The big game is tomorrow, and even if it’s probably not going to be “The Game of the Millenium,” there will be an unbelievable amount of talent on display as two contenders go head-to-head in Lexington. Right now, let’s take a good hard look at North Carolina and outline some strengths and weaknesses. (ed. note: the Kentucky analysis is here)
- North Carolina Matches Up With Kentucky: Kentucky has one of the most freakishly athletic line-ups in the country. They are taller, longer, faster, and stronger than just about any team in the country. In North Carolina, the Wildcats meet a team that won’t feel over-matched on the basis of sheer athletic talent. The dominating performances that Kentucky has had early in the season will be harder to replicate against a very athletic Tar Heel team.
- North Carolina Can Contain Terrence Jones: The two times that Jones has faced North Carolina, he hasn’t been able to dominate games. In fact, he’s struggled against the Tar Heels. Last December, Jones went three of 17 from the field on his way to a nine-point, six-rebound game. In the Elite Eight, he was also quiet with 11 points and seven rebounds, and turned the ball over four times. As talented as the team is, Jones is still Kentucky’s leading scorer and a bad game from him could hurt the Wildcats.
- Depth: So far this year, Kentucky has used a very shallow rotation that leans heavily on the starters while giving plenty of minutes to the experienced Darius Miller and using Kyle Wiltjer in spot minutes. North Carolina, by contrast normally goes eight deep with its standard rotation with spot minutes going to Justin Watts, Desmond Hubert, and Stilman White. With such a talented team, it makes sense that Kentucky’s rotation is pretty shallow, but there are two ways that this can hurt the Wildcats. Against North Carolina’s up-tempo attack, players tend to get tired more quickly, and often need rest. If Kentucky doesn’t pay attention, they may find their best players going into the final minutes with tired legs. Worse, a shallow rotation is vulnerable to foul trouble, something North Carolina excels at creating. Last December, four Kentucky players fouled out against North Carolina, including three starters. John Calipari will have to carefully calibrate the level of physicality he wants his players to bring on defense, or he might find his team in crunch time with his best players out of the game.
- Experience: As a young team, North Carolina doesn’t often get to play the experience card, but against the youth of Kentucky, the Tar Heels seem like grizzled veterans. Starting a senior, two juniors, and two wise-beyond-their-years sophomores in Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, this UNC team expects to play more cohesively and with better chemistry than their young adversaries who are still trying to learn each other.
- Payback: Kentucky was the team that ended North Carolina’s NCAA Tournament run. After North Carolina’s loss last Saturday, Kentucky supplanted the Tar Heels at the top of the polls. The Wildcats have taken what North Carolina felt belonged to them and that’s a powerful motivation. Beyond team feelings, it seems like Zeller has a personal vendetta against Kentucky. Of course, the wry and stoic big man seems unlikely to get worked up by, well, just about anything, but it was in the Kentucky game during Zeller’s freshmen year that he broke his wrist. Since then, he’s always played well against Kentucky, whether in back-up minutes in 2009, or in a starring role in 2010 and 2011. Last December, Zeller scored a team-high 27 points on 13 shots while collecting 11 rebounds and five blocks. In the losing effort in March, he managed 21 points on 12 shots, nine rebounds, and four blocks.