Three keys for Kentucky in Sunday’s South Region final game against North Carolina.
1. Hold own on the boards
North Carolina hits the glass. Actually, North Carolina hits the glass hard. The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebound margin and it’s not even close. Roy William’s club is outrebounding opponents by an average of 13.1 per game. Wichita State is second at 9.0 per game.
As you might remember, Kentucky beat Wichita State 65-62 in a second round NCAA Tournament game last Sunday. In doing so, the Cats held their own with the Shockers on the boards. Kentucky owned a 22-21 edge on the boards at halftime. Wichita State had the edge by game’s end, but just 38-36.
Kentucky enjoyed an even better outcome when it beat North Carolina 103-100 back on Dec. 17 in the CBS Sports Classic at Las Vegas. The Cats won the glass that Saturday afternoon 39-35. Bam Adebayo and Isaiah Briscoe each claimed seven rebounds. And Adebayo played just 19 minutes before fouling out. Wenyen Gabriel grabbed six. With Adebayo in foul trouble, Isaac Humphries played 20 minutes and finished with five rebounds.
So Kentucky can rebound. The Cats are ourebounding opponents an average of 5.1 per game. Since being outrebounded by 25 at Florida on Feb. 4 in an 88-66 loss, Kentucky has won 14 straight games. It has won the boards in 12 of those. During that stretch, only Alabama (by five) in the SEC Tournament and Wichita State (by one) have beaten UK on the boards.
North Carolina also leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 42.1 percent. In Las Vegas, however, the Heels claimed just 10 offensive rebounds in 34 opportunities for 29.4 percent. Meanwhile, Kentucky claimed 15 in 40 chances for 37.5 percent.
Senior center Kennedy Meeks is the Heels’ top rebounder at 9.1 per game. Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, is averaging 5.6 per game. Tony Bradley, an impressive 6-foot-10 freshman who plays just 14.8 minutes per game, is third in rebounding at 5.2.
In its 92-80 win over Butler on Friday night, Luke Maye came off the bench to lead the way with 12 rebounds. Meeks claimed 11. And North Carolina handled the Bulldogs on the glass 38-26.
For Kentucky to win Sunday afternoon, that can’t happen.
2. Win the battle of the X-factors
The aforementioned Maye was the Tar Heels’ hero on Friday night. The 6-8 sophomore from Huntersville, North Carolina is averaging 5.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in 14.2 minutes per game. Against Butler, however, Maye scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Both were career-highs. It was his first career double-double.
The Heels are deep. Roy Williams boasts nine players who average at least 14 minutes per game. Nate Britt, a 6-1 senior, offers experience. Bradley is a force when in the game. He’s a future North Carolina star. Another freshman, Seventh Woods, a 6-2 guard, was highly-regarded before coming to Chapel Hill from Columbia, S.C. Kenny Williams, a 6-4 sophomore, is out for the year with an elbow injury, but Williams has other options.
Maye has been the (sixth) man, however. He scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds in UNC’s opening-round win over Texas Southern. He had 13 points and seven rebounds in a win at North Carolina State in February. He scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half Friday as North Carolina built a 52-36 lead over Butler.
Meanwhile, Dominique Hawkins is Kentucky’s X-factor. The 6-foot guard from Richmond is averaging 4.5 points and 1.6 rebounds per game but scored 11 points in the Cats’ 86-75 win over UCLA in Friday’s night regional semifinal.
Best of all, Hawkins made three of four three-pointers that night. The senior matched his career-high for made threes set Dec. 26 of last season against Louisville. He’s not known as a three-point shooter. In fact, at times, Hawkins has struggled with his outside shot. But he’s put in extra time at the Joe Craft Center and Friday night that hard work paid off.
We already know what Hawkins can do defensively. He’s an energy injection off the bench. At crucial times this season, John Calipari has put Hawkins on the floor just to disrupt opponents. He played a key role in guarding Wichita State’s Landry Shamet at the end of last Sunday’s game. His on-ball defense allowed Adebayo to double-team Shamet and ultimately block what would have been a game-tying three.
Maye vs. Hawkins. Who knows? Even in a game full of NBA-type talent, Sunday could come down to that.
3. Match North Carolina’s revenge intensity
Against UCLA on Friday night, Kentucky had the chip on its shoulder. Never mind that UK was the No. 2 seed, UCLA the No. 3. In December, UCLA had come to Rupp Arena and snapped Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak with a 97-92 victory. Friday, the Cats wanted very much to prove they were better than the Bruins.
Against Kentucky on Sunday, North Carolina will have the chip on its shoulder. Never mind that UNC is the No. 1 seed, UK the No. 2. Two Saturdays after Kentucky’s loss to UCLA, it beat North Carolina 103-100 in Las Vegas. Justin Jackson scored 34 for North Carolina. But Malik Monk scored 47 for Kentucky. Sunday, the Heels will want very much to show they are better than the Cats.
That came through during Saturday’s press conferences at the FedEx Forum. The Kentucky players were loose. They joked around with De’Aaron Fox, who scored 39 points in Friday night’s win. The North Carolina players were loose, too. They joked around about the generation gap with their head coach. Yet you could tell, the Heels feel like they have two scores to settle.
They kept mentioning Monk’s 47-point performance. Yes, there was admiration from UNC for what Fox did to the Bruins on Friday. The Heels did more talking about Monk, however. About how they couldn’t let Monk go crazy again. About how they didn’t have 6-6 junior Theo Pinson, who was injured, for that game. About how they are not the same team. About how they were embarrassed to have a player, even one as talented as Monk, score 47 points against them.
They also kept referring to something else. Last year’s national championship game. You know, the 77-74 loss to Villanova. You know, the game in which Nova’s Kris Jenkins hit the buzzer-beater to render North Carolina the national runner-up.
Jenkins sat behind the Carolina bench here Friday night. He and Nate Britt are brothers. They grew up together. Villanova was eliminated from the tournament last week. When asked it it was odd to have Jenkins sitting so close Friday, the Heels said not at all. Jenkins is around then a lot. They don’t hold a grudge. They do remember, however. And Jenkins’ presence is a constant reminder.
I expect North Carolina to bring the intensity Sunday. Kentucky must bring it, too.
KENTUCKY VS. NORTH CAROLINA
When: Sunday, 5:05 p.m. ET
Where: FedEx Forum 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