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Keith Taylor: North Carolina all that’s standing in the way of return trip to Final Four for Cats, Calipari

MEMPHIS — Kentucky coach John Calipari is along for the ride, a joyful journey that has his Wildcats within one game of reaching the Final Four for the third time in the past four years.

In order to get one of four elusive tickets to the national semifinals next week in Phoenix, Kentucky will have to get past top-seeded North Carolina in the South Region finals Sunday in what figures to be another memorable showdown between the two storied programs.

The Wildcats (32-5) defeated the Tar Heels 103-100 in an epic showdown at Las Vegas earlier this season in the CBS Sports Classic, but much has changed since that first meeting more than a week before Christmas.

Guard De’Aaron Fox, who had 39 points in the UK win over UCLA, will try to help the Cats top North Carolina for the second time this season Sunday afternoon (Keith Taylor Photo)

“We don’t know what to expect,” Calipari said Saturday. “I just want these kids to go out there and have a ball.”

One of Calipari’s top players — Malik Monk – did just that in the first outing between the two teams. Monk scored 47 points against the Tar Heels, a performance that still dazzles North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

“He set the world on fire against us,” 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. I was dumb enough the week before the game to say, so-and-so got 43 but we won the game; so-and-so got 45, but we won the game; so-and-so got 46, but we won the game. Dumbest dad-gum thing I’ve ever said, because he got 47 and we didn’t win the game.”

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Neither team is expecting a similar offensive slugfest the second time around, but things are different for the Wildcats and Tar Heels going into the final week of the season. North Carolina still exhibits and up-and-down style, while the Wildcats have become more defensive-oriented, especially during a current 14-game winning streak, the longest in the nation.

“Malik went crazy, but it’s a different team, different time of the year,” North Carolina forward Justin Jackson said. “I think we’ve gotten better, they’ve gotten better.”

Kentucky’s players agree.

“It’ll probably be a little different this time around,” Kentucky senior Derek Willis said. “We’ll be prepared and the coaches do a good job with that. We’re excited to play.”

Williams didn’t shy away from the fact the Tar Heels are glad to get another shot at the Wildcats.

“If somebody beats you, you want to have a chance to play them again,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to beat them the next time, but you do have that. And because we’re not in the same league, we knew that if we played them again that it would have to be in the NCAA Tournament, so you would hope it is as far down the line as you possibly could.

In the past, the two teams have met three times in the NCAA tournament, all in the regional finals, with the Tar Heels holding a 2-1 edge. In the last tournament showdown between the two blue-bloods, Kentucky defeated North Carolina 76-69 in the East Regional finals in Newark, N.J.

Although the two teams are the winningest programs in college history, Calipari doesn’t see tradition being a factor in such a high-stakes contest.

“Every regional game that I’ve played in is this magnitude because you get a chance to keep playing,” he said. “I don’t know how many I’ve coached in. 11? And they’re all of that magnitude.”

Read More at Keith's Blog

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North Carolina (30-7), the national runner-up last season, is the lone remaining Final Four participant next from last year’s tournament. Overall top seed and defending champion Villanova was ousted in the second round last weekend.

“We want to get back to the Final Four, but they’re a great team and even though they haven’t been to this spot before they’re still coming out there, playing like it’s just a regular season game,” North Carolina guard Joel Berry II said. “I know there’s a lot of pressure on the game because you lose, you go home. But they’re still a great team and they’re playing some great basketball right now.”

Namely, Kentucky freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox has been at his best during the postseason and has led the Wildcats in scoring during the past six games. Fox tallied a career-high 39 points in the Wildcats’ 86-75 win over UCLA Friday night to send the Wildcats into the regional finale. Although his NBA stock is on the rise, Fox is focused on the present instead of the future.

“I’m not worried about that,” Fox said. “We’re still playing basketball, so I’m not thinking about leaving. If things go as planned, we still have three games left, so that’s not in my mind right now.”

Although it’s been a bumpy ride with several close calls during the past three weeks, Calipari is glad the Wildcats remain in the hunt for a national championship.

“I just appreciate the fact that they’re fighting and doing it and doing it together and sharing,” the Kentucky coach said. “De’Aaron had it going, and they all accepted it.”

The reward is a showdown made in blue heaven between two college basketball giants. It doesn’t get any better during March Madness.

Gametracker: Kentucky vs. North Carolina, 5:05 p.m., Sunday. TV/Radio: CBS, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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