Since their opening game against Duke, the Kentucky Wildcats haven’t really had what many would call “a blue blood” team on their schedule.
That ends Saturday as the #19 Cats travel to Chicago to face the #12 North Carolina Tar Heels at the CBS Sports Classic.
UK enters the contest at 8-2 and fresh off an 88-61 victory over Utah on Saturday. The Cats had perhaps their most consistent performance on both ends of the floor. UK shot the ball exceptionally well from the field, going 58% from the field and 57% from the three point line. The Cats were very good defensively too, forcing the Utes into 18 turnovers and scoring 34 points off of them.
This performance could bode well for Big Blue going into this prime time tilt with Carolina. The Cats need momentum as they play again on the national stage since the last two times they did were a blowout loss to the Blue Devils and an overtime loss in New York City to Seton Hall.
With a major test ahead, there are three areas the Cats could improve on to bolster their cause on Saturday. Let’s examine.
- UK must continue their recent stretch of hot shooting. The Cats are shooting nearly 50% from the field for the season and are +14.3 in scoring margin. Over the last four contests, UK is averaging over 80 points per game. The Cats are really starting to turn it on from three-point range, hitting 37 of their last 89 threes, a staggering 41.6% rate. That would make this by far the best shooting team under John Calipari. While they probably won’t keep that pace up, they need to shoot that well to be able to keep pace with the Tar Heels, who are giving up 75 points a night. The opportunities to score should be there for the Cats. It’s just a matter of making them, something they’ve been doing more as the season has wore on. However, Kentucky has have hit just nine of 37 three-point attempts in neutral site losses to Duke and Seton Hall this season, a porous 24.3% rate. That has to change in a big way in Chicago for the Wildcats to have any hope of beating a top 10-caliber for in UNC.
- The Cats must continue to defend well against a potent UNC offense. North Carolina can flat score the ball, averaging 94 points a game on 50% shooting. The last time out UNC beat previous #1 Gonzaga 102-90 on 55% shooting and out rebounding the Bulldogs 42-21. For UK to have a chance at victory, the Cats must be able to get out on the UNC shooters and limit them to one shot possessions as much as possible by controlling the defensive glass and defending the three point line.
- UK must play well on the road against a top opponent. The third key for the Cats to win Saturday won’t be seen until then. With everyone in the media talking about “quality wins” going into March and tournament play, the Cats need to prove to the country that they can beat a quality opponent on the road with a tough mindset and a sustained 40 minute effort. Granted, with tests ahead in the SEC against Tennessee and Auburn among others, opportunities to win in that environment will be there for Kentucky. But with the beating at the hands of Duke and the loss in Madison Square Garden against Seton Hall, both on the road in major venues, the Cats really need to play well in the United Center Saturday. The Cats have made strides on both ends of the floor as evidenced by their win over Utah. A victory over the Tar Heels would go a long way in pushing UK forward both in their season and their psyche.
Where do you think Kentucky needs to step up the most to win on Saturday?