Elite 8 2016-17 Preview: South Region

- Ky McKeon

(1) North Carolina vs. (2) Kentucky

Initial Thoughts:
This afternoon marks the second Blue-Blooded affair in the 2017 South Region, and second meeting of the season for North Carolina and Kentucky. After pounding Texas Southern and surviving a scare against Arkansas, the Tar Heels disposed of Butler rather effortlessly with sharp-shooting and tough perimeter defense. The nine made three-pointers were the Heels’ most since February 25th, and Butler’s 28% three-point shooting was one of their worst performances of the season. UNC proved that they’re near impossible to beat when they consistently hit shots.

Kentucky comes into the Elite Eight fresh off an impressive victory over UCLA, a team that beat the Cats at Rupp earlier in the season. Like UNC, UK was on fire against the Bruins, shooting 10/23 from downtown, but the real story was the play of freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox. The 6’3’’ phenom outplayed his positional rival, Lonzo Ball, pouring in 39 points to Ball’s 10, while turning the peach over only one time in 36 minutes played.

This promises to be an exciting matchup between two stylistically similar teams. Kentucky won the first battle back in December in Las Vegas 103-100, in what was quite possibly the best game of the regular season. Round 2 shouldn’t disappoint either.

North Carolina on Offense: 
I described UNC’s offense in great detail in my Round 1 preview here and Sweet 16 preview here, but at a high level, the Heels are a team looking to pound the ball in the post, smash the offensive glass, and get out in transition. Instead of regurgitating content, I’ll discuss UNC’s first game with Kentucky back in December and go into detail on how UNC can exploit the Cats, and what areas they must improve upon in Round 2.

UNC’s offense was pretty great overall against the Cats back in December, scoring 1.27 points per possession, raining in 9 of 17 three-point attempts, shooting 53% inside the arc, and turning the ball over only 9 times. It’s the only example I can of this season in which the Heels lost a game where they shot well from the outside.

UNC picked apart Kentucky in transition, particularly Joel Berry, who found success multiple times in the open floor off Wildcat misses:

Berry was brilliant overall during the game, scoring 23 points on 9/15 shooting, grabbing 5 boards, and dishing out 7 assists. In addition to transition, Berry was particularly deadly in the pick-n-roll, a common UNC half-court play option:

Buckets didn’t always come as easy as they appeared in the first half, though, as Kentucky was often able to stymy UNC in the half-court. UK jammed the paint, which took away drives and post-up opportunities, leaving the Heels outside their comfort zone with being forced to shoot over the defense. The Heels weren’t able to easily enter the ball into the post thanks to excellent UK denial, both by on-ball defending guards, and post defender denials:

When UNC did get the ball into the post, it was usually farther away from the block than they preferred, which set up long hook shots and fade-aways versus easy drop steps at the rim. Bam Adebayo, UK’s terrific rookie center, exhibited great post defense against the tough UNC front line.

When UNC found themselves down double digits in the first, the offense deferred to ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson in the half-court. The Heels were forced to take more three-pointers, which was just fine for Jackson, who hit 4/7 from downtown in the game, and found success slashing to the middle of the lane on isolation plays, and getting to the foul line. Jackson ended the game with a team-high 34 points on 10/17 shooting. One of UNC’s favorite ways to get its star player open in the half-court, is to set block screens for Jackson to curl off of into the paint:

Defenders are forced to trail Jackson on these screens due to his shooting ability; if they jumped his route from the other side of the screen, Jackson would simply fade to the corner, setting up an easy open three-point look for one of the best shooters in the country.

Another common start to the Heel offense to generate motion, is for the initial ball handler to reverse the ball to the trailing big man at the top of key. The big man then swings it to other wing, and receives a back screen from the third guard coming up from the block. This action can lead to several things:

  1. Post entry to the diving big receiving the back screen
  2. Quick swing to opposite wing for a post entry on the other block, as the back screen action distracts help defenders on the opposite side (also sets up good weak-side rebound position)
  3. Simply getting the wing (usually Jackson) open at top of key to do damage

When all else fails, Berry and Jackson sometimes just say “screw it” and pull up from three off the bounce, a strategy that worked well in the first matchup.

Kentucky on Offense:
Like UNC, above, I’ve written extensively about Kentucky’s offense here and here. The Cats are a transition-focused offense like the Heels, but utilize a far higher number of ball screens in the half-court than UNC. The offense depends on Fox for creation, and is supplemented beautifully by the shooting ability of Malik Monk and post presence of Adebayo.

December’s game against UNC was Monk’s coming out party; the freshman phenom dropped 47 points on 18/30 shooting, including 8/12 from downtown. He was, frankly, unstoppable and was the focal point of Calipari’s offensive plan the entire game. The Cats ran him off screens, set him up for isolation opportunities, and found him diving to the hole on back cuts, leading to his impressive scoring outburst. Monk’s best ability, however, is his uncanny knack to bail-out the UK offense when they’re in trouble. Case in point:

When it’s not about Monk, UK’s offense is all about Fox, a dynamo at the point guard position who is nearly impossible to stop when driving to the bucket. Fox is particularly deadly in transition and has a level of versatility not seen much around the country. I don’t know many 6’3” 185 lb. point guards that can challenge a 6’11” center like this:

Or make plays like this (next possession right after clip above):

Fox’s creation ability off ball screens and penetration is next level. Pick-n-roll action with Fox and Adebayo causes opposing units fits to defend, due to the ever-present alley-oop threat,

as well as Fox’s floater ability, which was on full display against UCLA in the Sweet 16.

Kentucky’s offense was even more effective than UNC’s in December; the Cats poured in 1.30 points per possession thanks to Monk’s unconsciousness and Fox’s overall brilliance. The aspect that most stood out, however, was UK winning the battle on the boards. The Wildcats grabbed 15 offensive rebounds against the 20th best defensive rebounding team in the land, and limited UNC to half their normal offensive boarding output. A ton of credit is due to Adebayo and fellow frosh Wenyen Gabriel for this effort.

UNC’s on-ball defense really wasn’t that terrible against Kentucky in Game 1 – Monk and Co. simply hit a lot of tough shots. However, the Heels’ close outs on shooters and lack of post denial were too glaring weaknesses all game. The Heels also got slaughtered when they decided to show a 2-3 zone against UK; the Wildcat guards were able to penetrate the soft zone with ease, leading to simple floaters or open Monk kick-outs. Kentucky’s offense couldn’t have played better in Game 1, but UNC’s defense had much room for improvement.

Key Factor(s):
The good news for the Heels is that they lost to Kentucky by only 3 points after the Cats put up arguably their best performance of the year. The bad news, of course, is that UNC allowed it to happen. The key in this game will be controlling the glass for both teams, as each derives a healthy amount of offense off the boards, and shooting. These are two average outside-shooting clubs at the end of the day, but each have players that can get unfathomably hot from the outside, which could be the key to victory.

All eyes will be on Monk, Fox, Berry, and Jackson, but a couple role players have opportunities to play the cliché “x-factor” in this game. Luke Maye drilled two important threes on back-to-back possessions back in December to keep the Heels in the game, and recently dismantled Butler from deep in the Sweet 16. His top of the key trail shot will be a weapon for Roy Williams’s crew off the bench. Similarly, Derek Willis for UK causes matchup problems for bigger UNC frontcourt players. Willis excels in the pick-n-pop action, and is deadly from deep.

Keep an eye on the foul situation as well. Both squads are excellent at earning trips to the free throw line, and both schools experienced foul trouble in Game 1.

Final Predictions:
This should be one of the best games of the year, plain and simple. It features two of the best five teams in the country, with four of the best players in the country.

I think UNC takes revenge in this one ultimately, but by a very slim margin. The fact that UNC almost beat UK back in December despite the Cats’ playing their best ball is a telling factor. Give me the Heels by 1 or 2 points in this one, 92-90.

Grab some popcorn and hunker down, this will be one hell of a game.

SU Pick:  North Carolina
ATS Pick:  Kentucky +2.5
O/U Pick: Over 160.5