When: Sunday, 5:05 pm EST, CBS
The Details: In an NCAA Tournament that has been all about the underdog and the cinderella story, a matchup of Kentucky and North Carolina gives the traditional college hoops fan their dose of blueblood.
The Wildcats and the Tar Heels have already played once this season. UNC won at home, beating Kentucky by two points on a night that Terrence Jones shot 3-17. North Carolina is a very different team than the one that played that night, thanks in large part to the play of Kendall Marshall. But Kentucky is a different team as well. Instead of relying entirely on their talented freshmen to carry them, John Calipari’s team has gotten tremendous play and leadership out of the trio of upperclassmen that see playing time.
Key Matchups: Big men in transition
Tyler Zeller has developed into a very good low post scorer. He has a nice little jump hook that he’s put some range on, he’s a decent face-up shooter, and he can score on the offensive glass. But where Zeller has become the most dangerous is in transition.
I cannot remember the last big man that I’ve seen run the floor as well as Zeller. He routinely beats slower footed post players to the rim, getting easy dunks off of makes and misses. It helps that Kendall Marshall is like a quarterback running the show, throwing sensational outlet passes. John Henson can get out and run the floor as well.
That’s going to be an issue for Kentucky. Josh Harrellson is not the most fleet afoot. He can get beat down the floor. The lack of depth that Kentucky has in their front court won’t help Harrellson stay fresh, either.
Key Stats: Terrence Jones scoring
Jones has not shown up for the NCAA Tournament. He has 30 points and 20 rebounds in three games. He’s taken all of 23 shots in those three games, has grabbed just three offensive boards, and taken just 10 free throws.
Keep in mind, this is the Terrence Jones that some thought had an outside shot at winning national player of the year early in the season. He’s a muscular, 6’9″ lefty with the ability to score in the post, off the dribble, or on the perimeter. The issue with Jones has been that he tends to be a ball hog, and Kentucky certainly does not need him to become a black hole on offense. But they will need him to become a scoring threat.
X-factors: DeAndre Liggins vs. Harrison Barnes
Slowly but surely, DeAndre Liggins has become one of the most important glue guys in the country. On the one hand, he is a terrific defender. He’s got length, he’s got size, and he moves his feet well. He’ll have his work cut out for him against Barnes, who is one of the most talented offensive players in the country. There isn’t much that Barnes cannot do on the offensive end of a basketball court, and he’s played his best basketball of the season down the stretch.
Liggins has also become a valued weapon offensively this year. He’s knocking down threes. He’s putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim. He’s finding assists. Coach Cal has shown that he trusts Liggins quite a it late in the season.
And the winner is?: North Carolina
I picked Kentucky in my bracket (so please don’t kill me, Big Blue Nation), but the more I think about it the more I like this matchup for the Tar Heels. I don’t think that Jones and Harrellson are going to be able to stay with UNC’s bigs in transition.