only time UNC led in that game. A similar script started to play out against Clemson as the Tigers led by 14 at one juncture of the first half, then erased a seven-point deficit in the final four minutes of the second half to force overtime.

On the season, UNC has rallied from deficits of 10 or more points to win five times.

If UK wants to win this one, they will have to do so on the glass and the defensive end. With 46.0 rebounds a game on the year, North Carolina averages more boards than any other team in Division I. In their three NCAA tournament games they have recorded 52, 33, and 44 rebounds.

On defense, Kentucky will have to continue to get strong play from Josh Harrellson, who will be handed the duty of defending Zeller after dealing with Jared Sullinger on Friday night. Expect Deandre Liggins to get the responsibility of Marshall, in an effort to prevent the Heels from getting into their offense.

They are feeling it offensively. In the tournament, Zeller is averaging 27 points, Barnes is averaging 22 and Henson is averaging 17. They are feeling it offensively, but they haven’t faced a defense the caliber of Kentucky’s

This is a long North Carolina team and I think they are a tougher match-up for Kentucky than Ohio State was. But, defensively the Tar Heels are not as good as the Buckeyes and I think they will play into the Wildcats’ favor. Brandon Knight will resemble the Knight that played against West Virginia. Darius Miller will get back into the fold.

If Kentucky defends like they should, they will continue their 2011 Revenge Tour with a victory over the Heels and their first Final Four appearance since 1998. Not only did Carolina beat Kentucky in December, but they are 2-0 against the Cats in regional finals (1977, 1995).

The Cats get that revenge.

Kentucky 82, North Carolina 78