UK has already played North Carolina this year, but both teams are “totally different.”
A few weeks ago, as Calipari was advocating a higher seed for his team, he repeatedly said the UK and North Carolina were the two most improved teams of the season. Now, both new units square off again — although the new look of the teams doesn’t mean the loss doesn’t exist anymore.
“We definitely owe them one,” Josh Harrellson said. “We lost by two points, had a chance to win at the end and we lost. We definitely have a grudge, want to get them back.”
And this game will be billed as a classic, simply because of the tradition-rich names on the front of the jersey.
“Most of us weren’t there for many of those,” Calipari said, adding that the history doesn’t play on the minds of the players.
For North Carolina, freshman point guard Kendall Marshall is the new face. When the two teams met in December, Larry Drew III was running the team. The new point guard got North Carolina on a roll, as the Tar Heels went on to capture the regular season ACC title and make the championship game of the conference tournament. After a 20-point loss to Georgia Tech in January, North Carolina is 17-2. The two losses came to Duke.
Marshall is less defensive-minded, but runs the team well. He isn’t relied on to score, but his assist rate as calculated by Ken Pomeroy is sixth in the nation.
“Just knowing Kendall personally, he gets players involved,” said Brandon Knight, who hit a game-winning jump shot over Marshall in last year’s McDonald’s All-American game.
“He’ll snake his way to the rim if you space out,” Calipari said. “On his drives, he can find people next to the goal. He can find three-point shooters.”
Marshall is the engine of the transition team. North Carolina likes to push the tempo, averaging the 17th-most possessions per game in the nation. In the team’s first matchup, it was a quick game, totaling 76 possessions — 10 more than UK’s average on the year.
“I mean, they’re flying up and down that court,” Calipari said. “They’re throwing the (ball) ahead. Their bigs are flying. Marshall is finding everything.”
Fellow UNC freshman Harrison Barnes has more than emerged from his early-season slump that made people question his No. 1 ranking coming out of high school. Barnes takes 29 percent of North Carolina’s shots when he’s on the floor, and is tied with Tyler Zeller as team leader with 15.6 points per game.
Zeller and John Henson provide a lengthy frontcourt, one that gave UK plenty of trouble in the first meeting. Zeller had a career night, and Henson’s wingspan bothered Terrence Jones into 3-for-17 shooting. Those things have not changed. Zeller is still 7 feet tall with a killer jump hook from the right block. But UK thinks the counter is the improved play of Harrellson.
“I have to keep my hands high without fouling,” Harrellson said. “Make it hard catches. Don’t let him get easy looks.”
“I really just don’t want it to end,” Darius Miller said. “It was tough to lose last year. Don’t want to do that again.”