The No. 10/11 Kentucky Wildcats (8-2) travel to Tobacco Road to take on the No. 18/21 North Carolina Tar Heels (6-2) in a titanic tilt of college basketball blue bloods. It's always special when the Wildcats play another elite program, and few of college basketball's top teams measure up against the tradition and pageantry of North Carolina. For fans of both schools this match-up is a "circle" game (a game circled on the schedule), and one both clubs will surely fight desperately to win.
Carolina, playing its ninth game this season without star junior guard P.J. Hairston, and guard Leslie McDonald, the team's only scholarship senior, because both players allegedly received impermissible benefits -- at least twice Hairston drove rental cars connected to Haydn "Fats" Thomas, a convicted felon, and McDonald wore a designer mouth guard at least once last season and appeared in promotional materials for Iceberg Guards, maker of high end mouth guards. At the moment, both players are in NCAA limbo awaiting an eligibility ruling.
Meanwhile, the eligible Heels battle on minus the team's leading scorer from last year, the dynamic Hairston, who produced 14.6 points per game in 2013, and McDonald, the squad's top lock-down perimeter defender who chipped-in 7.2 points per game while handling the responsibility of shutting down the opponent's top scorer. Both players were adept 3-point shooters, taking nearly half of UNC's long-range attempts: Last year UNC made just over 7.5 3-point shots per game, this season that number is down to 2.9 treys made per game.
If both Hairston and McDonald were able to suit up in Carolina blue, there simply is no doubt UNC would be considered a legitimate threat to win its third national championship since Hall of Fame head coach Roy Williams took over the program for the 2003-2004 season. But, as of yet, that is not the hand North Carolina basketball has been dealt this year.
No, this season the Tar Heels are relying heavily on 6-1 sophomore point guard Marcus Paige, named a Kyle Macy Freshman All-America last season after putting up 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest. And with the absence of his back court mates, Paige is employing a scorched hardwood policy, dropping in 18.8 points per game for UNC, on the strength of 39.2 percent accuracy from beyond the arc (20-51). Unfortunately for Carolina's perimeter game, Paige is the only Tar Heel who has taken more than eight 3-point shots ... all season.
Which leaves the Carolina big men to carry the overwhelming bulk of the scoring load -- Nearly 45 percent of UNC's points have come from inside the paint this season, making the Heels, offensively, nearly one-dimensional.
Toting that inordinate load for UNC in the front court is the talented James McAdoo, a 6-9 junior forward who scores 13.0 points per game; 6-9 Brice Johnson, who comes off the bench to net 13.6 points per contest; 6-5 sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto (9.4 points per game); and 6-9 freshman Kennedy Meeks (8.5 points per contest). But it's Paige, McAdoo, and Johnson who have combined to take 55.9 percent of UNC's shots on the year.
Perhaps due to its youth and inexperience, and the fact that would-be role players are either starting or getting starter's minutes, UNC took it on the chin courtesy of Belmont (a future UK opponent), an always solid basketball team under the superb leadership of coach Rick Byrd. Against UNC, the Bruins nailed 15 treys in the game while the Heels made only 22-of-48 free throws (45.8 percent), and yet North Carolina lost by only three points, 83-80.
UAB, led by former Roy Williams player and assistant coach Jerrod Haase, also bested the Heels after the Blazers connected on 18 more free throws than UNC, and feasted off North Carolina-native Chad Frazier's 25 points. Additionally, UNC's Paige had his worst performance of the season against UAB, making only 6-of-16 from the field, and failing on six tries from beyond the arc.
As limited and young as Carolina is, though, when a ranked team shows up on its schedule, the flame of competitiveness flickers brightly. Just ask then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 3 Louisville.
The Cards say North Carolina shot 54.2 percent from the field, 50.0 percent from long-range (3-6), and won the rebound battle by five. The Cards say UNC was true on 26-of-38 free throws, while snagging 12 offensive rebounds on 27 missed shots. The Cards say Carolina DE-STROYED them in the paint, collecting 52 points to UofL's 26 in the lane. The Cards say Marcus Paige illuminated the scoreboard with 32 points on 9-of-12 shooting (3-5 treys), and 11-11 free throw accuracy. The Cards say after being tied at 44 at the half, North Carolina brought the good wood in the second stanza, making 56.7 percent of its shots (17-30), while Louisville connected on only 13-of-35 from the field (37.1 percent).
The Heels' second half lead grew to 83-67 with 6:05 remaining, as the Ville went quietly into that good night, succumbing 93-84.
Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans are also able to reliably testify about taking on North Carolina while sporting a lofty ranking and loftier expectations. Only three days after UNC lost in Birmingham to UAB, Sparty took on the Heels, in East Lansing no less, and apparently left their shooting touch and low block play on the practice court. For UNC held MSU to only 35.9 percent field goal shooting and won the battle of the boards by 11, 49-38. Carolina also responded at the charity stripe, connecting on 19-of-27 from the line (70.4 percent), while the Spartans made only 12-of-18 free throw attempts (66.7 percent). Displaying great physicality and a bar-room brawlers mentality, UNC netted 44 points in the paint to MSU's 28.
The Spartans began the game the No. 1 team in the land, and ended the contest with dented armor and a deflated sense of self after UNC rolled to a 79-65 victory.
The lesson here for the Kentucky Wildcats is this -- Pay no mind to the perception that North Carolina is a somehow less than competent basketball team. This Tar Heel squad may not have the star power of past UNC squads, but they are a dangerous, capable group. Not unlike a cornered tiger, when a ranked team shows up in its lair, the claws come out and the fight is on.
On Saturday, with the bright lights of ESPN raging in the Dean Dome, and a crowd of 21,000 spewing all manner of vitriol in the general direction of the UK contingent, it will be up to the Wildcats to match the intensity, focus, and competitiveness of North Carolina.
Anything short of that, and the plane ride home will be unquestionably unpleasant.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!