NEWARK, N.J. — It sounds like basketball blasphemy. A Kentucky-North Carolina game in which history is meaningless. But it's true, at least in terms of recent history.
When UK and UNC play here Sunday for the NCAA Tournament East Regional championship, the game the two college basketball titans played in December might as well have taken place in an alternate universe.
"It's going to be a totally different game," UK forward Terrence Jones said Saturday. "We're totally different, and so are they."
Kentucky, which starts three freshmen, has grown up over the winter and coalesced into an effective unit.
"When we played them early in the year, I thought we played a lot of individuals," said UNC freshman Harrison Barnes, who noted how Kentucky's unity of purpose against No. 1 seed Ohio State Friday night caught his attention.
Jones recalled the defensive cohesion that Kentucky lacked in the game in Chapel Hill. UNC made only 41.4 percent of its shots. But Jones saw the Tar Heels' 37 free-throw attempts, a high for a UK opponent this season, as telling.
"We'd have a (teammate) right next to us," Jones said. "We didn't believe another player would help. We'd just foul. I'm telling you, they had to go to the line at least 30 times."
North Carolina changed more obviously and more drastically when Larry Drew II quit the team after being demoted from starting to reserve point guard. His departure solidified freshman Kendall Marshall as the Tar Heels' primary playmaker.
"We had some addition by subtraction," Barnes called it.
When UK played at North Carolina on Dec. 4, Marshall was hardly more than a bystander. He played 10 scoreless minutes, committed two fouls, got credit for three assists and turned the ball over three times.
"For 30 minutes of the game, I was a cheerleader," he said with a bright smile.
In North Carolina's past nine games, Marshall has had double-digit assists five times. And that doesn't count the eye-popping 16 assists he had at Duke the second game after seeing on Facebook that Drew had abandoned the team.
Spindly forward John Henson saw the Tar Heels as "completely different" with Marshall as point guard.
"That bodes well for us," Henson said. "They haven't seen our team with Kendall. It'll be a different look for them."
Kentucky (28-8) has a few surprises for North Carolina, too. Josh Harrellson, who is averaging 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in three NCAA Tournament games, fouled out in 21 minutes at North Carolina. He scored two points.
Terrence Jones suffered through a 3-for-17 shooting game at North Carolina. That was the game in which UK Coach John Calipari chastised Jones for nearly missing the bus ride to the Smith Center. Jones was napping. But that wasn't what Jones cited for his poor shooting.
"Really, I just settled for a lot of shots when Henson put his arm up," Jones said. "I didn't attack off the pick and roll. ... I didn't drive enough. I just settled, which made it easy for (Henson)."
North Carolina (29-7) hasn't shrunk. Kentucky still has to deal with a Tar Heel starting front line that goes 7-foot (Tyler Zeller), 6-10 (Henson) and 6-8 (Barnes).
"It definitely impacts (the game)," Brandon Knight said. "We've played against some pretty big teams, but they're one of the biggest teams in the country."
Zeller and Henson each posted double-doubles against Kentucky in December. Their production is almost a given.
Other than the Marshall-for-Drew switch at point guard, Barnes represents the biggest change for North Carolina then and now. Saddled with expectations after arriving as a ballyhooed freshman and being named a pre-season All-American, Barnes looked unsure and overeager to impress. He scored 12 fitful points.
Asked to contrast the Barnes of Dec. 4 with the player who has scored 10 or more points in 20 of the past 21 games, he said, "Daylight and darkness.
"I still had to go through the rigors of college basketball, knowing where you're supposed to be. Now, everybody knows that. It's second nature."
The same can be said for Marshall and several UK players.
When asked how the North Carolina team of March 27 would do against the North Carolina team of Dec. 4, Barnes smiled and said, "Oh, we would kill that team by about 30. No question."
This North Carolina team would probably kill the Kentucky team of Dec. 4 by 30, too. But that's not the Kentucky team that will play the Tar Heels for a spot in this year's Final Four.