Who Wins Tonight’s Battle of Bluebloods?

Posted: 03/26/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

On December 17th, then-sixth ranked Kentucky played #7 North Carolina in Las Vegas. Kentucky was a one point favorite, so the game was expected to be close. It didn’t disappoint. Kentucky held a slim lead for most of the game, stretching it out to double digits for a short period in the first half. Then, the Heels took a lead on a Justin Jackson three with 1:35 left, Malik Monk instantly responded with a three of his own, and Jackson and Monk then traded a two for a three. Isaiah Hicks missed a jumper with six seconds left, and Kentucky won 103-100. Monk scored 47, De’Aaron Fox added 24 and 10 assists, and Jackson scored 34. Of course, a repeat of that classic is far from guaranteed. Friday’s UCLA-Kentucky game showed that, as it was nowhere near as exciting or close as the first matchup between the two. But the ingredients are in place for another nail-biter.

Given these two teams’ respective strengths, it’s hard to imagine either team stringing together enough consecutive stops to build a big lead. The Wildcats have two future top-10 picks in their backcourt, and they’re both playing great basketball. Fox is coming off of a 39 point performance against UCLA, and his role on the team has clearly changed since December. Fox’s 10 assists against North Carolina served as his fourth double-digit assist total of the season; he hasn’t had more than seven assists in a game since and has been under five in nine straight games. Instead of looking first to get his teammates involved, Fox is using his incredible athleticism to finish improbably at the rim and get to the line. He’s averaging 7.8 free throw attempts over the last 10 games and is putting up 19.9 points per game in that time. Add that to his defensive ability (he held Lonzo Ball to 10 points on 4-10 shooting), and Fox is probably playing better than any other college point guard.

Then there’s Monk, who is a terror when he’s hot but almost non-existent when he’s not. Case in point: against UCLA, Monk was 1-4 from the field for two points with three minutes to go in the first half. Seven minutes of game time later, he was 7-11 from the field for 17 points. When he’s on, his three point stroke is the best in college basketball, which is why he’ll be a successful NBA player. Of course, Monk can’t be much better than he was the first time the Wildcats played the Tar Heels. But how is UNC going to match up against Fox and Monk? It’ll be tough. One concern heading into the weekend was Joel Berry’s ankle, but that seems like much less of an issue after UNC’s star guard scored 26 points on 13 shots and looked very healthy against Butler. Still, guard defense is not North Carolina’s biggest strength. They lost to Kentucky and twice to Duke largely because they couldn’t slow down talented guards. The same thing happened against Miami, when the Hurricanes’ three best players (all guards) combined for 62 points in a 77-62 game. Georgia Tech’s freshman guard Josh Okogie scored 26 points in a win over UNC. The answer to “who can slow down Monk and Fox?” is probably “Monk and Fox.” Monk, particularly, seems to be almost as good when nobody’s guarding him as he is when there’s tight defense. Theo Pinson was out for the first game between these two teams and is probably UNC’s best athlete, so he’s the guy to look out for on the defensive side. But if North Carolina expects to win this game by shutting down Fox and Monk, they’ll be disappointed.

Luckily for UNC, they’ll have plenty of success on the offensive side of the ball, because their strength — interior scoring — also happens to be a weakness for Kentucky. I would argue that it’s actually pretty impressive that North Carolina managed to lose by only three in a game in which Monk hit eight threes and scored 47 points. Just as impressive? The fact that they stayed close despite serious foul trouble for Kennedy Meeks (20 minutes) and Isaiah Hicks (15). Meeks and (especially) Hicks are dominant interior threats when they’re on the court, and they combined for 22 points and 10 rebounds in their 35 minutes against Kentucky. But Carolina kept things close because they were able to turn to Tony Bradley and Luke Maye off the bench. Bradley’s the best NBA draft prospect on the team, and he averages 7.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in 14.8 minutes. Maye’s a sophomore who always gives UNC a solid 14 minutes per game and is coming off a 16 point and 12 rebound performance against Butler. The Tar Heels are going to cycle their big men a lot, and they’re going to try to get Bam Adebayo frustrated, tired, and in foul trouble. Outside of Adebayo, Kentucky’s big men are better outside than they are inside, both on offense and defense. Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel are the two other big men in the rotation, and 55% of their shots come from beyond the arc. They’re both average rebounders and have their moments defensively, but they’ll be outmuscled and outclassed defensively against Hicks, Meeks, and Bradley.

Then there’s Jackson, the guy who went off for 34 against Kentucky and is the ACC Player of the Year. Jackson has a great floater, never seems to miss an open jumper, and often looks downright unstoppable. And Kentucky has absolutely nobody who can guard him. Isaiah Briscoe is probably the team’s best wing defender, but he’s 6’3″. Jackson is 6’8″. Monk and Fox are also 6’3″, and there’s no rotation player shorter than Willis and taller than Mychal Mulder (6’4″). This is a huge, easily exploitable flaw in the construction of Kentucky’s roster. Jackson went off against Kentucky in December, but he only took 17 shots. If he’s scoring easily again, you can bet that he’ll be more aggressive in the Elite Eight than he was early in the season.

Kentucky has two guards who may well be the best players on the court today. Usually, that’s an impossible disadvantage to overcome. But North Carolina is in a perfect position to overcome it, because they should dominate the interior and get big plays out of guards like Berry (quiet 15 points per game) and Pinson, and because they have a go-to scorer of their own. Kentucky’s defense has been vastly improved of late, to the point that they held UCLA to 75 points. But UCLA was a much better matchup for their defense than North Carolina is, and Fox, Monk, and Adebayo are going to need to make shot after shot and play after play to keep up with the well-rounded Carolina. They’re perfectly capable of doing just that, but I think North Carolina will eventually wear them down and win a close game. North Carolina wins 88-86.

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