In one of the most interesting matchups of the young college basketball season, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels will travel to Lexington, Kentucky and into Rupp Arena to take on the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats at noon on Saturday, Dec. 13.
The Wildcats come into the game 10-0, barely escaping with a win against an unranked Ivy League opponent in Columbia. To start the game, Kentucky went down 11-0, and the National Championship runner-ups trailed by two at the half. After what I’m assuming were some harsh words from coach John Calipari, Kentucky took the lead with about ten minutes to play, and was able to hang on to a 56-46 victory.
The Tar Heels have taken a different path to start the season. They come into the game at 6-2, with an eight-point loss to Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and a five-point loss to Iowa at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill. This team will have a lot to prove, and upsetting the number one team in the nation on the road would really give the Tar Heels a lot of confidence heading into ACC play in the new year.
Kentucky, as usual, is a very young team, although they return some very valuable pieces from last year’s team. One of those pieces will be unavailable the rest of the year, as junior Alex Poythress tore his ACL in practice on Thursday. Poythress has seen his role diminish in the past two years. His freshman year, he averaged 11.2 PPG, but dropped to 5.9 last year and 5.5 this year. Willie Cauley-Stein shocked a few people when he decided to return to Kentucky for his junior year, but has been elevating his NBA draft stock by leading the Wildcats in scoring (10.3) and rebounding (6.9). The Harrison twins are back, and are both playing well, but have been forcing too many three pointers and off balance shots. The result has been mediocre shooting, 35.2% (Aaron) and 39.3% (Andrew). Those aren’t the kind of stats you want if you are hoping to be a first round pick.
In fact, the Wildcats rank 81st in the nation in field goal percentage at 46.6%. They are not ranked in the top-10 in any major offensive category. It is their defense that has kept them in games and kept them their number one ranking. They rank first in the nation in points allowed (45.8) and second in blocks per game (8.6), much in thanks to their 6-11 freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. He is averaging 9 points, almost seven rebounds and nearly three blocks per game, while being third on the team in field goal percentage at 53.8%.
The Tar Heels come into the game with a lot of the same problems at Kentucky. Everyone in Tar Heel nation fully expected Marcus Paige to be the man for Carolina. He was a preseason All-American, but has not really played like one this season. He comes into the game against Kentucky ninth on the team in field goal percentage at 35.5%. Although he is leading the team in points per game with 14, he is also missing an average of seven shots per game. Those are not the numbers expected from a superstar. The Heels are shooting a lousy 28% from three point range, and just 69.8% from the free-throw line.
One thing that broadcasters can’t seem to get enough of is Kennedy Meeks. The big man came into Chapel Hill weighing in at 317 pounds. He is now 266. He has lost over 50 pounds, and his production on the court has flourished because of it. He is second on the team with 13.8 PPG, and first with 10.1 rebounds per game. The Tar Heels, although not as deep as Kentucky, have a deep roster. They have an eight man rotation, with players nine and ten getting about ten and seven minutes, respectively. Freshman Justin Jackson has impressed with his long athletic body and hustle. The 6-8 guard/forward combo is averaging 10.4 PPG in just about 25 minutes per contest.
This game in an intriguing one, for sure with the youth of the Wildcats matching up against some quality experience for the Tar Heels in Paige, Meeks, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto. It is expected to be a very fast game, as both teams excel in the fast break due to their athletic guards and quick bigs. One thing this game will not see is a 3-point contest. The key for both teams is to get the wings hot, while allowing the bigs to establish presence down low. Whichever team can dominate the boards (and make a few free throws down the stretch) is going to come out on top.
No word yet if Drake will be in attendance.
*Section Photo credit to Bob Donnan, US Presswire; Featured Photo (above) credit to Bob Donnan, USA Today Sports.