The man in the hotel elevator Saturday morning in downtown Memphis was dressed in Kentucky blue. He wore his UK hat backward. He sported an official UK pullover. He was talking. His fellow passengers were politely listening. He was talking Cats.
“You know,” said the man, “if we beat North Carolina tomorrow we’ll probably have to play Kansas in the Final Four. That means we’d have to beat UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas just get to the championship game. Talk about a tough road.”
As it should be.
Sunday is the way it should be.
It’s No. 1 seed North Carolina vs. No. 2 seed Kentucky. One tradition-rich college basketball program playing another tradition-rich college basketball program with a Final Four berth at stake. The NCAA Tournament’s South Region finals. FedExForum. Doesn’t get much better.
“That’s why I came to North Carolina,” Justin Jackson, the Tar Heels’ star forward, said Saturday, “to be in these types of games.”
Kentucky has won eight national titles. North Carolina has won five. Kentucky has played in 12 national championship games. North Carolina has played in 10. North Carolina has been to 19 Final Fours. Kentucky has been to 17. Kentucky has made 56 tournament appearances. North Carolina is at 48.
Roll call: Michael Jordan, Dan Issel, Phil Ford, Anthony Davis, Sam Perkins, Tyler Hansbrough, Jack Givens, Billy Cunningham, Tony Delk, Charlie Scott, Rex Chapman, James Worthy, Jamal Mashburn. Don’t forget Adolph Rupp vs. Dean Smith. Now it’s Roy Williams and John Calipari. Dadgum Roy vs. Coach Cal.
We could go on.
Kentucky and North Carolina have been playing each other on a quasi-regular basis since 1959. North Carolina has beaten Kentucky 23 times. Kentucky has beaten North Carolina 15 times.
As you might expect, emotions sometimes run high. The gentlemanly Smith once allegedly called Kentucky center Rick Robey an impolite name. After consecutive losses to North Carolina, UK coach Rick Pitino abruptly canceled the remainder of a six-game series.
Surprisingly enough, they’ve met just three times in the NCAA Tournament. All three were Elite Eight games.
North Carolina beat Kentucky 79-72 in the 1977 East Regional finals in College Park, Md. Smith deployed his (in)famous Four Corners offense. UNC guard John Kuester made 13 of 14 free throws. North Carolina proceeded to lose to Marquette in the NCAA finals. Kentucky won the national title the next year.
The outcome repeated in 1995 at the South Region finals in Birmingham. Kentucky shot 27 percent. North Carolina walked off with a 74-61 victory. Pitino walked, as well. After shaking Smith’s hand, the painfully disappointed coach went directly across the floor and into the UK locker room. Arkansas eliminated North Carolina in the Final Four. Kentucky won the national title the next year.
They last shared a Big Dance meeting six years ago. Newark was the site for the East Region finals. North Carolina was the No. 2 seed. Kentucky was the No. 4. UK’s Brandon Knight scored 22 points. DeAndre Liggins handcuffed Harrison Barnes. UK won 75-69 only to lose to Connecticut in the Final Four. The Cats won the title the next year.
“They were really good then, too,” said Calipari on Saturday when asked about 2011.
North Carolina is almost always good. Even UK guard De’Aaron Fox, he of the 39 points in UK’s Friday night win over UCLA, said he grew up in Houston a UNC fan because the Tar Heels rarely lose.
Kentucky is almost always good, too. Sunday marks its sixth Elite Eight in Calipari’s eight years. Ridiculous. A Kentucky win would mean a fifth Final Four in the Calipari era. Beyond ridiculous.
It won’t be easy, of course, nor should it be. The December meeting in Las Vegas went 103 (UK) to 100 (UNC). Kentucky needed 47 points from Malik Monk to win. North Carolina needed 34 points from Justin Jackson to stay in it. Sunday’s rematch is good on good. Storied program vs. storied program. One goes on. One goes home.
“When you play basketball,” said De’Aaron Fox just the other day, “this is where you want to be.”
KENTUCKY VS. NORTH CAROLINA
When: Sunday, 5:05 p.m. EDT
Where: FedExForum in Memphis
TV: CBS (WKYT) with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson
Radio: UK Network (WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1) with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt