Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's all about match ups: Kentucky vs UNC

Kentucky's road to the Elite Eight has been tough and continues today against a great North Carolina opponent that they've lost to once before this season and they are 0-3 all time against in the Elite 8. But like any NCAA Tournament Game, it's all about match ups and guard play.

In this game, it comes down to Harrison Barnes vs Terrance Jones; Josh Harrellson vs Tyler Zeller; and Kendall Marshall vs Brandon Knight. The front court duo of Barnes and Zeller have accounted for 55% of the scoring on the team during the NCAA run and the success opponents lies directly with limiting the success of these two.

In the Light Blue Corner: Harrison Barnes was the consensus #1 2010 recruit. He would be stepping into UNC and filling more than the Jump Man shoes, but Michael Jordan's. The brilliance he showed in high school was slow to be seen once he took the stage of the Dean Dome. Having four single point games in his first nine and and only one one of those where he put up more than 14 points, when UNC faced UK the first time, there were flashes of the player he was expected to be. Barnes has grown immensely since the UK game and only been in single digits once. During the last 9 games, he has put up a career best 40 pointer against Clemson and averaged 21pts.

Terrence Jones is the obvious match up for Jones. Both players are 6'8" and Jones holds a 30lb weight advantage (210 vs 234). Jones found himself in foul trouble in the first meeting and his defense has been mediocre throughout the season. If Jones stays out of foul trouble, steps out and guarding Barnes' outside shot while stopping him from driving to the basket, Barnes should manage 15 points or less and the Wildcats should roll.

As a Junior, Tyler Zeller is the leader on this team and is the face of their success and failures. This NCAA tournament he is averaging 27points a game and 8.6 rebounds, directly leading to UNC's placement in the Elite 8. Zeller is 7'0" and 250lbs and is 2 inches taller than any player on UK's team.

The new formed Josh Harrellson was referred to as Vargallson during the first game. Fouling out early and only playing 21 minutes and scoring 4 points, he will need to keep Zeller from matching his first outing's 27 points. Hey, this is the new Jorts. He's battled and played good defense. His success against Sullinger should feed into his ego and give him the confidence to keep Zeller out of his rhythm. I expect a 19 point 8 rebound game from Zeller and while I don't expect Jorts to rekindle his offensive success of 17 points and 10 rebounds, a double digit point game and 7 rebounds would be a HUGE boost to the Cats.

If Jones and Harrellson can keep Zeller and Barnes at comfortable levels, I look for the Brandon Knight's pairing against guard Kendall Marshall to become the the focal point towards tipping a balanced game in Kentucky's favor.  Marshall took over for the ousted Larry Drew II with 9 games left in the season. Knight has been the go to guy for the Cats and has had two stellar shots in Round 2 and 4 but sub par games. He will need to repeat his Round 3 performance in order to see himself propelled into the Final Four. While both players are freshmen, Knight has been in the leadership role all season and Marshall just took over 13 games ago.

Teams that are lead by Freshman point guards struggle in pressure packed tournament games, but at this phase, Knight is closer to Sophomore than Freshman, while Marshall has started less than one third of a season. Look for Knight to use this experience to his advantage and bounce back from another struggled game.

Looking for this game to be a UK win if it is less than 70 points, a close one that comes down to another last second shot if it is in the 70s and a UNC win if it is in the 80s.

Win or lose, this has been a successful season for the Cats, but yes a win would mean a MUCH MORE successful year. My final score - Kentucky 71 - UNC 69.

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