Memories Remain

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It's been 250 days since North Carolina lost in the Elite 8 to Kentucky and John Henson still can't watch the game film. Fortunately for the junior standout, UNC gets its shot at payback on Saturday.

An outsider's view may frame that loss in Newark last March simply as North Carolina falling short of a third Final Four in four seasons, but the pain felt beneath the surface was due to swift finality. Outside of '09 title team members Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts, and with no disrespect to an irrelevant NIT run, the bulk of North Carolina's roster had not experienced the brutality of a season-ending loss.

Adding to that element is the fact that the '10-11 campaign wasn't standard operating procedure in Chapel Hill. The Heels emerged from a 20-point debacle in Atlanta on Jan. 16 to put the UNC program back on the rails after a 14-month hiatus with a 17-3 run that included an ACC regular season championship and a fourth Elite 8 in five years.

"I think what hurts the most is that it's over," then-freshman Kendall Marshall told reporters following the loss to Kentucky. "There is no tomorrow. There's no more practice, there's no more scouting reports. That's it. There's nothing else."

Of course, several weeks later Henson, Zeller and Harrison Barnes announced their return for the '11-12 season and that "nothing else" morphed into a preseason No. 1 national ranking with the Wildcats a step behind.

North Carolina's loss to UNLV in Las Vegas on Saturday moved Kentucky into the top spot, and that may be a good thing for the Tar Heels. The added motivation that comes with playing a team ranked No. 1 will only bolster the intensity and tighten the focus for UNC on Saturday.

"You always feel like you owe a team that beat you - especially when they beat us when it all mattered in the Elite Eight," Henson said on Wednesday. "We are going to come out there fired up as well and I think we'll be ready for them."

While the Tar Heels will trot out the same starting five on Saturday as the last time these two programs met, Kentucky will introduce some new faces to the rivalry in addition to some veterans.

"They've got the same guys – Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones – so those guys are the leaders that the others will look to," Barnes said.

Those "others" are made up of three top-10 high school recruits in freshmen point guard Marquise Teague, wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and forward/center Anthony Davis.

But while this may not be the perfect rematch personnel-wise, the schemes are the same.

"They pretty much play how they play," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "We pretty much play like we play. I doubt if either one of us are going to try to hold the ball. It should be an up-and-down game, I imagine. You let them get in too much of an up-and-down game, you'll get killed."

Calipari's dribble-drive offense has frustrated UNC in each of the three matchups between these programs since he arrived in Lexington. The offense – based heavily on dribble penetration that results in a lay-up, post handoff or a kick-out to the perimeter – matches up well with Roy Williams's defensive preference to help into the lane.

In those three games, Kentucky has knocked down 45.8 percent of its 3-pointers (27-of-59). The last 3-pointer in the series came with 37 seconds to play last March. With the Wildcats leading by one point, Brandon Knight penetrated from the right wing, forcing a Tar Heel defender to collapse in help defense. Knight kicked the ball out to DeAndre Liggins for a wide-open 3-pointer that sealed the victory.

The Wildcats are connecting on 39.6 percent of their 3-pointers this season, but their athleticism and length have allowed them to score in bunches (83.7 ppg) and stifle their opponents defensively (31.3 FG % defense).

"They're very athletic, very talented," Zeller said. "They do a good job on the break of just getting out and making plays, so it will be interesting to see if we can contain them."

Zeller scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Elite 8 loss, but you could fit a basketball court in between the athletic abilities of the graduated Josh Harrellson and Davis (34 blocks in 7 games).

"It'll be interesting," Zeller said of the matchup with Davis. "Playing against John is definitely going to be able to help me. My brother Cody has told me a lot about him since he's in the same class - he's long, athletic, and can create a lot of problems with his shot-blocking ability."

These two programs split their games last season, so while there will be plenty of hype and media attention on Saturday, don't be surprised if these teams meet again in late March or early April. But for now, North Carolina will have its opportunity to soften the blow that has resonated since March.

"We're going to go down there Saturday and it's going to be an intense environment," Henson said. "Rupp [Arena] is probably the craziest place I've played at since I've been here, so it's going to be fun."

Inside Carolina Top Stories