Elite Eight preview: UNC-Kentucky rematch has the makings of another classic

1:25 | College Basketball
The Unexpected Perk of Winning March Madness
Saturday March 25th, 2017

MEMPHIS — North Carolina plays Kentucky in the Elite Eight here Sunday, and it’s tempting to say that the first team to 100 wins. But last time they played, North Carolina scored 100—and lost.

It happened in Las Vegas in December, and it may have been the game of the regular season in college basketball. Kentucky won, 103–100, behind 47 points from freshman guard Malik Monk.

North Carolina was playing without junior guard Theo Pinson, who would have guarded Monk. But one source said Pinson might not have made a bit of difference against Monk that night. The source’s name is Theo Pinson.

“I definitely would have gotten the assignment,” Pinson said. “But at the same time, we did everything we could. The dude was just on fire that night. Oh my gosh.”

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North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks did say, “We’ve talked about this a couple of times. Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game.” Maybe. But the last few months have shown that Monk’s 47 were not a fluke; he is, in fact, the player in this tournament most likely to score 47 points.

College basketball teams change a lot from December to March, especially at Kentucky, where John Calipari breaks in a new team every year. But that game in Vegas provided a pretty good indication of what we should see in Memphis. Justin Jackson scored an efficient 34 points for North Carolina, a sign that he would have a monster junior year. Joel Berry scored 23 points against Kentucky’s NBA-bound backcourt of Monk and De’Aaron Fox; the feisty Berry is sure to attack the Kentucky freshmen again.

In Vegas, foul trouble snared Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo, who fouled out in 19 minutes, and North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, who fouled out in 20. So this Elite Eight game could easily come down to a suspect whistle. We pause now to allow both fan bases to complain about this in advance.

Now, back to Monk. He is not the best player in college basketball. He may not even be the best player on his own team. But when he gets hot, he is one of the most un-guardable college players of the last decade. UCLA found this out in the Sweet 16, when Monk scored 10 points in a span of two minutes and four seconds early in the second half.

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Monk’s performance against North Carolina in December was the kind that you just don’t see in the sport. Consider: Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, a likely top-four pick in this year’s draft, only scored more than 23 points once this season. Monk scored twice that.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “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.”

And UNC star Justin Jackson said Saturday: “Malik went crazy.”

Malik may go crazy again. This much we know: Somebody will go crazy. The pace will ensure it. Both of these teams averaged 85.2 points this year, tied for third among major-conference teams. Fox and Monk combined for 60 points against UCLA, and 71 the last time they played North Carolina.

Williams’s teams always love to run. Fox and Monk will be the two best athletes on the floor. It’s fast play against fast players, and it should be a treat.

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