NEWARK, N.J. -- A quick look at the East Regional final:
Storyline: Kentucky and North Carolina -- two of the most storied programs in history, the aristocracy of basketball that rank first and third in the all-time win column -- meet with a berth in the Final Four on the line. North Carolina last made it to the final weekend in 2009, when Tyler Hansbrough took the Tar Heels to the national championship.
In between, though, UNC had a very un-UNC-like year, missing the NCAA tournament and settling for a run in the NIT.
“The older guys talk about that all the time, about playing in Starkville, Mississippi,’’ freshman Kendall Marshall said, referring to the Tar Heels’ second-round NIT game at Mississippi State. “Guys were talking about how they were in this old hotel, with twin beds, their feet dangling off. Now it’s four-star hotels and everyone wants to be your friend.’’
The drought is a little longer for Kentucky. It has been a Saharan stretch, by Lexington standards, of 13 years without a spot in the Final Four.
The Wildcats have made four regional finals since that 1998 run.
How they got here: North Carolina cruised past Long Island in the opener, survived a wacky finish against Washington and rolled easily past Marquette to reach the regional final. Kentucky’s path has been slightly more arduous.
The Wildcats twice needed Brandon Knight's late-game heroics: first against Princeton in Kentucky's opening round and then on Friday night to oust top-seeded Ohio State. In between, the Wildcats slipped past West Virginia.
Rich history: If there were a Mt. Rushmore of college hoops, the mascots for both of these teams would be on it.
There’s plenty to pull from the college basketball annals about these two programs. They rank in the top five in some of the most important NCAA records on file: most NCAA tournament appearances (UK first with 51, UNC second with 42); most tournament games (UK first with 149, UNC second with 144), most tournament wins (UNC first with 105, UK second with 104), most NCAA championships (UK second with 7, UNC fourth with 5), most NCAA Final Fours (UNC first with 18 and UK fourth with 13).
“Most of us up here weren’t here for many of those games,’’ John Calipari joked. “We got to 2,000 [wins] and I think we were here for nine of them. So this is at the point, yes the names on the front, Kentucky-Carolina, wow. The history of both these programs is wow. But I don’t think they are worried about that and I’m certainly not. I know they are going against terrific players and I’m going against a Hall of Famer. That’s what I know.’’
Now he’s got another tall order, this one times two. Harrellson will have to handle both Tyler Zeller and John Henson, two guys who may lack the bulk of Sullinger but make up for it with their height.
The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding, averaging 42.5 boards per game and Zeller and Henson are responsible for much of that. Henson averages 10 boards a game to Zeller’s 7.1.
“Zeller is a 7-footer, so I have to just try and play big,’’ Harrellson said. “Like keep my hands high without fouling, keep him away from the basket, make him make hard catches and not get easy looks.’’
North Carolina’s first order of business will be containing the Kentucky backcourt. The Wildcats have players who are terrific at creating their own shots and can beat teams off the dribble. When the two teams met earlier this season, Larry Drew II handled Knight but he has since left the program.
Knight had 15 in that game.
“The truth is, we don’t know who we’re going to match up on him,’’ Williams said. “In the past, if the point guard was quicker, more of a penetrating point guard, we’ve made some switches and put Dexter [Strickland] on him and Kendall on the 2-man.’’
Who to watch: The Wildcats are going to need Harrellson to play big against the Carolina big men. They’re going to need Doron Lamb to knock down 3-pointers. But what they’re really going to need is for Knight to shepherd this team through what could be a quick-paced game.
The point guard has been terrific in keeping his team focused even when his own shots haven’t fallen -- a la Friday’s game against Ohio State. He’ll need to be all that, plus perhaps a scorer against the high-octane Heels.
Zeller was the difference when the two teams met earlier this season (he had a career-high 27) and needs to be again. The Tar Heels need to exploit their inside advantage with Zeller and Henson. Zeller has been sensational in this NCAA tournament and has averaged 27 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
Validation: Like a quarterback without a Super Bowl ring, a college coach without an NCAA championship is often viewed as lacking. For years Bill Self was known as the man who couldn’t get to the Final Four and Jim Boeheim was known as the coach who couldn’t win it all.
And now that both coaches have accomplished those feats, somehow all the questions and worries have disappeared.
Calipari will be coaching in his fifth regional final in the past six years Sunday night. Yet his resume lacks that final exclamation point.
Which means what, exactly?
“You can’t put that label on someone in my opinion,’’ said Roy Williams, who has two national title rings in his pocket. “I coached against a couple of guys that I thought were great coaches. Norm Stewart at Missouri never even made a Final Four and I thought he was a great coach. Gene Keady at Purdue, a great coach, never made the Final Four.’’
The difference now for Calipari, of course, is location, location, location.
At Memphis, he engineered a program back into national prominence. Now he’s at a university where there is but one standard of excellence -- a national title -- and anything less is failure.
“You put that ‘Kentucky’ on front and it changes things,’’ he said. “It makes it a little bit harder, a little more pressure-packed. Buildings are a little fuller. The kids are playing harder, jumping higher, making more shots than they normally make and you better be ready to ball. Coming to Kentucky is a man’s decision. You can’t be a boy here.’’
Of note: It’s a busy weekend for the Zeller family. Tyler Zeller scored 27 in the Tar Heels’ win against Marquette on Friday. Younger brother, Cody, played Saturday evening in Indiana’s 3A state championship. Tyler will be back in action on Sunday in the regional final and on Wednesday, it’s back to Cody, who is part of the McDonald’s All-American Game. … Knight and Marshall went against one another in the 2010 McDonald’s All-American Game. Knight drained a 3-pointer late in the game when Marshall tried to get a charge call. “I don’t know what I was thinking, trying to get a charge call in an all-star game,’’ Marshall said.
What they’re doing: It’s not easy to kill time when you’re not a starter or someone the media is clamoring to interview. Inside the Kentucky locker room, players curled up on the benches to catch a nap. The walk-ons in the Carolina locker room enjoyed a heated game of Catchphrase.
What they’re saying: “The one thing is we will not change anything on how we prepare for a team. Our players will not watch tape of North Carolina until the pregame meal. They will not get a scouting report. There will be a meeting in my room tonight, which will last 15 or 20 minutes. We’ll have an hour on the basketball court, where I will go through some of their stuff. I want them worrying about us. Let’s play our best. If that’s not good enough, it’s been a heckuva year.’’ -- Calipari on his team’s preparation.
“Last year was a horrible year, in my opinion, for my career, for my basketball livelihood. But I think what it’s done is made me realize that the things we had done previously were pretty doggone good. And I think it really made me appreciate how this team handled adversity. So it just made me appreciate this group of kids in a wonderful manner.’’ -- Williams on the challenges of last season.
Line of the day: “Does the NCAA only have two microphones? A $10 billion contract and they only have two microphones and no cookies back here." -- Williams during the team’s news conferences, where, yes, there were only two microphones to handle reporters’ questions. And no cookies.