Kentucky and North Carolina look remarkably similar statistically this season, and why not? Both teams are really young, both are tall and both are pretty deep. Both also have problem areas, and interestingly enough, those problem areas tend to coincide more often than you would think.
Let's have a brief look at the two teams, generally, using stats analysis from Ken Pomeroy:
Average height: UK 79.5, UNC 77.2 — Kentucky is a little taller, but not much. North Carolina has 5 guys who play that stand 6'9" or taller. Kentucky has 4. But UK's guards, on average, are significantly bigger.
Experience: UK 0.22 years (last in the nation, 351), UNC 1.03 years 329. Both teams are young by any standard, but Kentucky is painfully young even compared to UNC. By way of comparison, Kentucky's 2012 NCAA Tournament championship team was 0.77 years, so this year's team is a half-year younger even than them.
Strength of Schedule: Kentucky has the 211th toughest schedule in the non-conference compared to North Carolina's 46th. There's no doubt that the Tar Heels have been tested, playing 5 squads ranked above 100 and 2 in the top 5 when they played — Louisville and Michigan St., and they beat both those worthies. On the downside, they lost at home to Belmont and on the road to UAB.
Kentucky has also lost twice, on a neutral floor to Michigan St. (whom North Carolina defeated convincingly on the road) and to Baylor the other night in a semi-away affair. Kentucky has played 4 squads top 100 or better, and only one of the top five.
The Four Factors favor Kentucky, but not by big margins:
As you can see, the Wildcats' biggest advantages are getting to the line and offensive rebounds. UNC takes slightly better care of the ball. The eFG% is close enough that the difference really isn't that important.
Despite their rather anemic numbers in offensive rebounding, UNC really does do a good job on the defensive boards — better than Kentucky. So if UK is to go into the Dean Dome and win, they are going to have to overcome the tendency to be weak on the offensive glass when their opponent is a good defensive rebounding team. Conversely, if the Wildcats don't take care of the defensive glass, the Tar Heels are likely to win.
The FTA/FGA is also an important difference, but as the least important of the Four Factors, that big delta is not as intimidating as it looks. Where this stat could be really important is if Kentucky either makes or misses above their average shooting free throws. If UK makes their free throws, the tendency to get to the line will make them extremely efficient. If they are missing them, that means that they are likely to wind up missing the front-ends of 1-and-1's. That's effectively a turnover, although it isn't scored that way. Obviously, that would be inimical to the Wildcats' chances to win, and in a hostile environment, you really can't afford to give a lot of gifts to the home team, Christmas season or no.
Kentucky has at least a paper advantage on the glass, but it's been my experience that this is somewhat negated by a home crowd. I haven't seen a study on rebounding vs. venue, and that might make for an interesting post, but my gut tells me that the paper advantage UK has on the glass will be hard to equal in the Dean Dome.
Kentucky also shoots the ball slightly better from the field, although the difference is very small and also likely to be absorbed by the home court advantage.
Kentucky has a back-court advantage both in size, depth, and skill. Marcus Paige is extremely good and will give whoever guards him all he wants, but because of the P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald suspensions, they Tar Heels are really thin in the back court. That's a UK advantage, but it has to be exploited by getting the guards in foul trouble. That begs the question whether or not North Carolina will zone to try to protect their guards. They have done that quite a bit this season, so I expect it will happen this game as well.
North Carolina is similar physically to Baylor, and in Kennedy Meeks, they have a big body capable of getting a lot of rebounds. For example, against Louisville, Meeks had 12 rebounds, 4 of them offensive. He rarely has a game in which he doesn't garner 7 rebounds or more, so blocking him off the glass will be extremely important for Willie Cauley-Stein, or whoever is guarding him.
These teams are extremely well-matched in many ways. UNC has some holes in their roster mostly caused by suspensions, but they can throw all kinds of big, long, athletic players at Kentucky, something like what Baylor was able to do. The difference is that, unlike Baylor, you don't have to fear a lot of 3-point attempts coming from their big people.
North Carolina has been inconsistent this season mostly because of their youth. Kentucky has been the same way, for the same reason. This game offers some intriguing matchups even with the Hairston and McDonald suspensions, and it will be a challenge for Kentucky to overcome the home-court advantage enjoyed by the Tar Heels.