All Roads Go Through Kentucky, North Carolina
When Kentucky played UNC in a non-conference game on Dec. 2, it was widely seen as the game of the year. There was a razor thin difference between the two teams, both stocked with former McDonald’s All-Americans and future first-round picks, with the Wildcats prevailing in a 73-72 shootout that wasn’t decided until the game’s final moments.
Four months and hundreds of news cycles later, nothing has really changed. While both lost in their respective conference tournaments on Sunday, they still received No. 1 seeds on opposite sides of the bracket, setting up what would be one of the most anticipated rematches in college basketball history in the NCAA championship game.
Of course, in a one-and-done tournament with 40-minute games, a short three-point line and a foul limit of only five, anything can happen. But if either the Wildcats or the Tar Heels lose before the Final Four, it will be the biggest upset of March. They are the two best teams in the country, and all roads to an NCAA title go through either John Calipari or Roy Williams.
With the NBA lockout scaring many potential first round picks back to school last season, both Kentucky and UNC are even more loaded than normal this year.
North Carolina’s entire starting frontcourt -- 7’0 Tyler Zeller, 6’10 John Henson and 6’8 Harrison Barnes -- would have been lottery picks in 2011. When they all choose to come back, they created the rather absurd scenario where two players with high first-round talent -- 6’9 freshman James McAdoo and 6’7 sophomore Reggie Bullock -- would be coming off the bench.
Even season-ending knee injuries to fringe NBA prospects Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald didn’t really affect the Tar Heels depth, as Williams could just plug freshman PJ Hairston, an athletic 6’6 220 McDonald’s All-American, into the rotation. And with Kendall Marshall, a 6’4 point guard with incredible floor vision, running the show, North Carolina can overwhelm teams on talent alone.
The Tar Heels went 29-5 in the regular season, with two of their losses (Duke, Kentucky) coming at the buzzer. Their other three losses came against UNLV and Florida State, two teams stocked with NBA-caliber athleticism on the frontline. To beat UNC, you need to have big men athletic enough to run with their frontcourt and tough enough to beat them up in the paint. As a result, the Tar Heels should cruise to the Elite 8, as no teams in their side of the Midwest Regional can match up with them on the interior.
But while UNC has had a great season, it doesn’t compare to Kentucky’s dominant 2011-12 campaign. For once, Calipari actually had two future first-round picks (Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb) stay in school past their freshman season. Combine them with 6’8, 230 senior Darius Miller and a recruiting class that featured four McDonald’s All-Americans and the Wildcats have a seven-man rotation comprised exclusively of NBA prospects.
Kentucky went 32-2 this season, with one loss coming on a buzzer-beater at Indiana and only two wins (UNC, at Tennnessee) by less than five points. With a frontcourt rotation of Anthony Davis, Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Miller, they have the length and athleticism to dominate games defensively. While even elite college programs go years between 6’7+ lottery picks, the Wildcats play three at the same time.
Unlike the 2009 team which featured John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins but was derailed by a lack of perimeter shooting, Kentucky has three players (Lamb, Miller and 6’9 freshman Kyle Wiltjer) shooting at least 36% from beyond the arc. With five-star recruits at every position on the floor and the shooting and passing ability to carve up a zone, there’s no team in the country who can match up with them defensively.
However, while UNC got a relative cake-walk of a draw, Kentucky, despite being the No. 1 overall seed in the field of 68, received no favors from the selection committee.
Iowa State, the 8 seed in the South, surrounds a future first-round pick (6’8 Royce White) with a phalanx of long-range shooters while UConn, the No. 9, has two lottery picks in 6’11 Andre Drummond and 6’5 Jeremy Lamb. Wichita State, the No. 5, is the most complete mid-major team in the country while Indiana, the No. 4, has one of the few 6’10+ players in the country (Cody Zeller) with the size and skill-set to bother Davis in the low-post. On the other side of their bracket, there’s a UNLV team with the athleticism to run with Kentucky, a Baylor team with two 6’9+ lottery picks and a Duke team whose size and outside shooting makes them extremely dangerous.
The Tar Heels, who have a disturbing tendency to let teams hang around with defensive lapses, would probably stumble at some point if they had to face that gauntlet. But the defensively-oriented Wildcats should still be in pretty good shape: while even the most talented teams will eventually have an off night offensively, defensive effort is constant.
If teams needed to win a best-of-three series to advance in the NCAA Tournament, a Kentucky/UNC rematch would be almost a certainty. However, because of the nature of a one-and-done event, it’s unlikely both teams will be able to make it all the way to the final game. A rematch would probably come down to the final two minutes again, but the Wildcats are better equipped to avoid any stumbles along the way, which is why they’re my pick to win it all.