Sometimes, games come along that are bigger than they should be. Usually, the magnification is due to one or the other having an unexpected season, or a huge rivalry, or some other confluence of events that makes a given game more significant that it should be. After all, teams play a lot of games during a season, and normally one win more or less doesn't matter in the broad scheme of things, particularly in the non-conference portion of the schedule. "It's not how you start, it's how you finish," the basketball sages will tell you. Mostly that's right. Mostly.
Kentucky finds itself in one of those games, the ones that are bigger than it should be. This one is magnified by the dearth of quality opponents on Kentucky's schedule in the non-conference season. "Dearth! What dearth?" you ask. "We play four top 20 teams, and North Carolina only plays three!" That is so, but unfortunately, Kentucky has lost to both of them so far, and now comes North Carolina on the road — a dangerous team that has defeated Louisville on a neutral floor and Michigan St. in the Breslin Center, the place the Spartans call home.
It is also true that North Carolina has looked bad a couple of times this season — against the Belmont Bruins, they were well ahead late in the second half, but in the last two minutes or so, the Bruins managed to steal the game with a strong comeback. The Tar Heels were done in by 46% free throw shooting and 15 made 3-pointers by Belmont.
The second time the Tar Heels lost was against the UAB Blazers in Birmingham. The Blazers beat UNC by keeping them off the line, killing them on the boards, and making 22-28 free throws, and went pretty much gate to wire for the win.
Despite those hiccups, North Carolina has already done twice what Kentucky has not done once this season — beaten a top 25 team. That's why this game is magnified, and more important than it might otherwise have been. Think about the situation as it stands, condensed down into simple form; Kentucky must beat North Carolina on the road for their first win against a top 25 team. There is no recent year in which that statement would carry even an allusion of optimism.
But that is what Kentucky faces tomorrow, and in the worst-case scenario of a loss, the Wildcats will have failed to defeat even one of their ranked opponents to date, leaving only the rivalry game against Louisville as a bulwark against a complete whiff. That's far from what we expected, and even farther from what we had hoped for. 40-0 was always a pipe dream, but it was a dream that was comparatively compelling. Starting the conference season 9-4, however, is 2013 territory, and we know how that went. In 2013, Kentucky's best win was against Maryland in the first game of the season going into Conference play. This year wouldn't be that bad, but close, if the Wildcats lost to UNC and failed to overcome the current national champs in Rupp Arena.
So that's where we are, Wildcat fans — really needing a win against a ranked team going on the road to Chapel Hill. I don't know about you, but thats not something I'm comfortable with. This game, on paper, looks very close indeed, with UK having more advantages than disadvantages in stats, but with North Carolina enjoying the home court.
I know, I know, it's always a big game when we play the Tar Heels. The two programs have a long history, are very close to each other in total wins and not too far apart in NCAA Tournament championships. Every game is a struggle between two of the Great Powers in college basketball for supremacy, much in the same way as Kentucky-Louisville are, although I would argue that UNC is on a different level than the Cardinals — the same level as Kentucky — and Louisville is on the next level down at least. There also isn't quite as much blood-lust between Kentucky and UNC as Kentucky and Louisville, but it's still a big and worthy rivalry.
My point is that this year, it's bigger, and bigger still because UNC already defeated Louisville. Selection committee people are human beings, not robots, and they'll make inferences about the success or failure of Kentucky against common opponents. Combine that with the fact that UK needs this win for the sake of credibility against top foes, and the importance of it is magnified even beyond its normal bounds.
As a final parting comment, let's think back to 2012 where Kentucky played North Carolina and the Indiana Hoosiers back-to-back. Let us suppose that instead of Anthony Davis blocking John Henson's final shot, Henson had dropped it and sent Kentucky down at home. The difference is that UK would have still had the Kansas win to fall back on. This time, they are going into Chapel Hill without a net.