Previewing Kentucky’s Visit to Chapel Hill

Posted by Lathan Wells & Matt Patton on December 14th, 2013

Today’s match-up between North Carolina and Kentucky in Chapel Hill looks a bit different than it did on paper at the start of the season. Some Kentucky fans talked up a perfect 40-0 record before reality set in with losses to a veteran, talent-laden Michigan State team and a more physical, driven Baylor squad. Neither loss is a bad one, of course, but both brought the Wildcats back to the realization that this year would not be a simple strut to the national championship game. North Carolina, meanwhile, has suffered puzzling losses to Belmont at home and UAB in a winnable game on the road, but also stunned then-#1 Michigan State in East Lansing and defending national champion Louisville on a neutral floor. No one seems to know what to make of this Tar Heels squad, especially with PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald still swimming in NCAA limbo. Today marks the renewal of the rivalry after a one-year hiatus between these goliath programs, each with plenty of question marks at this early stage of the season. RTC ACC microsite columnists Lathan Wells and Matt Patton break down the game in point/counterpoint style below.

How will North Carolina slow down Julius Randle? (M. Zerof/USA Today)

How will North Carolina slow down Julius Randle? (M. Zerof/USA Today)

Lathan: Kentucky’s strength obviously lies in its overall athleticism, but it seems that its dominance in the paint early has been the key to their victories. Do you see them overwhelming North Carolina there, or do the guards have to be the difference?

Matt: Kentucky has to get something from its guards, as North Carolina is one of the few teams in the country with the size to match up against the Wildcats in the frontcourt. That said, Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle are tough for anyone to stop. Randle’s strength and athleticism makes him an impossible match-up, but the real key is that Kentucky has to play good defense. It’s no coincidence that Kentucky’s two losses have come during the only two times opponents have topped 1.1 points per possession against them. But I’ll ask a similar question. No one on North Carolina, apart from Marcus Paige, has shown the ability to make a three, and Kentucky has the second best two-point field goal defense in the country. Which will give first: Kentucky’s defense or North Carolina’s offense?

Lathan: Unless JP Tokoto or Nate Britt shocks the world by becoming a lethal marksman from deep in this game, Paige is the only option from three. North Carolina’s rebounding is probably the key; it may not shoot well on its first attempt, but the Tar Heels’ ability to get second shots and win hustle plays was a big part of beating both Louisville and Michigan State. It would be nice if the Tar Heels could count on a big game from James Michael McAdoo, a player who has the ability to stretch the defense by playing both the four inside and the three roaming the perimeter. I have one concern with Kentucky, though. At times, the Harrisons (amongst others) seem to get a bit disillusioned with rough starts to games or teams that are physical with them. Calipari has hinted at his team’s need for better toughness since the Baylor loss. Is there evidence that his players have heeded his call?

Marcus Paige needs to have another great game for the Tar Heels. (Scott Muthersbaugh / The Times News)

Marcus Paige needs to have another great game for the Tar Heels. (Scott Muthersbaugh/The Times News)

Matt: It’s tough to say. Kentucky’s most recent game against Boise State was arguably the team’s best defensive performance of the season. It seemed like every Broncos’ drive for a significant stretch resulted in a Cauley-Stein block. But offensively there was still plenty of room for improvement (specifically in the turnover department). So it certainly appears that the team rose to the challenge, but it’s also worth noting that both of its losses came away from home. Kentucky cannot let North Carolina and its fans dictate the tone early. Going back to the Tar Heels’ interior play, Kennedy Meeks has arguably been North Carolina’s best player (not counting Marcus Paige), but he plays limited minutes. Will he be able to stay on the floor against Kentucky, and whom do you expect him to match up with?

Lathan: Meeks is almost always shorter than his opponents in the paint, but he has a knack for being around the rim and missed shots. His outlet passing ability is North Carolina’s best shot at getting into transition, so his minutes are extremely valuable. Luckily, Meeks’ game and minutes often keeps him from getting into early foul trouble, so he should be able to remain on the floor. Randle would appear to be the match-up he’ll face when he’s on the court since they’re somewhat similar in height, but Meeks doesn’t play above the rim. Randle’s athleticism and Cauley-Stein’s length could present a big deterrent to Meeks’ ability to function underneath the basket. Even though UNC has had an up-and-down season, they’ve proven they can beat good teams and this is still a rivalry game. How do you think the young Wildcats will handle the road environment in Chapel Hill, and who needs to be their calming influence on the floor? 

Matt: I think you hit the nail on the head. Both of these teams have as many questions as answers. I think Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison are the key guys for John Calipari. If they come out looking to control the game and make good decisions, I really like the Wildcats’ chances here. If those two make dumb errors early and allow North Carolina to frustrate them, the Tar Heels could run away with this one. A guy we haven’t talked much about is James Young. His (somewhat streaky) shooting has a chance to be an x-factor. He’s capable of putting up points in a hurry, and when the offense is clicking, you don’t need a calming presence. That said, Kentucky hasn’t shown the ability yet to beat a Top 25 caliber team — especially away from home — but North Carolina’s shown the capacity to lose to the likes of Belmont and UAB. Why do you think North Carolina has been so mercurial this season, and how can they avoid playing at that level?

Lathan: The Belmont loss could be chalked up to a horrendous night at the free throw line and a young team that may have looked past a talented mid-major team at home. UAB was more likely a “hangover” effect after their shocking win over Louisville in Connecticut. This team appears to have realized that its lineup is going to operate minus Hairston and Leslie McDonald in the near future, and roles seem to be a bit more defined. They may not be as talented on paper as Kentucky, but they’re definitely playing more consistently with the roster they have. This team seems to have it ingrained in their head of late that they have to play to their strengths and not get too high or low trying to do different things. Their non-conference wins also have them believing they can win against anybody, anywhere. It has worked of late, and the confidence they’ve built in their marquee wins has to have them prepared for a rivalry match-up at home in the Dean Dome.

Why North Carolina will win: North Carolina wins if the frontcourt match-up is essentially a draw (or if the rebounding goes slightly in the Heels’ favor), Marcus Paige can keep up with the Kentucky backcourt’s scoring ability, and their free throw shooting is at least serviceable.

Why Kentucky will win: The Wildcats win if they take advantage of perimeter scoring and keep their composure. Randle is too strong for the offensively talented side of the North Carolina frontcourt and Cauley-Stein’s shot-blocking will help neutralize North Carolina’s offense.

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