A lot of people like chaos when it comes to March Madness. When the end result of things going as planned leads to a North Carolina vs. Kentucky matchup for the right to go to the Final Four, it’s pretty easy to play devil’s advocate. Two blue-blood programs will shine in the spotlight on Sunday evening at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee and one of them will be the last Final Four participant. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:05 p.m. ET for the only regional final featuring the top two seeds. North Carolina is a two-point favorite with a total just shy of 160.
Has North Carolina been the benefactor of an easy draw? You can make a pretty strong case that Butler, despite its success against Villanova this season, was the weakest of the #4 seeds and certainly the least likely of the #4 seeds to have a good chance against the Tar Heels. The Tar Heels haven’t played a complete game yet and they are staring down the barrel of a battle-tested Kentucky team that has effectively beaten two top-10 teams already to get to this point. The Tar Heels are obviously loaded with upside and have 30 wins on the season, but the 31st is going to be the hardest.
It definitely doesn’t get any easier for Kentucky. The Wildcats had a layup in the first round against Northern Kentucky, though the Norse didn’t make it as easy as it should have been. We’ve seen the best of Kentucky on both ends of the floor in the last two games. A shutdown defensive performance against Wichita State got Kentucky past the toughest second-round game for any of the top teams in the field. The Wildcats then fired on all cylinders offensively against UCLA to push right past the Bruins and into the Elite Eight. There have been some dissenting opinions in the college basketball community about Roy Williams’s ability to coach and his in-game adjustments in recent years, so John Calipari may have a bit of a coaching advantage in this spot. It seemed to help against UCLA.
What was interesting about Kentucky’s win over UCLA is that the Wildcats took the Bruins’ game and threw it right back at them. Kentucky had 18 assists on 31 made field goals. The difference is that the Wildcats forced turnovers and UCLA did not. Kentucky only turned the ball over six times and UCLA gave it away 13 times. The Bruins still shot nearly 53 percent from the floor, but those lost possessions really came back to hurt the slight favorites in Friday’s game. It certainly feels like the Wildcats were not only overlooked coming into the tournament, but it also feels like nobody appreciated how tough their draw was until they bobbed and weaved their way through it to get to this point. Those were two extremely legit teams that the Wildcats just beat and they won both games in very different ways. It’s scary to have a team that has no apparent weaknesses.
DeAaron Fox was apparently tired of hearing about Lonzo Ball. In a battle of star freshmen, Fox was relentless on offense and defense. Fox had 39 points, including a 13-of-15 performance from the free throw line. Ball was just 4-of-10 from the floor with 10 points. He did have eight assists, but also four turnovers. Malik Monk had 21 for the ‘Cats, including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc. While there were a lot of positives, there were some negatives that need to be addressed. Fox had 15 of the team’s 17 free throw attempts, so somebody needs to push the issue and get to the line against North Carolina. Also, Fox and Monk took 37 of the 63 shots and had 60 of the 75 points from the starters. North Carolina is in this position because the Tar Heels have played some pretty strong defense and they have the athletes to match up with Monk and Fox. That means that somebody else, perhaps some down low, will need to get open for some more looks.
Will the Tar Heels be able to flip the switch? This is the 26th Elite Eight appearance in program history and the talent on this team can stack up with many of the teams of the past. Unfortunately, we’re looking at a North Carolina team that has been vastly more talented than its opponents in March Madness. Butler trailed by 16 at the intermission and had no answers for North Carolina’s ability to get open looks and get to the rack. Even with a relatively poor performance on the offensive glass, by North Carolina’s standards, Butler simply couldn’t stack up. It was an uncharacteristically weak game for Kennedy Meeks, who only had one offensive rebound and five points. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II had 50 of the team’s 92 points. North Carolina had 22 assists on 31 made field goals, which was thoroughly impressive and it showcased how Butler couldn’t line up with UNC’s speed and athleticism.
The Tar Heels did leave some points out there. They were just 21-of-33 from the free throw line. Not cashing in at the stripe could be very hurtful against a team like Kentucky. We’ll have to see what these two teams bring to the table in a rematch of the CBS Sports Classic game in Las Vegas. Kentucky won 103-100 as defense was optional. Malik Monk had 47 in that game. Justin Jackson had 34 and five Tar Heels were in double figures. Kentucky shot 54 percent overall and 56 percent from three. North Carolina was 53 percent overall and 53 percent from three. If this game becomes a run-and-gun offensive shootout, which team does that favor? It probably doesn’t favor either team because both teams have scoring threats and a ton of talent. This is one of those spots where bettors need to realize that there isn’t a whole lot of value in the line. Lines are very tight at this stage of the game and there is going to be a ton of money bet on this game. Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament resume is far more impressive than North Carolina’s and the Wildcats were the sharp side against UCLA.
College Basketball Free Pick: Kentucky Wildcats +2
The Tar Heels haven’t been all that impressive in the NCAA Tournament and have had a pretty favorable draw that should have played right into their hands. Kentucky has gone through the gauntlet so far with wins over Wichita State and UCLA. The Wildcats and Tar Heels are both exceptional teams with exceptional talents, so there really aren’t a whole lot of edges to be gained here. We’ll give John Calipari a coaching edge here and that could be the deciding factor.