Unlikely paths for Carolina and Kentucky

NEWARK, N.J. -- Because they are creatures of habit and habitual studiers, UNC's Roy Williams and Kentucky's John Calipari will rewind the tape to Dec. 4.

They will watch intensely at film from the previous time their two teams played. They will look for tendencies and search for weaknesses to try to find any little edge that might give them an advantage.

But that tape might as well be a college basketball Zapruder film -- filled with unsatisfactory and inconclusive evidence.

Save one.

The same players who donned Kentucky and North Carolina uniforms three months ago will slip into their jerseys for the late afternoon tip in Sunday’s East Regional final. They will lace up their sneakers the same, go through their pregame rituals like always, and dance or chest bump their way through player introductions just like they did on that December afternoon.

And then the ball will go up and nothing will be the same.

The news has come this basketball season in rapid-fire staccato -- from Jimmer to Kemba to Butler, we’ve been inundated with the improbable. It makes it easy to overlook the subtle, to ignore the slow and steady transformation of two of the game’s name-brand programs.

Yet what Kentucky and North Carolina have done in a span of three months is no less remarkable and every bit as unlikely.

“Both teams are drastically different,’’ Williams said.

I was there for that first game in Chapel Hill. I saw Tyler Zeller's late-game heroics and came away thinking that, with a 75-73 victory, the Tar Heels had finally cured what ailed them. A team that looked so disjointed in both an NIT season a year before and a lackluster start to this season played great defense, stood tough and most importantly, played together.

I, like a lot of people, figured that it was the start of a season’s worth of good things for North Carolina.

Instead the nadir laid in wait, looming and lurking on a January day in Atlanta. It was there that the Tar Heels lost by 20 points to a lousy Georgia Tech team, their dysfunction laid bare for all to see.

“If you asked me then if I thought we’d have a chance at the Final Four, I would have told you I didn’t think we were getting in the tournament,’’ Zeller said.

I left Chapel Hill that same snowy afternoon impressed with Kentucky, even in defeat. Here was a team, with a median age barely old enough to vote, hanging tough in a hostile road environment.

That, too, ended up being little more than false hope. The Wildcats would win their final seven nonconference games before being hit with a serious case of road-a-phobia, losing six of their first seven road games in the SEC in the midst of a mediocre 7-6 start.

“We weren’t tough enough,’’ UK senior big man Josh Harrellson said. “We let a lot of games slip away from us in the late-game situation.’’

What has changed since that game and what happened to make the teams better?

Calipari will glean nothing from that December game tape as he tries to prepare for what makes the Tar Heels tick now.

Carolina’s most important player barely got on the floor in that first game.

Kendall Marshall logged only 10 minutes, stuck behind Larry Drew II as a backup point guard at the time. The 10 minutes weren’t exactly stellar, either. Marshall had zero points, three turnovers and two fouls.

It took another month-plus before Williams would make the most critical personnel move of the season: inserting Marshall into the starting lineup. The decision would cost Williams his original starter -- Drew transferred out not long after -- but he managed to salvage the season.

North Carolina is 17-2 with Marshall as its starting point guard, losing only to Duke.

“I don’t think it was me that made some magical change for this team,’’ Marshall said. “I think it was all of us. We all bought in.’’

Kentucky’s changes were more subtle. The players remain the same. The rotation hasn’t changed. But there is a new sense of self and purpose.

In December, Calipari spent more time teaching his team how to box than to play basketball. Convinced they weren’t tough enough -- and worse, they didn’t know what tough was -- he laced them into boxing gloves and hung heavy bags for them to punch. He tried to teach them what sort of ferocity they sorely lacked.

“I liked this team from the beginning, but there was a time where I believed in the guys more than they believed in themselves,’’ Calipari said.

If there is a personnel change worth noting, it is the one in the middle. When Kentucky played North Carolina that first time, it was less than a month after the NCAA ruled big man Enes Kanter permanently ineligible.

Kanter never played a minute for the Wildcats and so his stature only grew to mythical proportions around the commonwealth, making it impossible for Harrellson to live up to the task.

Today, the Missouri native is a steady presence for the Wildcats, a player so beloved he has made the unforgivable fashion faux pas of jorts-wearing somehow acceptable.

In that early game film, he’s a vampire. He doesn’t show up. Saddled with foul trouble, he played only 21 minutes, scoring just four points while Zeller and Henson went wild.

Two nights ago, he notched 17 points and snagged 10 rebounds against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger.

“He did this,’’ Calipari said. “It’s not what I have done. It’s not about me coaching him up. He did it. He changed.’’

And along the way, he brought Kentucky with him. This is a team that has grown up. They have turned their inability to win close games into an art form of gut-check game winners.

These aren’t your December Wildcats any more than they are your December Tar Heels.

Don’t believe it?

Just check the game film.