Ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, this is it -- the moment we have all been waiting for since Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer inked their letters of intent last year, and Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb eschewed the NBA Draft to return to Kentucky. This is the momentous game we have all been waiting for, the early climax to the non-conference season.
This pre-conference season for Kentucky has been very well set up,either by design or by accident. The right mix of teams including a tough but not dominant Kansas Jayhawks, some tough mid-majors like ODU and Portland, some Big 6 conference teams like Penn St. and St. John's, and a few easy games to work out the kinks, have all prepared Kentucky very well for this moment.
This is the second in Kentucky's series of three early season exams, and likely to be the toughest -- a tilt against one of our blue-blooded brethren, the powder-blue-bloods of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Tobacco Road meets the Bluegrass. In the universe of college basketball, this is the equivalent of a supernova, the brightest explosion in existence, and it will be attended by virtually everyone that matters in the college basketball world. Basketball royalty clashes tomorrow on one of the biggest stages there is -- historic Rupp Arena.
I know you can all feel the excitement, and in honor of that tension, we have a special extended edition of the pre-game including lots of linguistic legerdemain, all the hyperbole you could ever want, plus a few stats and analysis just to keep the whole thing honest.
First, let's compare the team's seasons:
Let's look at the teams. First, the visiting North Carolina Tar Heels:
North Carolina Tar Heels Roster
|35||Reggie Bullock||Sixth Man||G||6-7||205||Sophomore||7||0||15.7||7.4||48.7||2.7||0.9||0.9||0.1|
|43||James Michael McAdoo||Major Res.||F||6-9||220||Freshman||7||0||14.0||5.9||50.0||3.6||0.4||1.0||0.3|
|15||P.J. Hairston||Major Res.||G||6-5||220||Freshman||7||0||12.1||8.3||43.6||1.7||0.7||0.1||0.3|
|2||Leslie McDonald||Unavailable||G||6-5||210||Junior||ACL injury|
|4||Luke Davis||Unavailable||G||6-0||172||Sophomore||Year in residence|
Next, your University of Kentucky Wildcats:
Kentucky Wildcats Roster
|1||Darius Miller||Sixth Man||G/F||6-8||235||Senior||7||1||24.4||8.6||45.1||3.7||3.6||1.0||0.6|
|33||Kyle Wiltjer||Major Res.||F||6-9||239||Freshman||7||0||15.7||7.0||42.2||3.4||0.9||0.3||1|
|4||Jon Hood||Unavailable||G/F||6-7||215||Junior||ACL injury|
|12||Ryan Harrow||Unavailable||G||6-2||175||Sophomore||Year in residence|
|22||Stacey Poole, Jr.||Unavailable||G||6-4||200||Sophomore||Transferring out|
|10||Twany Beckham||Unavailable||G||6-5||205||Junior||Semester in residence|
|UNC Offense||UK Defense||UNC Defense||UK Offense|
Overall, this is a very even matchup between two great teams. Nominally, PJ Hairston would have given the Tar Heels a notable advantage in the rotation, but he is supposedly out with a wrist injury, which really puts UNC in a hole, having to use David Dupont, a far less talented player. Even if Hairston is able to go, his shooting isn't likely to be up to par.
While these seem the most sensible matchups to me, Calipari is famous for trying all manner of crazy stuff, including putting his best defender on a team's point guard when the point guard is especially dangerous, and this is just such a case. Kendall Marshall is one of the best, if not the best passing point guard in college basketball, and if Kentucky can slow him down, it would pay big dividends for the Wildcats.
The Four Factors to Winning
As you can see, there just isn't any real significant statistical advantage for either team. For all intents and purposes, these teams are as evenly matched statistically as they are personnel-wise.
The biggest advantage Kentucky will have in this game is Rupp Arena, and that does mean quite a bit in terms of victory possibilities.
This game comes down to execution and transition defense. If North Carolina is able to run at will, they will surely win this game. If UK is able to execute in the half-court at the level that they did in the second half of the St. John's game, North Carolina will be in a world of hurt.
There are several other critical issues which will have a major impact on the outcome of this game:
- Fouls on Anthony Davis. Davis is so critical to Kentucky's success that it is hard to imagine them winning without him against North Carolina unless one of the other key criticalities is violated. Davis is the X-factor, the impossible defender, the floor-running big man who can handle, the lob-dunking machine. He does so many fundamental things so well that he has become Kentucky's indispensable man.
- Fouls on Kendall Marshall. Marshall is the one player that North Carolina absolutely has to have on the floor. He leads UNC in minutes played, and without him, they are far more likely to turn the ball over than anything else. Marshall is nearly the sole initiator of the UNC offense, particularly effective at igniting the fast break. Without him on the floor for 30 minutes or more, UNC probably cannot win.
- Turnovers. North Carolina withstands turnovers better than Kentucky does, in terms of offensive efficiency.
- Time of possession. The longer Kentucky runs their offense, the more likely they are to get clean looks. Conversely, the longer the Tar Heels are forced to run their offense, the worse shot they are likely to get. Half-court offense and half-court defense are both a definite Tar Heel weakness, but Kentucky must be patient and effective to exploit them.
- Three point shooting. Kentucky is the inflexion point here, because they depend far more on three-point shooting than North Carolina. If the Wildcats are hot from three, North Carolina has no answer -- they don't defend the three well, and their three-point offense is largely confined to Harrison Barnes and PJ Hairston, who is supposedly unavailable. The problem is, the Tar Heels just don't shoot many threes.
There are numerous other factors that could play into the game, but these are the big ones. Offensive rebounds and free throw shooting will have a marginal impact, and the Tar Heels come out on the short end, statistically, of both those margins so far. With that said, every game is different, and statistics can't usually be resolved to discrete games - so what we are talking about is the odds.
North Carolina is a decided underdog, if not a big one. Kentucky cannot be confident, though, because the Wildcats played such poor transition defense against St. John's. Carolina can't be too confident, because they have lost one of their last two and barely escaped the other at home.
This game, in my view, is a push, and the only real advantage is the location. But that location matters.