By RICHARD CHEEKS
Friday night, the Kentucky Wildcats beat UCLA by 11 points, 86-75 to advance to the NCAA Elite 8. Since the NCAA Tournament started in 1939, there have been 88 Elite 8’s played. Kentucky has advanced to a record 32 Elite 8 appearances, winning 17 times and ending their season at the Elite 8 15 times. In the last seven seasons with Coach Calipari at the helm, the Cats have advanced to the Elite 8 5 times, winning 4 and losing only 1, his first such appearance for UK in 2010.
For the fourth time, UK’s Elite 8 opponent will be the North Carolina Tar Heels. In 1977, Coach Hall’s Cats fell to the Tar Heels, and Coach Hall led the Cats to a championship in 1978. In 1995, Coach Pitino’s Cats fell to the Tar Heels, and Coach Pitino led the Cats to a championship in 1996. In 2011, Coach Calipari’s Cats faced the Tar Heels, and advanced to the Final Four where they fell short of a Championship, but Coach Calipari led his Cats to a championship in 2012.
Now it is 2017, and the Cats and Tar Heels are again set to compete for a trip to the Final Four for the fourth time. Kentucky seeks to bring their all-time record against the Tar Heels in NCAA tournament games even with the Cats’ second trip to a final four at the expense of the Tar Heels, and advance to the final four for the 18th time in their 33rd appearance in the Elite 8.
The Cat and the Heels met earlier this season in Las Vegas. The Cats survived that offensive showcase 103-100 on a day that saw Malik Monk score 47 points, including a pair of 3 pointers in the last 1:21 of the game that simply put the capstone on his outstanding offensive outburst and drove the stake into the heart of the Tar Heels. The first 3 pointer occurred 15 seconds after Justin Jacksons 3 pointer with 1:37 remaining finished a 7-0 UNC run to move from down 4 to up 3 with only 97 seconds left in the game. This was Carolina’s first lead since the Tar Heels led 12-10 at the 15:46 mark of the first half.
Malik Monk wasted no time eliminating that UNC lead just 16 seconds later. Then, Justin Jackson lifted the Heels back into the lead on a lay up with 0:47 on the clock. Jackson missed a free throw that would have given the Heels another 3 point lead, but Luke Maye got an offensive rebound, and 19 seconds later, Joel Berry missed a layup attempt with 0:28 on the clock. Malik Monk put the Cats into the lead with his second unconscious 3 pointer 6 second later. Hanging on to the fragile 1 point lead, 101-100, the Cats’ defense prevented a layup attempt by Isaiah Hicks with 0:06, and Wenyen Gabriel secured the rebound, passed the ball to De’Aaron Fox, who was fouled with 0:03 on the clock.
Kentucky led the vast ma
jority of this game, by as many as 12 points in the first half and by as many as 10 points in the second half. UNC held the lead for a total of 260 seconds (4 min 20 seconds) in the first half and 22 seconds described above in the second half. Yet, the game remained in doubt until Kenny Williams’ (UNC) 3 point attempt at the final buzzer missed the mark. Now, the basketball gods have set them up to go toe-to-toe for another 40 minutes, this time in Memphis with the stakes being the winner moves on to the Final Four and the loser’s season ends.
NORTH CAROLINA enters this game with an ANE of 0.243 points per possession against strength of schedule of 0.1116 ppp (#17). The Cats enter this game with an ANE of 0.299 ppp against strength of schedule of 0.1051 ppp (#24). The ANE analysis indicates a game too close to call with the slimmest of theoretical margin of less than ½ point in North Carolina’s favor in a game with about 150 to 155 total points scored at a pace of 75 possessions.
Pomeroy sees this game in Kentucky’s favor by 1 point 82-81 at a pace of 75 possessions. Vegas opened at with UNC a 3 point favorite, and the line has slipped slightly to 2 ½ points.
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