The MOST ANTICIPATED North Carolina at Kentucky Preview!

Posted by Gerald Smith on December 3rd, 2011

The game that nearly every college basketball fan has circled on their calendars is finally here: #4 North Carolina visiting #1 Kentucky. The hype for the game started with Kentucky’s defeat of UNC in the 2011 Elite Eight. Then anticipation turned into a frenzy when upperclassmen — sophomore Harrison Barnes, senior Tyler Zeller, and junior John Henson for the Tar Heels, sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones for the Wildcats — passed on the 2011 NBA Draft. Instead the NBA will be coming to them (if they can get the media credentials) Saturday at Noon EST. Plebeians like the rest of us can watch the national broadcast on CBS.

Series History (by Gerald Smith): These two programs are the foundation of college basketball, yet on Saturday they play each other for just the 35th time in history. The Tar Heels own the overall series 22-12 and have padded their lead with a 6-2 record since 2004. Back in the 1920s, North Carolina and Kentucky were actually conference-mates in the Southern Conference. The two teams played each other twice in the conference tournament held in Atlanta and once in Lexington, with the Tar Heels coming away victorious each time. Kentucky left to join the Southeastern Conference while North Carolina eventually split off with other Southern Conference teams to form the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Adolph Rupp Helped Turn This Into A Regular Series in the 1960s

Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp and first-year UNC coach Dean Smith organized a ten-game home-and-home series starting in 1962. According to’s highly-detailed write-up of the UNC-UK rivalry, the first game of the series saw the debut of Smith’s “the Kentucky play”: a prototype version of Smith’s (in)famous Four Corners offense. North Carolina point guard Larry Brown — yeah, that Larry Brown — would move the ball to the middle and all other Carolina players would space out to the four corners of the floor. By controlling the ball and limiting Wildcat great Cotton Nash to 12 points, North Carolina upset the Wildcats, 88-86. During the 11 games that encompassed this first regular-season series, UNC won eight of them.

There have been plenty of other notable moments in the UNC/UK series:

  • With All-American Sam Bowie injured, the #2 Wildcats could not slow down the #1 Tar Heels in December 1981. Much like Saturday’s matchup, the game was a preview of future professional players (UK’s Dirk Minniefield, Melvin Turpin and Derrick Hord; UNC’s James Worthy, Sam Perkins and that Jordan kid.) UNC’s future pros overpowered Kentucky’s future pros by the score of 82-69.
  • A two-game series with North Carolina was renewed when Rick Pitino took over a depleted Kentucky roster. Both teams came out firing, with Carolina out-bombing Pitino’s Bombinos by the score of 121-110. The Wildcats were 21-48 (43.8%) on three-pointers; North Carolina shot 10-20 behind the arc and 40-66 (60.6%) overall. UNC was led by King Rice (22 points), Jackson Vahue Rick Fox (20 points), and current ESPN College Basketball analyst Hubert Davis (14 points)
  • North Carolina’s Rasheed Wallace and Kentucky’s Andre Riddick nearly come to blows after ‘Sheed caught Riddick with an elbow in the 1995 NCAA Elite Eight. Referee Tim Higgins watched a replay and then assessed an additional Technical Foul to… Walter McCarty. The Tar Heels would end up knocking out the Wildcats by the score of 74-61.
  • Kentucky great Tayshaun Prince knocked down five three-pointers in a row at the beginning of the 2001 match-up. The fifth three-pointer was about seven feet away from the top of the three-point arc, causing arguably the loudest moment in Rupp Arena history. Despite a heroic effort by UNC’s Kris Lang — who played in the second half despite battling physical illness — Kentucky coasted to a 79-59 victory.
  • Oh yeah, last year’s Elite Eight game was pretty epic as well. Although Tyler Zeller had 21 points and nine rebounds and Harrison Barnes had 18 points for the Tar Heels it wasn’t enough to keep up with Kentucky’s hot outside shooting (12-22 3FG), including DeAndre Liggins’ corner dagger to seal the game for the Wildcats. UK’s 76-69 victory was the first time in the history of the rivalry that it was able to knock UNC out of the NCAA Tournament.

Why Kentucky Will Win (by Brian Joyce): It may not be number one against number two, but this match-up is still as good as it gets. Almost every player that sees the court in this one could be playing in the NBA one day. Add in the atmosphere in Rupp Arena, and we have a championship caliber game on Saturday. I have three reasons why Kentucky is going to win this showdown, and it starts with being in Lexington:

  1. Home Court Advantage Is Key For the Cats — Put these two teams in Chapel Hill, and MAYBE the result is different. But Kentucky doesn’t lose in Rupp Arena. At least they haven’t with John Calipari as coach. And I don’t see that changing on Saturday. Calipari and the Cats are 37-0 at home since he took over in 2009. Rupp Arena will be rocking for this game, as this matchup has been circled on the eRUPPtion Zone’s calendars since December 4, 2010, when UNC beat UK in the Smith Center. There is no better big game atmosphere than the one in Lexington, and the home court advantage will give Kentucky an extra boost of confidence.
  2. Kentucky’s Dominating Defense — The Tar Heels haven’t had a game yet this season where they turned the ball over fewer than 10 times. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s defense is suffocating. The Cats are the #1 defense in the country in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency (82.6, according to Their long and athletic defenders blocked a school record 18 shots and forced 19 turnovers against St. John’s on Thursday. And only one team has shot an effective field goal percentage above 38% on the Cats (Portland – 46.7 eFG%). Kentucky’s defense will frustrate the Tar Heels into too many mistakes and poor shot selection because the Heels won’t be able to get in a good rhythm offensively.
  3. Kentucky’s Advantage in Transition — Kentucky has struggled at times in half court sets offensively this season. The one game this year the offensive struggles were extremely evident was in a 62-52 win over Old Dominion. The Monarchs slowed the tempo of the game, and got extremely physical with Kentucky’s thin and wiry frontcourt. They showed other teams a blueprint for having a chance to beat the Cats. The only problem is North Carolina won’t get physical and they certainly won’t slow down. The Tar Heels like to run just as much as the Wildcats, but I think Kentucky has the advantage in transition because of the speed of the Wildcats’ frontcourt in sprinting towards the basket for lob passes. UK has been excellent in fast break opportunities (with the exception of 0 fast break points against Old Dominion), and they get plenty of second chance points because of their 36.6 offensive rebounding percentage. The Tar Heels will keep the pace quick, playing right into Kentucky’s hands. Freshman point guard Marquis Teague may turn the ball over frequently (3.2 TPG), but he’s excellent in the open court at finding open teammates (4.2 APG).

Why North Carolina Will Win (by Kellen Carpenter): Make no mistake, North Carolina is the clear underdog in this match-up and a win against an incredibly talented Kentucky team is a tough task to pull off. At Rupp Arena? It’s a nearly impossible task. Still if there is any team in the country that has the potential to pull it off (that’s not named Ohio State), it’s North Carolina. Let me explain how UNC could pull off the upset:

  1. Kentucky Isn’t Built to Exploit North Carolina’s Weaknesses. North Carolina has two clear vulnerabilities: turnovers and three-point shooting. Kentucky exploited North Carolina’s iffy perimeter defense in March, UNLV did the same last Saturday, and Wisconsin nearly exploited North Carolina’s turnovers to steal a game on Wednesday. This Kentucky team shoots threes much less frequently than last year’s incarnation (24.9% of field goals this year compared with 32.4% last year). Though they shoot a good percentage, a repeat of the 12 three-pointer performance is unlikely. While Kentucky’s defense has been excellent, the team has only been average (147th on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings) at forcing turnovers. Unless Kentucky radically departs from its customary style, North Carolina will get to play the kind of game it wants to play making this game very different from March.
  2. Tyler Zeller Can Kill Kentucky. Maybe it’s because he broke his wrist in his freshmen year against Kentucky, but in any case, Zeller dominated the Wildcats last year. Last December, Zeller scored 27 points on 13 shots while amassing 11 rebounds and five blocks. In March, he managed 21 points on 12 shots, nine rebounds, and four blocks. Outside of the box score stuffing, he and John Henson did an excellent job at containing and frustrating Terrence Jones. In December, Jones shot 3-17 on his way to nine points and six rebounds before fouling out. He managed to improve those number in March with 11 points and seven rebounds, but he also committed four turnovers. Anthony Davis is a great player, but the Tar Heels history of containing and exploiting Jones suggests that the frontcourt match up might not tilt in Kentucky’s favor nearly as much as some suspect.
  3. North Carolina Moves the Ball and Has Better Chemistry Than Kentucky or Any Team Kentucky Has Played. Assists/made field goal is a fairly decent proxy measure for how well the team moves the ball. 62.3% of UNC’s made field goals are assisted, good for 31st in the country on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, compared to 54.0% for Kentucky (146th). By a quirk of the schedule, Kentucky has yet to face any opponent in the top 100 in this category and has actually mostly faced opponents in the bottom half of the assist to made field goal ratios. The point? Kentucky has not yet faced an opponent who moves the ball even close to as well as North Carolina does. The Tar Heels aren’t much older than Kentucky, but they play with a chemistry and togetherness that’s hard to top. Kendall Marshall is the straw that stirs the drink, passing the ball with an uncanny ability that isn’t matched by anyone in college basketball. It’s a small thing to hold onto, but Carolina’s clear edge when it comes to playmaking has the potential to really surprise Kentucky.
Gerald Smith (39 Posts)

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