The first time North Carolina played Kentucky, back on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas, Theo Pinson, the junior forward, watched from the bench while he continued to recover from the broken foot that forced him to miss the first half of the season.
The Tar Heels endured a 103-100 defeat. Kentucky's Malik Monk scored 47 points. And Pinson wondered what if. What if he'd been able to play? Might UNC have been on the other side of what was perhaps college basketball's best game of the regular season?
“Oh, it was tough,” Pinson said here on Saturday, of sitting out. “I mean, I know after the game I was like more upset than anybody. Because games like that, you just want to be there to help your team. You don't know if you're going to play good or not, but you just want to see if you can make a difference.”
Now Pinson has his chance. UNC, the top seed in the South Region, plays against No. 2 Kentucky on Sunday, a trip to the Final Four at stake. It's the second act between these teams this season, an encore after that classic in Las Vegas.
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And yet the personnel, at least for the Tar Heels, is a little different. Pinson is now healthy again, and back in the starting lineup – where he was expected to be before he suffered his injury in the preseason. Kenny Williams, meanwhile, has played for the final time this season.
Williams is the sophomore guard who ascended into a starting role after Pinson's injury. He played admirably, especially earlier in the year, until he endured a season-ending knee injury in February. By the time he was hurt, Williams wasn't as productive an offensive player as he was earlier in the year.
Even so, he was still an important defensive player – arguably UNC's best on the perimeter. Williams' absence, then, might not bode well against Kentucky, which is as perimeter-oriented a team as UNC has (and will) face this season. Then again, Williams didn't exactly fare well against Monk.
During UNC's pregame media obligations on Saturday, a perception emerged that Pinson could have made a difference against Monk back in December. Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, said it was something he and his other teammates thought about.
“We talked about this a couple times,” Meeks said. “Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game. That's just the type of effect that he has.”
Now Pinson will have his chance. He's likely to be matched up with Monk at the start on Sunday.
It will be the defensive match-up, for UNC, that receives the most attention given what happened the last time the Tar Heels faced Monk. It didn't go well for UNC that day. Williams couldn't limit him. Nobody could.
Pinson allows the Tar Heels more flexibility. He can play a variety of positions. And at 6-foot-6, his size can present some problems for shorter players, on both ends. Pinson has become a good defensive player at UNC, but he’s not considered the Tar Heels’ best perimeter defender. He will, though, give Monk a different look.
Pinson didn't make any predictions on Saturday about he might fare against Monk, or anyone else. He sounded pretty confident about one thing, though. He's not expecting the kind of up-and-down shootout that transpired the first time these teams played.
“I don't think it will be a shootout,” Pinson said. “I think it's going to be a grind it out type of game. Definitely going to be down to the wire. You're competing for the Final Four. So if you're going to the Final Four, you're playing well defensively, bottom line.”