Two of the best games during this year’s regular season featured a trio of bluebloods: Kentucky vs. UCLA, then Kentucky vs. North Carolina two weeks later.
And with the college basketball Gods clearly in a giving mood, fans got a rematch of the former in Sweet 16, and will now get one of the latter in the Elite 8.
Kentucky vs. UNC. 36 Final Four appearances, 13 national championships and a handful of potential lottery picks between them. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Here’s a preview of what to expect:
UNC vs. Kentucky Elite Eight Odds
Spread: UNC (-2.5), per OddsShark.com
Moneyline: UNC (-140); Kentucky (+120)
UNC Record Against the Spread: 19-16-1
Kentucky Record Against the Spread: 18-17-2
Head-to-Head History: North Carolina is 23-15 all-time; They last played in December, with Kentucky getting the 103-100 win in Las Vegas
Preview & Prediction
As North Carolina was taking Butler to the woodshed in the Sweet 16, most were probably thinking, “that looks the favorite to win the national championship.”
Then, when the Wildcats were pouring in 50 second-half points to pull away from UCLA later that night, most were probably thinking, “that looks like the favorite to win the national championship.”
It was two transcendent performances from two of college basketball’s greatest programs, and if they both play as well as they did Friday night, or if they come close to replicating that December meeting, we’re in store for an instant classic.
“If you watched that game, if you never liked basketball, you’re going to start liking basketball,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari after that one. “Like, ‘Wow, if that’s what it is, I’m going to watch that.’”
The rematch will pit arguably the game’s best backcourt against the game’s best frontcourt.
For Kentucky, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk both look like top-five picks. The former, a blur with the ball in his hands, can get to the hoop at will, has a terrific mid-range game and is coming off an electrifying 39-point effort against UCLA. The latter, who busted out of his mini shooting slump against the Bruins, poured in 47 when these teams last met:
For North Carolina, its bigs are unmatched in terms of size and depth. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are forces on the interior, while Tony Bradley–a potential future first-round pick–and Luke Maye–who double-doubled against Butler–come off the bench and simply wear teams down. As a result, the Heels are No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, with those extra opportunities helping make them one of the most efficient offenses in the land.
Whoever wins this game will be the team that can best slow down the other’s strengths.
North Carolina didn’t do that so well last time against Kentucky, but it’s important to remember Theo Pinson missed that game. The length and energy he provides on the perimeter will be key against Monk and the Wildcats’ wings.
Kentucky, meanwhile, will counter Carolina’s size with Bam Adebayo, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman who looks like he was chiseled from stone, and Derek Willis, a 6-foot-9 stretch-4, but don’t have a lot of frontcourt depth beyond that.
Ultimately, if Fox and Monk play like they did against UCLA, they’re going to win this game, but Carolina has the personnel (length on the perimeter, rim-protectors on the interior) to fare better than the Bruins in that regard. They won’t stop the electric duo completely, but with Pinson around this time, they’ll slow them down enough to let the inside-outside offensive attack do the rest.
Throw in the Heels’ experience this deep in the tournament–Justin Jackson, Berry, Meeks and Hicks all played key roles on last year’s national title game run–and they get the very slight edge.
Prediction: UNC 80, Kentucky 78