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Kentucky-UNC is powerful pairing

North Carolina, its unswerving winning ways somehow disregarded this season, is on the move again.

After a slow start to the season, there were doubts the Tar Heels could reach the Elite Eight -- let alone the Final Four -- but this is the perfect antidote for all the doubters who all but assumed the NCAA Tournament would be little more than a spring fling for teams like Ohio State and, of course, rival Duke.

Order has been restored and college basketball royalty meets in the East Regional final at 5:05 p.m. today (Ch. 4, Radio 550) in the Prudential Center when No. 2 seed North Carolina (29-7) meets No. 4 seed Kentucky (28-8) for the right to advance to the Final Four in Houston.

"Lots of wins, lots of Final Fours," North Carolina forward John Henson said. "With these programs, it's about the name on the front of the jersey."

Said Carolina's Kendall Marshall, who has obviously studied his college hoops history: "They're two tremendous programs. You look at Kentucky, Carolina, UCLA and Duke, there are only a handful of teams that you can say are like the Mecca of basketball."

Indeed, Marshall's team is playing for an NCAA-record 19th Final Four appearance. These Tar Heels are the essence of Roy Williams basketball. Balanced. Deep. Offensive-minded. Unselfish.

The core of this team is on the baseline: Henson, a sophomore, junior Tyler Zeller and freshman Harrison Barnes. On Friday night in the regional semifinal against Marquette, the trio was dominant, combining for 61 points, 33 rebounds and seven blocks in an 81-63 laugher that wasn't as close as the score indicated.

"I think we all work very well together," said Zeller, who contributed 27 points, 12 rebounds and four assists to the cause. "We do a lot of different things. I know that I can push somebody, get them off-balance just enough and then I know John is right behind me to block the shot. I know Harrison is going to go rebound but I also know John has got an area."

They are college basketball's best frontline -- all high-caliber NBA prospects -- especially Barnes who was named first-team Preseason All-America before he even played a game. Asked if that were a detriment to his game, Barnes simply said, "Looking back, in hindsight, I think it worked out well for me."

It didn't appear that way initially as the Tar Heels struggled out of the gate at 7-4 and Barnes was hit with the overrated label. Then after a loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 16, Williams turned the team over to freshman Kendall Marshall, and Larry Drew II, who started 17 games at the point, quit the team. Drew's departure only made the Heels closer and better.

Williams compared the savvy of Marshall to Jacque Vaughn, whom Williams coached at Kansas in the '90s. Marshall finds his teammates in their sweet spots and since he took over, the Heels are 17-2.

"Kendall has done a lot of great things for us," Barnes said. "He runs this show, he runs the team. He has allowed everyone to get involved and gives us more confidence in myself, John, Tyler and Dexter."

That this group has matured so well must be heartening to Williams. Those first 11 games brought back painful memories of last season when the Tar Heels finished 20-17 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

North Carolina will have its hands full today with the Wildcats, who surprised top-seeded Ohio State on Friday.

Kentucky coach John Calipari is a renowned recruiter who isn't given much credit for his development of talent. Kentucky lost five players to the NBA last year, including lottery selections John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Yet the Wildcats, who have won nearly 70 percent of their NCAA Tournament games in their history, returned to the Elite Eight.

Also, lost in the shadow of Brandon Knight's winning jump shot was the fact that senior Josh Harrellson (17 points, 10 rebounds) and junior Deandre Liggins (15 points, six rebounds and three blocks off the bench), holdovers from the ill-starred Billy Gillispie era, carried the Wildcats against the Buckeyes.

Kentucky, which lost earlier this season at UNC, 75-73, hasn't had much luck lately in regional finals.

Last year, the heavily favored Wildcats lost in the East Regional final to West Virginia and haven't been to the Final Four in 13 years.

"It would mean a lot if we had the chance to get back to the Final Four," Kentucky's Darius Miller said. "I'm sure everybody would be excited and we would be excited as well. We are playing for a lot."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com