In college basketball, it doesn't get more prestigious than North Carolina vs. Kentucky: this is a clash of the titans, a meeting of the royal houses, a new chapter in some long, storied history books. It's also just an Elite Eight game in the 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket, meaning that either the Tar Heels or the Wildcats will fail to snag a 2011 Final Four banner after falling short in this East Regional final. UNC vs. Kentucky tips at 4:55 p.m. this Sunday from Newark: it's the last game of the second week of the the 2011 NCAA Tournament schedule, and Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg will have the call on CBS.
North Carolina wants to run; in this NCAA Tournament, that hasn't been a problem. The Tar Heels are the highest-scoring team left in the field, averaging 86.6 points per game, and are keyed by Kendall Marshall's smart passing and a fierce transition game. It hasn't hurt to have Tyler Zeller and John Henson down low, either; those two have combined for more than 30 points in each of Carolina's three games so far. Oh, and then there's Harrison Barnes, who has only scored over 20 points in each game. While the Tar Heels can play indifferent defense at times — see their nearly disastrous first half against Washington — their offense is both talented enough to win games with little defensive input and quick enough to capitalize on stops and steals in transition.
Kentucky can be forgiven if it doesn't quite see a mirror image in the Tar Heels. The Wildcats have similar talent — young bucks Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, and older contributors Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller — and a similar interest in making things happen in transition. But the 'Cats play defense, and well, and that's how they gutted out wins against Princeton and Ohio State when their offense lagged. Knight's been their savior in this NCAA Tournament, hitting two game-winning shots to escape the Tigers and down the Buckeyes, and pouring in 30 points to help top West Virginia, but Marshall presents a tougher matchup for him on defense. If he can dominate Marshall, Kentucky will move on, but if he doesn't, it's going to be hard to disrupt the vaunted North Carolina offense. The Wildcats' X factor is, as always, Harrellson; if he can pick up cheap fouls on Zeller or take away the Carolina big man's nearly unstoppable hook shot, he might be the chief reason Kentucky heads to Houston.
Star Watch: Terrence Jones' immense talent shows itself only in spurts, it seems. And it hasn't, really, in this NCAA Tournament: Jones is averaging just 10 points per game. But Jones is a little too strong for both Barnes and Henson down low, and just good enough from distance to force whoever does draw him to shade further out on defense. That might not be the recipe for a 25-point explosion, but if Jones can at least force the Tar Heels to respect him on defense, it will open up lanes for Knight to do damage by either slashing to the hoop or driving and kicking.
Prediction: North Carolina has a little too much talent for Kentucky, and though both teams have improved significantly since the Heels won their first meeting this season in Chapel Hill in December, the Tar Heels' better is better than Big Blue's. Carolina wins, 82-75, and breaks a tie with UCLA by earning its record 19th Final Four.
More Reading: SB Nation's North Carolina blog Carolina March has the Tar Heels covered from A to Zeller, while Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue is your go-to resource for all things Big Blue. And check out the SB Nation NCAA Tournament hub for more on the 2011 NCAA Tournament.