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Kentucky vs. North Carolina Roundtable and Predictions

The Kentucky Wildcats face fellow blue blood North Carolina on Saturday. How will the Cats fare on the national stage?

Tyler Herro Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

The No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats will face the No. 9 North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday afternoon in Chicago as part of the CBS Sports Classic. Tip time is scheduled for 5:15 pm.

Both squads enter the game with identical 8-2 records and are coming off wins. Last Saturday, UK defeated Utah 88-61 behind Keldon Johnson’s 24 points and five three-pointers. The Heels defeated No. 4 Gonzaga last Saturday night 102-90 on Cameron Johnson’s 25 points and six three’s.

For the Cats, it is an opportunity to redeem themselves on the national stage after getting blown out by Duke 118-84 the last time the Cats played in prime time. For UNC, it’s another opportunity to defeat a nationally ranked program since losing to No. 7 Michigan and beating No. 17 UCLA and the Zags.

There should be no shortage of offense in this matchup. Both teams come into the game shooting 50% from the field and averaging over 85 points per contest. UNC holds the rebounding edge for the season by six while UK holds the defensive edge by five points per game.

With so much on the line for both teams, the staff at A Sea of Blue reconvene their roundtable to discuss the matchup.

Shane Shackleford

Without question, UK needs either to win this game or at least play well against a top 10 team. The Cats have struggled both times this season playing on the national stage which accounts for both their losses.

The key to defeating UNC Saturday is slowing down the Heels high-powered offense. It’s no secret that UNC can light it up offensively, especially from deep. If the Cats struggle once again defending the three-point line, it could be a long afternoon in the Windy City.

I think both teams will get up and down the floor Saturday. I’m looking for a game in the high 80’s, maybe the low 90’s. Defensive stops will be at a premium. The team that can get more of them will win the game.

I would love to say the Cats pull out the win, but I think the Heels have a few too many weapons. In an offensive dogfight I’m thinking the Cats lose in a close one.

Prediction: North Carolina 94, Kentucky 88

Jamie Boggs

North Carolina is good. They are obviously not immune to having a bad game, as they did lose to Texas. But their decisive victory over Gonzaga on Saturday was no fluke. Cam Johnson is the real deal, and he is the leader of this team on the court and in the stat sheet. Luke Maye is averaging a double-double, and he will test the Wildcats on both ends of the court. The Tar Heels also shoot the ball well, shooting over 37% from behind the three-point line as a team.

I am afraid Kentucky is not there yet. North Carolina has several guys playing well, consistently. Aside from Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson, the Wildcats really have nobody they can depend on night after night.

Could Tyler Herro go off for a big game? Sure. Will PJ Washington assert himself and dominate the paint? Maybe. Shoot, Bahamas Nick Richards may even make an appearance. Kentucky will need at least one of these things to happen to win, and I am just not confident that any of these guys will come through on the big stage.

Prediction: North Carolina 90, Kentucky 77

Aaron Gershon

Kentucky has shown great promise in the last two games. Even in their crushing loss to Seton Hall, there was a lot to like from the Cats. One thing the Wildcats have found is their go-to guy. Keldon Johnson has risen to the occasion time and time again for Kentucky this season and seems to be the player ready to lead this team into battles like the one they will have with UNC.

North Carolina, as they almost always are, is a great basketball team. The Tar Heels just beat a Gonzaga team that was once ranked number one in the country and beat the Duke team who dismantled Kentucky. UNC also has a plethora of experience, which is an advantage in a game like this. Kentucky hasn’t been able to win away from Rupp Arena and a still fairly early season game against UNC doesn’t seem like a good matchup.

Prediction: North Carolina 91, Kentucky 78

Jason Marcum

It’s hard to call a December game a must-win affair for Kentucky, but it really feels like it with the way everything has gone as of late. The Wildcats have vastly underperformed thus far. Quade Green has already left the team after being pegged a leader coming into the season. Recruiting stock is at an all-time low under John Calipari, who now wants his team to pretend they beat teams they lost to.

It really feels like Kentucky needs this win to get momentum injected into this program. I think the coaches and players feel it too, at least in the sense this is a game they really need to win to hush the doubters and get their season back on track.

I think Kentucky plays with a sense of urgency in this game and really battles with the Tar Heels for 40 minutes. The x-factor for me is Tyler Herro. If he shoots like we saw in the Bahamas and scores 20+ points, Kentucky can absolutely win this game as long as it gets its regular contributions from guys like Keldon Johnson, Reid Travis and PJ Washington. All four of those guys have to play big for Kentucky to win this game.

But in the end, I still give the edge to UNC’s experience and more balanced offense.

Prediction: North Carolina 85, Kentucky 81

James Streble

The Kentucky Wildcats need a signature win before the non-conference schedule is over and this is the perfect opportunity to get it. UNC has one of the best offenses in the country, thanks in large part to Coby White. But John Calipari has been working extremely hard on instilling a defensive mentality with this team, and it’s showing.

As for defense, North Carolina isn’t really good at it. If Kentucky can continue to shoot the ball like they did against Utah, then the Cats should come away with a victory. Keldon Johnson has been on fire and has emerged as Kentucky’s go-to player. North Carolina doesn’t have anyone to check him.

I think it’s going to be an uptempo affair with UK coming out on top.

Prediction: Kentucky 95, North Carolina 89

Glenn Logan

This is by far the most difficult game after Duke on Kentucky’s slate so far this season, but Kansas could be even tougher later on. A win here and the Wildcats are suddenly considered a contender again. A loss, even a close one, will provide further evidence this team is just not ready to compete with the top ten.

The two teams are well matched, with athletic playmakers aplenty, similar strengths and weaknesses, and both are offensively driven. Where they are dissimilar is that Kentucky is a little bit bigger and more powerful inside, while UNC is significantly more experienced, especially their depth. UNC might also be a touch more athletic top to bottom.

With three seniors and two juniors on the roster, the Tar Heels are one of the most experienced we have seen from a national powerhouse these days. The last time Kentucky had a team this old, Josh Harrellson was roaming the post.

This will be a completely different challenge for Kentucky than Duke was, but no less difficult for that. It will take a Utah-level performance on offense for Kentucky to win this one, because I don’t believe the defense can contain the Tar Heels. Pace will be critical, and Kentucky has to force UNC to play a bit below their usual 77 possession sprint -- they are much better in the open floor than Kentucky right now.

Despite my urgent desire for a top-tier W, I can’t pick UK in this one at this point in the year, mainly because they are just not ready to play well away from Rupp Arena.

Prediction: North Carolina 89, Kentucky 84

Sam Gillenwater

After a great bounceback win over Utah, Kentucky gets no break as they head to Chicago to play North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic. Malik Monk turned in one of the greatest games in Wildcat basketball history with 47 points to turn these two blue blood programs’ last game in this event into an instant classic. UK won that matchup 103-100, but these teams are different, although the game will hopefully be as gripping.

Kentucky got back on track against Utah where the Cats hit a season-best 12 threes, led by Keldon Johnson who went 6 for 7 from long range. Although they uncharacteristically got out-rebounded by eight, Kentucky shot 58.6% from the field, 57.1% from three and turned the ball over only 6 times. The offense will not be the issue, and the defense is improving but not there yet.

UNC started the season inconsistent as well with losses to Texas and Michigan that had Roy Williams questioning his coaching job with his group. They made a statement, though, with a big win over No. 4 Gonzaga. They’re getting strong contributions from multiple players and are trending back up now, which makes them dangerous.

All things considered, Kentucky’s defense is going to have to be ready for a Tar Heel offense averaging 94 a game. That being said, I think Kentucky finds a way to get it done and holds on for a close win that they will seriously need for their resumé.

Prediction: Kentucky 82, North Carolina 78

Nick Wheatley

The Kentucky Wildcats take on the North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday night for what should be another fun matchup between the two blue bloods.

Both teams are 8-2, but they’ve had different starts to the season. While the Wildcats have been relatively disappointing thus far, the Tar Heels just knocked off the No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs this past weekend. Both teams like to get out in transition and both teams’ defense is a bit suspect.

UNC is led by senior forward Cameron Johnson, a former Kentucky target who transferred from Pittsburgh following the 2017 season. Coach Calipari wanted him badly and he would’ve been a perfect fit for last year’s and this year’s team, but he opted to go to Chapel Hill. And he’s killing it, averaging 16.6 points per game and shooting almost 50% from three.

However, he isn’t the only player the Cats have to worry about. Somehow, senior forward Luke Maye still plays. He’s one of those players that seems like he’ll never graduate. Anyway, he’s putting up solid numbers with 14.3 ppg and 10.1 rebounds per game and he has a bit of a history of success against UK.

Freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little are two players that are hard to stop on the offensive end, though Little has had a bit of a rough start to the season. And lastly, Garrison Brooks is very physical down low and Seventh Woods is a solid, extremely athletic role-player.

UNC boasts a not-so-great loss against Texas and a blowout loss at Michigan. But the Wolverines are one of the best teams in the country (arguably the best), so take that for what it’s worth.

What this game ultimately comes down to is this: UK’s offense has a very big edge against UNC’s defense. However, I believe UNC’s offense has an even bigger edge against UK’s defense.

There is one area where the Cats may be able to take advantage and slow the Tar Heels down, though, and that’s in transition. UNC gets a high percentage of its offense in transition, but they aren’t very efficient. They play at a crazy pace, so they’re still able to score a ton, but transition defense is the one area UK has excelled this season. So, if the Cats are going to pull off the upset, it’s going to be because of that.

However, I don’t think the Cats will have enough to get it done. They’re just not very good right now and until I see them play well against a good team, I just can’t pick them.

Prediction: North Carolina 91, Kentucky 77

Drew Koch

Here we go Big Blue Nation. Can the Kentucky Wildcats run with the big boys of college basketball? We’re going to find out Saturday when the Cats head to the Windy City to do battle with North Carolina. I’ll say it from the jump, I do not have a lot of confidence in the Cats going into this game. The Tar Heels average more points, more rebounds, more assists, and more steals per game than the Wildcats.

Carolina is an experienced bunch. The pundits raved about Nassir Little before the season, but UNC’s prized freshman isn’t setting the world on fire. He’s averaging a tad over 11 points per game, but I think Ashton Hagans will draw that assignment and lock him down. I expect Little to do very little. Luke May, Cameron Johnson, and Coby White, however, those guys will spell trouble for the Cats.

Johnson is averaging almost 50% from downtown and White is averaging over 40% himself. Those guys are dangerous shooters and scorers and we know what kind of trouble the Cats have had defending the three-point shot. Kentucky must hold North Carolina to no better than 30% from deep if they hope to win the game.

For the Cats, Keldon Johnson has shown that he’s the leader of this team and I expect a big game on the big stage from him. PJ Washington seems to pick and choose when he wants to be aggressive and play with fire. He better bring that intensity on Saturday or the Cats have no shot. Washington needs to score at least 18 points and try to get UNC’s bigs in foul trouble.

I haven’t trusted this team all season, and they give me no choice but to pick against them on Saturday. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve yet to see the growth from this team that is required for them to be a force in college basketball this season.

Prediction: North Carolina 86, Kentucky 73