For the second time this season, Kentucky and North Carolina will clash on a basketball court, only with a lot more to play for this time. A win in the Elite Eight, a berth in the Final Four, and also, quite a bit of history.
Because when two bonafide blue bloods meet, there’s always history attached, not just the here and now. Kentucky beat North Carolina 103-100 in their previous meeting this season, way back long ago in Las Vegas. A lot has changed since then. The Wildcats lost to UCLA during the regular season and beat them in the Sweet Sixteen. The past, even the recent one, gives us no indication of what’s going to happen.
For Kentucky, this is an opportunity to make it into the Final Four for the 5th time under John Calipari, hoping to finish with the national title for the first time since 2012. But this thing is about more than Calipari, and bigger than recent success.
If Kentucky make it into the Final Four, joining Gonzaga, Oregon and one of South Carolina or Florida, it’ll be their 18th Final Four, which means putting them alone at the number 2 spot all-time. UCLA share it with them, although they’ve had appearances vacated from them. Which team is in the lead? North Carolina, with 19 Final Fours, hoping to make it to a nice, round 20. Kentucky are obviously aiming for a 9th national championship, which would narrow UCLA’s (11 championships) lead to just two. Another category which Kentucky and North Carolina lead together is all-time tournament wins. Kentucky are at 121 wins, North Carolina are at 117. They won’t close the gap this season even if they go all the way, but they’ll be pretty damn close to setting themselves up for next year.
The Tar Heels are hoping to win national championship number 6 when this is all over. Not just a way to forget about their heartbreaking loss last season in the championship game, but putting them in the number 3 spot all-time on their own, without rivals Duke and Indiana sharing the ‘5’ with them. It’ll also be an opportunity for UNC to make the Final Four two years in a row, something that this program hasn’t done since 2008 & 2009, winning it all in ’09.
For the coaches, a win means something too. Roy Williams could make his 9th Final Four which would still leave him fourth all-time behind Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and John Wooden, but a bit closer. John Calipari has 6, although two of them have been removed by the NCAA, so in terms of official history books, he still has some way to go before putting a dent on the true greats of college basketball sidelines.
The Elite Eight has had some great games, but the Tar Heels and the Wildcats promise us something special. Not just perhaps the best game of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, but the one carrying with it the biggest sense of history and prestige. Yes, Kentucky already played UCLA, but considering how UCLA have won just one national title in the last 42 years and it came 22 years ago, this game probably seems to carry more all-time importance to it.