You know, I can't describe how excited I am about this game. I'm a giddy schoolboy every single year (well, at least for the last two) when the Kentucky Wildcats suit up against the North Carolina Tar Heels and prepare to do battle on the hardwood.
I usually populate my pre-game commentary with statistics, and charts, and graphs. Not today. Not this one. For one, everybody knows who plays for the Tar Heels. No matter what we may think about them as fans, they, like us, are basketball royalty. The 'Cats versus the Heels -- two of the most storied basketball programs in all of America getting together to test each other's mettle and forge memories that will last a generation.
This is not just another basketball game. This is a clash of Titans, of planets, of galaxies. This is the good stuff that every college basketball fan worth his or her salt lives to see. Every game of this series has been memorable for something, and this one is almost guaranteed to be no exception.
Kentucky and North Carolina have met previously 32 times, with the Wildcats prevailing in 11, and the Tar Heels winning 21. It is also a little-known fact that UNC and UK once played in the same conference, the Southern Conference back in the 1920's. That conference was a huge, 33-team mega-conference that eventually broke up into the ACC and the SEC, as well as others. All this knowledge, and more, can be found at Jon Scott's outstanding Kentucky basketball history site, to which every UK fan should have a bookmark or committed to memory.
This year's Tar Heels are sporting some of the finest young talent in the league, but they have struggled a bit so far, particularly on the road. The Heels are 4-3 and so far have played a substantially easier schedule than 5-1 Kentucky. With that said, all of their losses have been to very good basketball teams -- the Vanderbilt Commodores, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and the Illinois Fighting Illini. Two UNC losses were in Puerto Rico on a neutral floor, and the other was on the road in Champaign, Il. For a full statistical preview of the game, check out Statsheet.com.
The Tar Heels' main struggles have been with offensive efficiency. The Heels are averaging only 1.04 points/possession (compare with UK's 1.16). Defensively, UNC has allowed virtually the same number of points as Kentucky, 0.94 PPP, so the struggle for the Heels has been all about offense.
The biggest reason for UNC's offensive struggles have been high turnover % (22%) and poor free throw shooting (sounds like another team I know). Their 3-point FG% is decent at over 36%, but UK's is absolutely stellar at 41%. Also, the Tar Heels force even fewer turnovers from opponents than Kentucky, if you can imagine that.
Overall, this game is a bit of a physical mismatch. The Heels are bigger and taller than UK, and the last team we ran into with that particular characteristic handed us our butts on a silver platter. On the other hand, this is a relatively low-octane version of North Carolina, with their pace clocking in at only 68.5 possessions/game, just slighly slower than Kentucky. Over the last few years, UNC has been one of the highest-pace teams in America, so this team is a bit of a departure for Ol' Roy, likely because of their relative lack of athleticism.
Of the two teams, there is really no doubt who needs it more. North Carolina has lost two games in a row, and they will be spoiling for a home victory, so the young Wildcats are in a very tough spot in this game. The good news is, the Tar Heels are not significantly more experienced and absolutely no more talented than Kentucky, so despite their size advantage, this is overall a very good match up. A quick look, position-wise:
Point guard: Larry Drew II vs. Brandon Knight -- Drew is talented player and a good scorer, similar to Knight in some respects. The difference is that Knight is a much better ballhandler and is more talented overall. Drew will have difficulty staying in front of Knight.
Kendall Marshall, Drew's backup, is also a talented lead guard, although more of a pass-first player. Despite coming off the bench, Marshall leads the team in assists per game. Marshall is not as skilled as Knight, or Doron Lamb, for that matter. Advantage -- Wildcats
Off guard: Dexter Strickland is an excellent penetrator and, much like Kentucky's Doron Lamb, prefers to do his damage in the mid-range. Strickland is quick off the bounce and can pass the ball well from the two spot. The biggest problem with Strickland's game so far has been turnovers, as he is averaging more turnovers (2.5) than assists (2.0). Leslie McDonald is the backup to Strickland, and McDonald is an extremely dangerous 3-point shooter.
Matching up with him will be DeAndre Liggins, although it is likely that Liggins will be guarding Tar Heel freshman sensation Harrison Barnes. Liggins is a dangerous penetrator on offense and a shut-down defender, and his 3-point shooting has significantly improved from last year. Advantage -- Wildcats.
Small forward: Harrison Barnes is the small forward for the Tar heels, and he's widely considered to be the #1 incoming freshman from the 2010 class. Barnes can shoot the ball inside, penetrate off the dribble, pass, rebound and defend. He has had a couple of poor shooting games this year, but don't think for a minute that Barnes is anything other than a dangerous scorer inside and out.
Darius Miller is not as talented as Barnes, but he is more experienced and a good size matchup for the freshman. However, Miller is likely (although not certainly) going to be guarding Dexter Strickland rather than Barnes. Strickland will have the quickness advantage, and Miller will need to be on top of his game, defensively, to keep Strickland out of the paint. Advantage -- North Carolina
Power forward: John Henson, the rail-thin power forward for the Tar Heels, will be an intriguing matchup for the Wildcats. Henson is an inside player who uses his length and athleticism to get the job done inside, but he is not really bulky enough for the position. Henson is very athletic and a great shot blocker, but he will be going up against Kentucky's Terrence Jones, and that is a major problem for the Heels.
Jones can draw North Carolina's leading rebounder away from the basket, forcing him to defend Jones off the dribble. That is just not going to go well for the Heels, so they are probably going to have to use several defenders on Jones. Either way, Jones presents a major challenge for UNC as they don't have a player other than Barnes who is quick enough to guard Jones outside, and big enough to handle him inside. Advantage -- Wildcats
Center: Tyler Zeller is the Tar Heel's center, and he is a very good one. Zeller is currently the leading scorer for North Carolina, and is a very capable low-post player who can also shoot the ball from the perimeter. Zeller is long, tall, and experienced, and he presents the biggest challenge of the year on the interior for the Wildcats.
Kentucky's Josh Harrellson and backup Eloy Vargas will have all they can handle on defense, and keeping Zeller off the offensive glass will be quite difficult given his skill level. Advantage -- North Carolina.
Bench-wise, UNC is deeper, Kentucky slightly more talented. In a game like this, particularly at home, I think you have to give UNC the nod. Justin Knox, Leslie McDonald, Justin Watts and Kendall Marshall represent a formidable backup group for the Tar Heels, all extremely talented players who would likely be starting elsewhere. Advantage: Tar Heels
This game should be very entertaining, and I look forward to it anxiously every year. I love playing North Carolina not only because of their rich basketball history, but since John Calipari came to Kentucky these two teams seem to match up very well every year. It is a game every college basketball fan should mark on their calendar, and I can't wait to toss it up.
For the North Carolina perspective on the game, check out the excellent SBNation UNC blog, Carolina March.