MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The prevailing storyline from North Carolina’s Sweet 16 win over Butler on Friday was its resurgent offense, fueled by Justin Jackson and Joel Berry. On Sunday, the Tar Heels will need to pair a solid defensive effort with its scoring efficiency to avenge its December loss to Kentucky and return to the Final Four.
The lights show in Las Vegas 99 days ago surrounded Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk, who blistered the Tar Heels for 47 points on 18-of-28 shooting. He scored eight points before the first media timeout and had 27 by halftime in tallying the second-most points by an opponent in UNC history (Duke’s Dick Groat scored 48 in ‘52).
“That's as good of an exhibition as I've ever had in 29 years as a head coach, and I've had some guys that lit us up quite a bit,” Roy Williams told reporters during his press conference at FedExForum on Saturday. “I was dumb enough the week before the game to say, ‘so-and-so got 43 but we won the game; so-and-so got 45, but we won the game; so-and-so got 46, but we won the game.’ Dumbest dadgum thing I've ever said, because he got 47 and we didn't win the game.”
The Wildcats shot 54.1 percent in scoring 103 points, marking the first time since 2009 an opponent surpassed the 100-point threshold. UNC was nearly as good offensively, shooting 53.0 percent as Justin Jackson scored a career-high 34 points and Joel Berry added 23, but that output wasn’t good enough.
Add in fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox’s 24 points and Kentucky’s starting backcourt totaled 71 points against the Tar Heels. While few, if any, are expecting another career performance from Monk in this Elite Eight rematch, John Calipari’s dribble drive motion presents legitimate challenges for a UNC defense that has struggled at times this season against penetration and kick-outs.
By minimizing ball screens and maximizing floor spacing, Kentucky’s guards thrive in straight-line penetration off the dribble into the lane. Once in the paint, the player can attack the basket, dish to the post option or kick the ball out to the perimeter. All tactics that are capable of exploiting UNC’s defensive pitfalls.
After allowing opponents to shoot 50 percent or better in seven of 11 halves during the middle of ACC play, the Tar Heels made necessary adjustments, staying in front of the ball on a more consistent basis and helping just enough without helping too much.
“We weren’t as good as we are now,” Berry said in detailing the defensive deficiencies in the first meeting. “We had a lot of mistakes. We just didn’t play with a sense of urgency. I think going out tomorrow, that’s the biggest thing. We can score the ball, but it’s about stopping the other team.”
UNC currently ranks 19th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (93.9), according to kenpom.com, which supports the late-season boost theory. Kentucky ranks even higher in adjusted defensive efficiency (7th, 91.8), indicating the defensive improvement since the first meeting is not isolated to one team.
“Defensively, both teams are way better,” junior wing Theo Pinson said. “Over 100 points in that [first] game, that won’t happen tomorrow. You’re not going to win if that happens.”
Pinson did not play against the Wildcats in Vegas due to his broken foot, prompting Kentucky media on Saturday to ponder whether or not UNC has a defensive stopper on hand to slow down Monk. Missing from that assumption is the absence of Kenny Williams, who was UNC’s top perimeter defender this season. Williams split time with Jackson, Berry and Nate Britt in trying to slow down Monk to little avail.
“I think we let him get too comfortable early, and once he saw a couple of those baskets go in, he built up a confidence that was hard to stop,” Berry said. “Once a guy gets going like that, it’s hard to slow him down.”
The problem with focusing too much on Monk is that Fox is equally as dangerous, if not more so. The lanky point guard slashed through UCLA’s defense at will on Friday, scoring 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting while attempting just one 3-pointer. “You really just have to contain [Fox],” Pinson said. “The dude’s a great player. He’s going to get his. Great scorers like that, it’s hard to stop them. You’ve just got to contain them as much as you can and just make it tough on them.”
UNC’s offensive capabilities are well-documented, and for most opponents are enough to secure victory. That being said, the Tar Heels’ national championship teams during the Williams era won those trophies by complementing their scoring efficiency with defensive stops.
That’s what it will take on Sunday for UNC to book its tickets for Phoenix next weekend.