How NCAA Tournament South Region No. 2 seed Kentucky (32-5) and No. 1 North Carolina (30-7) match up at each position — with a game prediction:
▪ Kentucky’s Malik Monk (20.1 ppg) was the talk of college basketball after he torched North Carolina for 47 points (18-of-28 field goals, 8-of-12 three-pointers) in UK’s 103-100 win over UNC on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas. After the 6-foot-3, 200-pound freshman from Lepanto, Ark., struggled with his shot in both the SEC tourney (12-of-33 field goals, 3-of-11 treys) and UK’s first two games of the NCAAs (6-of-21, 2-of-11), Monk seemed to get back in rhythm (8-of-17, 4-of-9 treys) in Kentucky’s 86-75 round-of-16 win over UCLA.
▪ Though it was obscured by Monk’s Vegas explosion, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson was also terrific in the first Tar Heels-Cats meeting. A 6-8, 210-pound junior, Jackson scored 34 points (10-17 field goals, 4-7 treys, 10-15 FTs) against UK. The ACC Player of the Year and a finalist for the Wooden Award, Jackson (18.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg) had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists in UNC’s 92-80 round-of-16 dismantling of Butler. Without a true small forward on its roster, Kentucky has struggled this season against elite “three men.” Jackson, a Tomball, Texas product, is that.
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Advantage: North Carolina
▪ Late in his senior year, Kentucky’s Derek Willis (7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) has turned himself into the epitome of a “stat stuffer.” In three NCAA tourney games, the 6-9, 228-pound Bullitt East product has 25 points, 23 rebounds, eight assists, five blocked shots and five steals. On paper, North Carolina’s physically imposing post players should be a tough “guard” for the slender Willis. He had three points and one rebound in 19 minutes in the first meeting.
▪ North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks (12.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) fouled out in only 17 minutes against Butler with nine points and one rebound. A 6-9, 242-pound senior from Oxford, N.C., Hicks was huge in North Carolina’s dramatic rally past Arkansas in the round of 32, scoring six points in the last two minutes as the Tar Heels rallied from five down with a 12-0 run. Also saddled with foul trouble in UNC’s initial meeting with UK, Hicks had 10 points and three rebounds in 15 minutes.
Advantage: North Carolina
▪ UK’s Bam Adebayo (13 ppg, 8 rpg, 60.6 percent FGs) had scored in double figures for 10 straight games before UCLA held him to two points (on three shots) with only four rebounds. Against Bruins’ double teams, however, Adebayo impressively had a season-high five assists. The 6-10, 260-pound freshman from Little Washington, N.C., had 13 points and seven rebounds before fouling out against North Carolina in the first meeting.
▪ North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks (12.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg) also did not produce much offense in the round of 16, making one of three shots vs. Butler. The 6-10, 260-pound senior from Charlotte did have 11 rebounds in 27 minutes. It was his 34th career game with double-figure rebounds. Meeks also fouled out of the first game with UK after scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 20 minutes.
▪ Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe (12.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.1 assists) had only five points (2-of-7 shooting) but contributed seven rebounds and four assists with no turnovers against UCLA. The 6-3, 210-pound sophomore from Newark, N.J., played a solid all-around game against UNC in the first meeting with 10 points (4-of-6 shooting), seven rebounds and four assists.
▪ Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender, was recovering from surgery to repair a broken bone in his right foot and missed the Tar Heels’ first game with UK. Expect the 6-6, 211-pound swingman (5.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.7 assists) to draw the defensive assignment on Malik Monk this time around. Pinson is not shooting well (3-of-10 fields goals) in the NCAA tourney.
▪ With 39 points (13-of-20 field goals, 13-of-15 free throws) against UCLA, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox turned in one of the best NCAA tourney performances in UK history. The 6-3, 187-pound freshman (16.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.6 assists) from Houston has been terrific in the postseason, earning SEC Tournament MVP honors (22 ppg, 21-of-34 field goals) and averaging 24 ppg in the NCAA tourney so far. Fox was excellent against UNC the first time with 24 points, 10 assists and only two turnovers.
▪ North Carolina’s Joel Berry II shook off concerns about an ankle injury by blitzing Butler for 26 points (8-of-13 field goals, 3-of-7 treys). After Berry twisted his ankle in Carolina’s round-of-64 victory over Texas Southern, he shot a combined 3-of-21 in UNC’s next two Big Dance contests. On the season, the 6-foot, 190-pound junior is averaging 14.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg and 3.6 assists. He played well against UK the first time with 23 points, five rebounds and seven assists.
▪ Kentucky’s Dominique Hawkins is averaging 8.3 ppg in the NCAA tourney. The 6-foot, 191-pound senior from Madison Central has made nine of 12 shots in the Dance, five of eight treys. It’s a good thing Hawkins has been productive because, other than a Mychal Mulder three-pointer vs. Wichita State, no other UK reserve has made a field goal in the NCAA Tournament. Because of UNC’s interior bulk, UK may need a positive contribution from 7-foot, 255-pound sophomore Isaac Humphries.
▪ North Carolina’s Luke Maye had 16 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes against Butler. The 6-8, 235-pound sophomore from Huntersville, N.C., has averaged 11 ppg in the NCAAs. Senior guard Nate Britt has played in 148 career games, with 27 starts, and is averaging 7 ppg in the NCAA tourney. Tony Bradley, a 6-11, 240-pound freshman, has made nine of 12 field goals in the Big Dance.
Advantage: North Carolina
Kentucky had a revenge motif working in its favor against UCLA, the Bruins having beaten the Cats in Rupp Arena during the season. That dynamic runs the other way against North Carolina, since the Cats won the regular-season meeting. Historically, the Tar Heels have had the upper hand on the Wildcats, leading the all-time series 23-15 and having won two of three NCAA tourney games. In the John Calipari era, however, UK is 5-2 vs. UNC. As a coach, Roy Williams is 8-9 vs. UK in his career (1-3 as Kansas coach, 7-6 at UNC). In NCAA tourney meetings, Williams is 0-2 against the Cats, having lost once each at Kansas (1999 round of 32) and North Carolina (2011 round of eight).
North Carolina 84, Kentucky 83