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North Carolina Tar Heels at Kentucky Wildcats: Game Preview

Saturday at high noon, two bluebloods clash in Rupp Arena.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow, the Kentucky Wildcats welcome the North Carolina Tar Heels to Rupp Arena for the renewal of one of the great inter-conference rivalries in college basketball. Yes, it is inferior to Kentucky’s rivalry with the Louisville Cardinals, and perhaps it isn’t as downright nasty as the rivalry between UK and the Indiana Hoosiers, but it is a heavyweight fight between two of the best teams in the sport, both historically and currently

Tonight’s preview is going to be a bit different than the others, primarily because reciting who and what the Tar Heels are isn’t only redundant, it’s a waste of perfectly good pixels. We’ll run down the starting lineups, but this is going to be a team game and not a bunch of individuals out there. I’ll highlight any matchups where one team or the other has a significant advantage, but these are two bluebloods with a ton of talent between them

Season so far for North Carolina:

Season record: 6-2, (0-0 conf.)

North Carolina has had a couple of perplexing losses so far this season. They lost by eight to Butler, 74-66 at a neutral site, which may not be all that perplexing (Butler is, as we know, a quality team). They also lost to a good but not great Iowa team by five in Chapel Hill, a head-scratching win that nobody saw coming.

On the positive side of the ledger, they have convincing victories against the UCLA Bruins, Kentucky’s next opponent after UNC, on a neutral court, and they also beat Florida on a neutral floor. Their most recent victory was against a worse-than-average East Carolina team in Chapel Hill, 108-64

Series history

North Carolina’s history with Kentucky is not particularly long at only 36 games, but it has the notable distinction of Kentucky on the short end of the won-loss record, 13-23. That 10-game deficit is a source of significant angst for long-time Wildcats fans. In the John Calipari era, Kentucky is 3-2 with the Tar Heels. North Carolina has some fairly long multi-year winning streaks against Kentucky; 5 in a row from 2004-2009, and 6 in a row from 1975-1995.


North Carolina Roster:

No. Name Status Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr. Hometown (Prev School)
3 Meeks, Kennedy S** F 6-9 270 2So. Charlotte, N.C. (West Charlotte)
11 Johnson, Brice S* F 6-9 228 3Jr. Orangeburg, S.C. (Edisto)
13 Tokoto, J.P. S* F 6-6 200 3Jr. Menomonee Falls, Wisc. (Menomonee Falls)
44 Jackson, Justin S F/G 6-8 193 0Fr. Tomball, Texas (Home School Christian Youth Association)
5 Paige, Marcus S** G 6-1 175 3Jr. Marion, Iowa (Linn-Mar)
0 Britt, Nate MR* G 6-1 170 2So. Upper Marlboro, Md. (Oak HIll Academy (Va.)/Gonzaga College HS (Washington DC))
22 Hicks, Isaiah MR* F 6-8 230 2So. Oxford, N.C. (J.F. Webb)
1 Pinson, Theo MR F/G 6-6 195 0Fr. Greensboro, N.C. (Wesleyan Christian Academy)
14 Hubert, Desmond R* F 6-10 225 4Sr. Cream Ridge, N.J. (New Egypt)
42 James, Joel R* F 6-10 280 3Jr. West Palm Beach, Fla. (Dwyer)
45 White, Stilman R* G 6-0 170 2So. Wilmington, N.C. (Hoggard)
2 Berry II, Joel R G 6-0 195 0Fr. Apopka, Fla. (Lake Highland Preparatory)
21 Simmons, Jackson R@* F 6-7 225 4Sr. Webster, N.C. (Smoky Mountain)
24 Seymore, Sasha R@ F 6-6 220 4Sr. New Bern, N.C. (New Bern)
25 Coleman, Justin R@ G 6-2 180 3Jr. Raleigh, N.C. (Broughton)
4 Davis, Luke R*& G 6-0 178 4Sr. Raleigh, N.C. (Ravenscroft)

S Starter
MR Major reserve
R Reserve
* Returning player
** Returning starter
+ Eligible transfer/red shirt
- Ineligible
@ Walk on
& Injured, not available

Source: North Carolina Athletics

Team Comparison

Record 10-0 5-2
RPI 2 195
Home 9-0 4-1
Away 0-0 1-1
Neutral 1-0 0-0
Top 25 2-0 0-0
Sched. Strength 265 46
AP Rank 1 21
Coaches Rank 1 26 1 14


Four Factors

North Carolina Team Notes


  • Solid defensive team, holding opponents to 89 points/100 possessions.
  • Outstanding eFG% defense, 7th in the nation;
  • Fifth best offensive rebounding team in the nation at 43%.
  • Solid ballhandling team, turning the ball over at less than 17%.
  • Good shot blocking tam at 16%, 18th in the nation
  • Defends the 3 very well, holding opponents under 25%.

Needs work

  • Poor 3-point shooting team (28%).
  • Below average defensive rebounding team.
  • Average free throw shooting team (70%)


  • Gets very few points from three, 16%. That’s nearly the worst in the NCAA. UNC attempts less than 25% of their shots from three
  • Man-to-man defensive team;

North Carolina Player notes

  • Kennedy Meeks is a good shot blocker, offensive and defensive rebounder. He’s the second-leading scorer on the team. Meeks draws a ton of fouls as well.
  • Brice Johnson does everything well, but nothing extremely well. He rebounds, blocks shots, and does all the big-man things.
  • Marcus Paige is the leading scorer, but doesn’t lead the team in assists. That means he looks for his own shot a lot. His usage is not that high, but he is fairly efficient for a guard.
  • J.P. Tokoto is an athletic player who can really get off the floor. His 3-point shooting has improved from last season when he was no threat from outside the immediate area of the basket.
  • Justin Jackson is a big swingman who is very efficient near the rim, shooting almost 55% from 2-point range and overpowering smaller 2 and 3 men.
  • Isaiah Hicks is a good bench player who scores inside.


  • North Carolina: Guard Luke Davis is out indefinitely with a stress fracture.
  • Kentucky:
    • Alex Poythress: Out for the season
    • Devin Booker: Upgraded to probable vs. UNC
    • Tyler Ulis: Upgraded to probable vs. UNC


Front court

North Carolina matches up reasonably well against Kentucky. Depending on who Kentucky starts for the first unit, the Tar Heel starters go 6‘9", 6‘9", and 6‘6". They also have a starting player (Justin Jackson) who is 6‘8" and swings between guard and forward. All things considered, the Tar Heel starters are about the same size as Kentucky, or slightly smaller depending on who the Wildcats start at the three.

Off the bench, Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson provide great depth and solid size.

Overall, Kentucky’s depth will take a toll on the Tar Heels, although without Alex Pothress, it will be a lesser tool. Both Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns are taller than their UNC counterparts, and if Trey Lyles moves to the first platoon, the Wildcats will be bigger, but not a lot bigger, than North Carolina.

Marcus Lee will have to match up with some slightly bigger guys in the middle when he’s in, but nobody, not even Meeks, will be able to handle Dakari Johnson on the inside. Depending on what Calipari does with the second platoon, Derek Willis could get a chance to be a big-time contributor, and he matches up well with North Carolina’s three men size-wise, but J.P. Tokoto is much quicker and more athletic.

Back court

The Tar Heels have good size in the back court by virtue of Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson. Britt and Paige are much smaller, however, than Andrew Harrison.

Aaron Harrison will have probably his only size mismatch of the year with Jackson, and it will be virtually the same for Devin Booker. Tyler Ulis will be a major problem for Marcus Paige because of his relentless defense, but Paige will be able to shoot over him whenever he wants on offense.


Kentucky, even with Poythress down, has a deeper, more talented bench than UNC.


This game will be all about whether or not North Carolina can get out in transition. If they do, they have a solid chance to upset the Wildcats, because they will take away Kentucky’s greatest strength — their half-court defense. That is surely what Roy Williams will want to do, and if the Harrisons have trouble keeping up with the North Carolina guards in transition, you will surely see a lot of Tyler Ulis, because Harrison, as is his wont, will get into foul trouble.

But if the Wildcats deny the Tar Heels transition, it’s going to be very difficult for UNC to win this game. They simply don’t have enough offense even for average teams, and against what looks to be a legendary defensive team in Kentucky, it will be really hard for North Carolina to find scoring opportunities unless they suddenly find their shooting eye and start making threes.

UNC is not the kind of team that forces a lot of turnovers, but they do get into passing lanes and will cause a few in the course of their normal defense, which really exerts itself early in each possession and then tends to wear down, counting on the inside size to handle breakdowns much like Kentucky does. That won’t work out well against the Wildcats, because Kentucky is simply better at that game than UNC, and they don’t break down as much.

Overall, Kentucky sits at about a 10.5-point favorite in Rupp Arena and deserves to be. In Chapel Hill, this game would be closer to a 5-point game, but UK would still be favored to win. Even the loss of Alex Poythress does not provide enough opportunity for the Tar Heels to overcome the size and overall depth of Kentucky unless they play a different game than we’ve seen so far, or Kentucky is bereft of passion due to the loss of their teammate. I don’t think either one is likely.