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.
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?