Here we are, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, about to embark upon our second rivalry game of the season. Each one of these is a signpost along Kentucky’s drive for NCAA Tournament championship #9, and will tell us all a lot about the Wildcats and where they stand. Fortunately, after having eviscerated the Kansas Jayhawks and downed the Texas Longhorns, we know pretty well where Kentucky is generally. But with the unfortunate loss of Alex Poythress to injury yesterday, the tone and importance of this game have changed.
Suddenly, the Tar Heels are more formidable than they were a week ago, and there are two major factors contributing to that change — the loss of Poythress, one of our best defenders and shot blockers as well as a timely and efficient offensive player, and the continuation of a season-long shooting slump by the Kentucky guards. These two things are problematic for the Wildcats going in, but the one thing that has not changed is the incredible size and defensive prowess of Kentucky overall. It may be a little less dominating without Poythress, but hopefully only a little.
Today’s game is as much a mind game as it is a basketball game. The Wildcats must quickly move on from the loss of a teammate and find motivation in the circumstances of the events surrounding his injury. They must use that motivation as a positive force in this game, and not let his absence introduce negativity into their thinking. UK must rise above this and turn tragedy into intensity.
Essentials for victory
Attack the rim — Nothing will get North Carolina on their heels (pardon the pun) quicker than foul trouble. Kennedy Meeks is known to have some issues with fouls, as are Isaiah Hicks and Brice Johnson. They cannot absorb big player losses like Kentucky can.
Take care of the basketball — One of the things that has been saving Kentucky during this shooting slump is low turnovers.
Make close-in shots — Kentucky has struggled with layups lately. They can’t do that today
Hit a reasonable percentage from three, and the line — If Kentucky wants to be efficient offensively, there are two ways to do it — making 35%+ threes, and getting to the line a lot and making them.
Make North Carolina hit threes — This is a game where Kentucky might want to dare the Tar Heels to make some threes, at least from everyone not named Marcus Paige. If they make them, then get out on them and force them to put it on the floor.
Attack the glass — Kentucky must relentlessly rebound today. UNC is a good offensive rebounding team, but they have been vulnerable preventing offensive rebounds.
Get Marcus Paige into pick and rolls — Page is much smaller than any of the first platoon’s guards. Getting Paige into pick and roll situations gives UK a chance to get a good look, and possibly pick up some fouls on the Tar Heel star.
This isn’t going to be an easy game. North Carolina knows the stakes as well as we do, and they will want to redeem some of their recent let-downs with a marquee win against the Wildcats. They also know Poythress is down, and they will try to take advantage of that fact.
Kentucky must be focused and intense from tip to horn if they want to knock off the Tar Heels. UNC may not look all that threatening, but they are as talented at least as the Kansas Jayhawks and Texas Longhorns. If Kentucky is thinking about taking them lightly or pouting over the loss of Alex, this could be a long game.