After falling short in their big test against the UCLA Bruins, John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats get a shot at redemption with a big game showdown against the North Carolina Tar Heels. It's another Elite Eight style showdown in Saturday's CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas. Heck, this could very well be a preview of the National Championship game as the Tar Heels return the bulk of their NCAA runner-up team and have a talented incoming Freshman class.
The Tar Heels still lead the overall series 23-14, but John Calipari has gone 4-2 against Roy Williams and the Tar Heels, including three of the last four meetings. The Tar Heels are loaded, and this neutral court game is going to be a great experience for both teams.
The Wildcats need a big marquee quality win as the calendar closes on 2016. The Wildcats’ win over Michigan State has lost it's luster as the Spartans have struggled to a 7-4 record. The Tar Heels own a win over Wisconsin but also a loss to Indiana. The Tar Heels are coming off a two-point home win over a very average Tennessee team (without Joel Berry), so they have something to prove.
It's an early Christmas gift for hoop junkies as this game should be one of the best regular season games, Let's meet the Tar Heels.
#2 G - JOEL BERRY - (JR, 6'0, 195) 14.8 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.8 RPG
#24 G - KENNY WILLIAMS - (SO, 6'4, 180) 7.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.8 APG
#44 F - JUSTIN JACKSON - (JR, 6'8, 210) 15.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.8 APG
#4 F - ISAIAH HICKS - (SR, 6'9, 242) 12.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG .8 APG
#3 F - KENNEDY MEEKS (SR 6'10, 260) 12.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 0.8 BPG
Make no mistake; this is not the same Tar Heel team when Joel Berry does not play. Berry has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle, and it is just not the same team. Jay Bilas has said the Tar Heels are the best team in the country when Berry is on the court, and he may have a point. Berry hits 41.9% of his shots and 49.4% overall. He is a solid floor general and has an A/TO ratio of 2.2 and is a force defensively with 1.6 steals.
Kenny Williams averaged just .8 points a game as a freshman and has improved dramatically as a sophomore. He hits half of his shots overall and 44.1% of his three-pointers. He did tend to disappear in the two games against ranked opponents and went just 2-6 overall and scored 7 points in the Indiana and Wisconsin games.
Justin Jackson flirted with the NBA in the offseason and is a solid presence on the wing. He is at his best in transition and has improved his three-point shooting to 35.5%. That said, he takes too many long shots that he should not and his overall shooting percentage has declined to a low of 44.9%.
Isaiah Hicks provided energy and scoring off the bench the last couple of years, and he now brings that to the starting lineup. His range is limited to about a ten-foot radius, but he hits 61.8% of his shots. He should be rebounding a little better, and he has a tendency to get into foul trouble.
Kennedy Meeks is having perhaps his best overall season as a Tar Heel as he is averaging close to a double-double a game. He still is slow on defense and is very susceptible to being burned on pick-and-rolls. His shooting has decreased to 51.9% and he still gets his shots blocked more than he should.
#00 G - NATE BRITT - (SR, 6'1, 175) 6.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.2 RPG
#14 G - BRANDON ROBINSON (FR, 6'5, 162) 3.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.5 APG
#21 G - SEVENTH WOODS (FR, 6'2, 180) 3.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.5 APG
#5 F - TROY BRADLEY (FR, 6'10, 240) 9.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG 0.9 APG
#32 F - LUKE MAYE (SO, 6'8, 235) 4.2 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.0 APG)
It's a deep bench that Roy Williams has, and he is not afraid to go to them early and often. They have ten players that average at least ten minutes a game and no player average 30 minutes a game.
In the event that Berry can't go or is limited, Nate Britt should get the minutes. Britt is not much of a scoring threat, but he handles the ball well, is experienced, and has an A/TO ratio of over 2.0. He takes too many shots from long-range and hits 31.3% of his treys and 34.2% overall. He also averages 1.4 steals a game.
Freshmen Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods are depth at the two guard and the wing, and they have both been inconsistent at times this year. Robinson has really struggled with his shot and hits just 26.3% of his three-pointers. He failed to score against Indiana and Wisconsin. Woods is the more freakish athlete and stronger defensive player. He hits 37.5% of his shots and is a bit limited on his shooting range.
Freshman Troy Bradley is very solid coming off the bench and has three double-doubles already. He is a solid rebounder and is tough to push out of the way. He hits 61% of his shots but does not have much range.
Luke Maye is more of a perimeter play, although he hits just 39.1% of his shots. He's not a great rebounder and tends to get pushed around on the boards a bit and is not as athletic as others.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
The Tar Heels return eight of their top ten players from the national title game, but Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige left huge shoes to fill. Despite Jay Bilas' proclamations, I am not ready to anoint the Tar Heels the best team in the nation. With or without Paige.
I know I said this against UCLA, but I think the major advantage for Kentucky is in the front court. Both teams are good rebounders, but Kentucky's interior defense is much better. North Carolina averages just three blocks a game as compared to Kentucky's 8. Bam Adebayo and Isaac Humphries have almost as many blocks as the entire UNC team.
Kentucky's guards also do a little better job of taking care of the ball and distributing the ball while the Tar Heels shoot the long ball a little better. No matter what, Mychal Mulder has to be involved in this game for the Wildcats.
Kentucky also needs to have their guards drive and try to get the Tar Heels in foul trouble. I think that Kentucky's roster is a little bit better than North Carolina's from top to bottom and they have to exploit their front court advantage by getting the Heels in trouble.
I could honestly flip a coin on the prediction of the game, but at the end, I see Kentucky having slightly more talent. I also liked the fact that this UK team fought to the very end against UCLA and they seemed to take the loss personally.
For that reason, I see them a little more motivated than UNC and with a little more potential. I think the UCLA game left a bad taste in their mouth and they are eager to make amends. It could go either way, but let's call this 78-74 Cats.