An Early Look At North Carolina vs. Kentucky 2011: #1 vs. #2Posted by zhayes9 on May 12th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist at Rush the Court.
Let the anticipation begin. Let the hype build. Let the #1 vs. #2 talk commence.
Okay, so the annual Kentucky vs. North Carolina clash is still a distant seven months away. But as soon as Harrison Barnes turned down lottery millions to return to a loaded roster at North Carolina, and fellow first round guarantee Terrence Jones followed in his path, every college basketball fanatic had an identical epiphany: UK vs. UNC, 2011 edition, could be the biggest non-conference clash since Memphis battled Tennessee in February of 2008. From a pure talent level, nothing has approached it since Memphis battled UCLA in a national semifinal (Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Darren Collison, Chris Douglas-Roberts) or Carolina met Illinois for the title in 2005 (Deron Williams, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams, Sean May, Luther Head, Rashad McCants).
Granted, success at the professional level isn’t guaranteed, but Kentucky vs. North Carolina in December could produce seven lottery picks and ten total first-round selections: Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and James McAdoo from the Heels and Anthony Davis, Michael Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb from the ‘Cats (if only DeAndre Liggins or Brandon Knight had opted to return). In a one-and-done era where coaches are often hesitant to pit their teams against other loaded contenders early in the season, that type of talent accumulation in one game is extremely rare today.
To conjure up our collective college hoops juices at the start of a painfully long offseason, here’s a glimpse at what we can look forward to in early December from a matchup-by-matchup standpoint, followed by an initial verdict in the ongoing debate over who should be considered the premiere team in the land for 2011-12.
Point Guard: Kendall Marshall vs. Marquis Teague
The point guard matchup is the standout reason why this game has so much appeal. Marshall and Teague are extremely similar in their styles, strengths and perceived weaknesses. Both operate effectively in the open floor where they can push tempo. Teague should mesh seamlessly in John Calipari’s dribble-drive attack and Marshall in Carolina’s favored secondary break. Born floor generals blessed with advanced court vision at such a young age, both will be asked to remain in their comfort zone and play the role of creator for the multitude of talented weapons each has at their disposal. Marshall and Teague will also defend each other in similar fashion by sagging defensively and forcing jump shots. Marshall receives the edge mainly because we’ve seen his magic on full display at the collegiate level already, but while Teague won’t be quite as explosive or dynamic as his predecessors at the position under Calipari, his importance is no less vital to the success of Kentucky next season. Edge: Marshall.
Shooting Guard: Dexter Strickland vs. Doron Lamb
Incredibly, Strickland is the only player in either starting five not projected to be a first round selection. (Side note: ponder a UK-UNC championship in March 2012 and then think of yourself watching a replay in 2022 on ESPN Classic when they announce the starting lineups individually and three or four players are assimilated stars in the NBA. Your jaw will be on the ground). Strickland has struggled with his jump shot during his time in Chapel Hill, but Roy Williams values the 6’3 guard for his lateral quickness, strength and tenacity on the defensive end, allowing Strickland to guard three positions. Limiting Lamb from springing four or five from long range will be crucial. Not quite as heralded as Jones or Knight, he quietly poured in a very impressive freshman campaign, shooting 49% from three and dropping over 12 points per contest. Although Strickland has shut-down abilities, Lamb’s marksmanship from deep makes him the ultimate X-factor in this anticipated contest. Edge: Lamb.
Small Forward: Harrison Barnes vs. Michael Gilchrist
We arrive at the most fascinating matchup of UK-UNC because the two are so similar on various levels. From their humble modesty off the floor to their dedication, unwavering focus and analogous repertoires on the floor, Gilchrist and Barnes will be the MVPs of their respective teams in more ways than one next season and possible top five picks next June. Like Barnes, Gilchrist’s one perceived weakness is range on his jump shot, which can result in shooting slumps and inconsistency. And also like Barnes, Gilchrist is a rugged rebounder and committed defender and team player with immeasurable talent to boot. If the jumper isn’t falling (I suspect Barnes has a much smoother time during his sophomore year in this regard), neither player will let it drain other aspects of their game. These are two players that any coach would dream of instructing and teaching. As we witnessed in the second half of last season, Barnes is just beginning to reach his full potential as a basketball player. Edge: Barnes.
Power Forward: John Henson vs. Terrence Jones
Sure, Jones’ mediocre second half prompted his return to school and his missed free throws against Connecticut likely will haunt the soon-to-be sophomore the entire summer, but let’s not completely dismiss the stellar debut campaign he posted: 15.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 44% FG and eight games of 20+ points including a 27/17 against eventual #2 seed Notre Dame. Once defenses figured out to push him right and both Knight and Darius Miller started to become more integral roles in the offense, Jones faded and needs to reclaim that aggressive and demanding mentality. Henson is more known for his incredible 7’6 wingspan and shot-blocking/disruptive ability on the defensive end, but an offensive game that was nonexistent as a freshman blossomed to respectability by late last season. He will undoubtedly give Jones difficulties establishing a rhythm and could send him right out of his comfort zone. If Carolina can play this matchup to a scoring draw, they’ll be more than pleased. Slight edge: Henson.
Center: Tyler Zeller vs. Anthony Davis
I’ve long believed Zeller was Carolina’s most reliable offensive weapon – especially when he’s able to establish position on the right block and finish with a patented hook shot over his left shoulder – but Anthony Davis could very well be a future #1 overall pick that many are comparing to Kevin Garnett. Formerly an unheralded 6’3 guard hidden in the recruiting gold mine of Chicago, Davis’ enormous growth spurt to a 6’10 center with a 7’4 wingspan and the skills of a guard resulted in his unheard-of ascension from relative unknown to the top of most recruiting rankings of his class. Davis’ ball-handling and passing skills from the post, rebounding prowess and tremendous athleticism will pose a challenging task for the less-mobile Zeller, although the Carolina senior clearly has the edge both in terms of experience and overall offensive repertoire. It’s possible Davis matches up with Henson instead as both are very similar players. Slight edge: Davis.
Bench – Calipari is an advocate of trimming his bench to seven or eight deep. Wily senior Darius Miller would start on just about every other Division I team, while Cal can also point to face-up four Kyle Wiltjer to provide instant offense off the pine with his touch from the perimeter. Wiltjer committed to Kentucky without even visiting the campus, so I’d assume he’s content with a bench role even coming in as a five-star recruit. Eloy Vargas is the contingency plan in case Davis slips into foul trouble, the same role the Florida transfer played for Josh Harrellson last season. Carolina is equally loaded off the pine with future lottery pick James McAdoo, a lunch-pail post performer with great hands and scoring ability around the basket. Fellow freshman P.J. Hairston could be a solution to the Heels perimeter shooting struggles, as could an improved Leslie McDonald and a healthy Reggie Bullock, two more extremely talented players that make up the back end of Williams’ enviable rotation. Slight edge: North Carolina.
Experience – Once again, John Calipari will trot out a starting lineup for the Kentucky opener with minimal experience – three freshman and two sophomores – with senior Darius Miller seeing ample minutes off the bench. Carolina has many more collegiate minutes under its belt. Their starting five features two sophomores, two junior and one senior in Zeller, although he’s been oft-injured over the course of his time in Chapel Hill. It is worth noting that Williams’ first calls from the bench will likely be to freshmen McAdoo and Hairston, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for the experience gap. As we saw last March with VCU’s run to the title, experience has long been overrated. Still, in early December with only a few games completed playing in front of a raucous atmosphere and the world watching on CBS, Zeller, Henson and Barnes’ “been there, done that” mentality does play a factor. Major edge: North Carolina.
Verdict – Although Carolina holds most of the advantages at this date, the wildly anticipated UK-UNC battle of 2011 will be played in Rupp Arena, so one should expect a tightly-knit game. Perusing the landscape of this game in mid-May, though, the advantage goes to North Carolina. I suspect the first polls in the fall will produce the same result. Let the countdown begin.