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Kentucky Wildcats at North Carolina Tar Heels: Game Preview

This is a huge game for Kentucky, who is faced with having to go on the road to North Carolina to pick up their first win against a top 25 team.

Nick Laham

Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats travel to the heart of Tobacco Road to face the North Carolina Tar Heels, one of the greatest meetings in all of sports. The Tar Heels and Wildcats between them have 13 NCAA Tournament championships, two Helms championships (1 each), 8 NCAA Tournament runners-up, and 33 Final Fours. As everyone who follows college basketball knows, these are two of the greatest college basketball programs in America, and stand at the very top tier of historic college basketball programs.

This is one of the most anticipated games of every year. The series took a break last season to coordinate home and away schedules, but is renewed this year and is a very meaningful game for both teams.


About North Carolina.

  • Conference: ACC
  • Head Coach: Roy Williams (since 2003)
  • NCAA Appearances: 44
  • Most recent NCAA appearance: 2013
  • Most recent NCAA win: 2013
  • Founded: 1789
  • Students: 17,386
  • Record last season: 25-11 (12-6)

Information provided by Basketball State

Season so far for UNC

North Carolina has been up and down this year with a very young team and two of their best players, both likely starters, out due to NCAA issues that, as of yet, are unresolved. The Tar Heels lost at home to Belmont and on the road to Alabama-Birmingham, both surprising defeats to markedly less-talented teams.

But on the plus side, UNC beat the Louisville Cardinals comfortably in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tipoff at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut, and dispatched the Michigan St. Spartans in a close game at the Breslin Center in Lansing, Michigan.

The Tar Heels stand at 6-2 right now. Kentucky is the toughest opponent remaining on their non-conference schedule, although they do host a decent Texas Longhorns team on December 18th.


The Kentucky-North Carolina rivalry history is a long and storied one. North Carolina leads in the series by one of the most lopsided margins of any school, 22-13, including a 16-game stretch between 1962 and 1995 where Kentucky went 3-13 against the Tar Heels, including a six-game losing streak between 1975 and 1995. Since 2000, the 'Cats are 7-6 against the Heels.

The last two meetings have been particularly memorable. The penultimate engagement was contested in the 2011 regional final round (Elite Eight), with a Final Four berth on the line. The last such contest occurred in the 1995 regional final, where the Tar Heels were victorious over Kentucky. This time, however, the Wildcats prevailed and went on to the Final Four.

The last meeting was in 2011 in Rupp Arena with both teams ranked in the top five. Kentucky won 73-72 when Anthony Davis blocked a John Henson jumper in the final seconds to secure the narrow victory. Kentucky went on to win the 2012 NCAA Tournament championship.

North Carolina roster

No. Name Status Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr. Hometown (Prev School)
0 Britt, Nate S G 5-11 165 Fr. Upper Marlboro, Md. (Oak HIll Academy (Va.)/Gonzaga College HS (Washington DC))
5 Paige, Marcus S** G 6-1 175 So. Marion, Iowa (Linn-Mar)
13 Tokoto, J.P. S* F 6-5 200 So. Menomonee Falls, Wisc. (Menomonee Falls)
42 James, Joel S* F 6-10 280 So. West Palm Beach, Fla. (Dwyer)
43 McAdoo, James Michael S** F 6-9 230 Jr. Norfolk, Va. (Norfolk Christian)
2 McDonald, Leslie E* G 6-5 215 Sr. Memphis, Tenn. (Briarcrest Christian School)
3 Meeks, Kennedy MR F 6-9 290 Fr. Charlotte, N.C. (West Charlotte)
4 Davis, Luke MR* G 6-0 175 Jr. Raleigh, N.C. (Ravenscroft)
11 Johnson, Brice MR* F 6-9 210 So. Orangeburg, S.C. (Edisto)
14 Hubert, Desmond R* F 6-10 225 Jr. Cream Ridge, N.J. (New Egypt)
15 Hairston, P.J. E** G 6-6 220 Jr. Greensboro, N.C. (Hargrave Military Academy (Va.)/Dudley)
21 Simmons, Jackson R* F 6-7 225 Jr. Webster, N.C. (Smoky Mountain)
22 Hicks, Isaiah R F 6-8 220 Fr. Oxford, N.C. (J.F. Webb)
30 Manor, James R* F 6-6 220 Sr. Carrboro, N.C. (Chapel Hill)
34 Robinson, Denzel R* F 6-4 220 Sr. Chapel Hill, N.C. (Chapel Hill)
55 Moody, Wade R* G 6-0 175 Sr. Mount Airy, N.C. (Mount Airy)


S Starter

MR Major Reserve

R Reserve

E Out – eligibility

* Returning player

** Returning starter

Player notes

  • Sophomore guard Marcus Paige is the leading scorer for North Carolina this season. He is shooting the ball bery well from everywhere: 39% from the arc, 61% true shooting percentage. He is also the Tar Heels leading assist man with 4.5 per game. The lefty is a lethal scorer and has had 25+ points 3 times this season, including 32 against Louisville.

  • Sophomore forward Brice Johnson is the second leading scorer and leading rebounder at 7 per game. He is not a threat from the arc but an active body inside.

  • Junior James Michael McAdoo has disappointed a bit this season. He was expected to be the leading scorer, but has shot the ball rather poorly this season from both the floor and the line. He's the third leading rebounder for the Heels.

  • Sophomore J.P. Tokoto is a remarkable athlete, but has a limited perimeter game and rarely shoots the ball outside the arc. He's a very live body and a good offensive rebounder, one of those "glue guys" who defends well and lets the game come to him. He is explosive on the break.

  • Kennedy Meeks was a McDonalds All-American last season and is starting to really impact the Tar Heels' offense. He is perhaps the best outlet passer in college basketball, an excellent rebounder (2nd on the team at almost 7 per game) and leading the team in poins per 40 minutes played.

  • Nate Britt is just a role player as a combo guard. He isn't a good shooter outside, but is a pesky defender and leads the team in steals. He is also foul prone, and unfortunately, the Tar Heels are extremely thin in the back court.

Likely matchups


  • Marcus Paige vs. Andrew Harrison — It's hard to say which of the Harrisons will start out guarding Paige, and it's also possible that James Young will be given that duty due to his greater defensive prowess. Paige is a difficult challenge for whoever guards him, as the Tar Heels love to screen to get him open from the arc and he is a very dangerous slasher for his size. Harrison is big enough to bother him and run him off perimeter spots, but Paige is quicker and that has been a problem for both Harrisons all season.

Advantage: North Carolina

  • Nate Britt vs. Aaron Harrison — Small guards have given both Harrisons trouble all season, and Britt will be no exception. The good news for Kentucky is that Britt isn't really a scorer, and he will have great difficulty guarding either of the Harrison twins in a man defensive scheme. As foul prone as he is, and as thin as Carolina's bench is, Kentucky should attack Britt at every possible opportunity. Luke Davis, his backup, is no match for either of the Harrisons.

Advantage: Kentucky

  • J.P. Tokoto vs. James Young — This is a great matchup between two very good players. Young is the scorer, and Tokoto is the defender and "glue guy." For once, Young does not really have either a size or athletic advantage, and it will be interesting to see if Tokoto can lock him down.

Advantage: Draw

  • James Michael McAdoo vs. Julius Randle — This is another great matchup. McAdoo and Randle are about the same size, both about the same level of athleticism, and McAdoo even longer than Randle. This is likely the best matchup for Randle since the Michigan St. game, and it's hard to say who will come out ahead on this one.

Advantage: Draw

  • Brice Johnson vs. Willie Cauley-Stein — Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have been roughly splitting the duty at center, so I'll evaluate WCS against both here. WCS has a size advantage on Johnson, but athletically they are somewhat similar. Both are good rebounders, but I think Johnson is a little bit better. Kentucky has to do a good job of getting in front of him when WCS goes for the weak side block.

    Kennedy Meeks is disadvantaged athletically against WCS, but he is a wide body and a very good rebounder on both the offensive and defensive glass. He presents a different problem for WCS, and Willie must be very conscious of Meeks' outlet passing ability. He must make sure that he treats those passes as shots, and challenges them.

Advantage: Draw


North Carolina has a deep bench, but unfortunately, it is disproportionately front-court players. Dakari Johnson is a big key in this game, because he is a much better matchup for Kennedy Meeks than Cauley-Stein, and he is a big problem for North Carolina because of his size and strength in the paint. But North Carolina has another huge Meeks-like guy in Joel James to throw at Kentucky

Kentucky has a substantial backcourt bench advantage, but it's hard to say one bench is really vastly superior to the other.

Advantage: Draw

Game analysis

This game is going to require a lot of coaching strategy on both sides. Williams must protect his starting back court, but he can run big bodies at Kentucky's inside players until the cows come home. He may employ a fouling strategy to force Kentucky to make free throws if the Wildcats are getting the ball inside, and that just might work because of Kentucky's streakiness at the line.

Kentucky absolutely must get out in transition, and really cannot afford to send too many players to the offensive glass against North Carolina. They run really well, and Kentucky is going to have to be very careful of that.

Kentucky has a significant advantage on the offensive glass, and that will be absolutely critical today for them. They must get some second-chance points, and be very careful to take care of their defensive rebounding, as UNC is still no slouch there and can dominate at times with their excellent size and length.

Kentucky must try to exploit North Carolina's smaller guards on offense, and I expect Williams to zone to protect them, which will make 3-point shooting very important for Kentucky this game. Defending the three will be equally important, as Marcus Paige is the guy who can make a ton of them for the Heels. Unfortunately, he is the only real threat the Tar Heels have from outside, so that makes focusing on him a bit easier.

Turnovers will also be key in this game. Both teams turn it over at about the same rate, but Kentucky has had a bit of a turnover problem in their last four games, going over 20% in three of them. That won't do against North Carolina.

This game is likely to come down to free throw shooting, and both teams shoot it badly from the arc. Whoever decides to take command from the line is likely to come out ahead. The other critical factor on which the game could turn is whether or not Carolina can keep their starting backcourt on the floor. If they can't, it's hard to see how they can win.

Kentucky is getting 4 points in this game from the Las Vegas oddsmakers, and that gives me a bit of hope. It's really tough to be favored in a game against the Tar Heels in their own building, and it's going to take a great effort for Kentucky to come out of this game with a win, which they desperately need as I explained earlier.