No. 11 Kentucky becomes North Carolina’s latest victim

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 18 North Carolina

beating No. 11 Kentucky 82-77 at home shouldn’t have shocked anyone.

Nearly half of UNC’s wins this season now (three of seven) have come

against teams in the top 11 of the AP poll. And both of UNC’s losses

were to good teams (Belmont and UAB), but teams that aren’t on the same

level of Louisville, Michigan State and

Kentucky. 

At

this point, though, those losses are looking more and more like

anomalies. Still, the question has to be

asked…

Who is the

real

UNC? 

Even

the players didn’t have a consistent

answer. 

“We

were young at the beginning of the year … We’re getting better,”

sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “We’re still working on exactly who

we are, but I like our potential as a

team.” 

Sophomore

forward Brice Johnson, who nearly tore the roof off of the Smith Center

with a dunk in the second half, was a bit more sure of his

response. 

“We’re

not figuring it out. We know what we are. We know who we are,” Johnson

said. “Those were just bad losses. We didn’t come out and play. See what

happens when we do come out and play – we beat people. We know exactly

who we are. We know what we need to do to win, what Coach wants us to

do. We have to just go out there and do

it.”

Who this

team needs to be going forward, though, was made pretty clear as the Tar

Heels gutted out a close win over a young — but talented — Kentucky

team.

1.

UNC needs to be – as Roy Williams put it – aggressive, but patient, on

offense.

Against

Kentucky’s shot-blockers, this was particularly applicable. But really,

it’s going to come into play as the season progresses when the Tar

Heels see more and more zone, and are going to have to work to dissect a

defense as the game goes on and get the best shot

possible. 

“I

told the whole team I wanted us to be aggressive and patient, and

that’s hard. That’s sort of opposites there,” UNC head coach Roy

Williams said. “I wanted us to be aggressive trying to get the ball to

the basket on the break, but then get good shots when you get

there.”

In the

first few minutes, it was Kentucky that was dictating the way the game

was played. Willie Cauley-Stein, a sophomore seven-footer, was

absolutely dominating the paint. And it was a bit of an adjustment for

the Tar Heels to figure out how to attack the basket without getting a

shot swatted right back in their

face. 

“It

definitely took an adjustment. Marcus (Paige) and I talked about it at

halftime,” freshman point guard Nate Britt said. “I know for me

specifically, there were a couple of times where I was in the paint or I

had short-range shots where I felt like I couldn’t get the shot off, so

I had to dribble it back out or make a

pass.

“I think we

just learned as we played. The more we played them, we just learned

where we could get shots. We needed to attack their bodies and get on

the free-throw line instead of shying away from the contact, and that’s

how they were getting a lot of blocked shots early

on.”

Easy for any

of us to say that college basketball players should continue to attack

the basket without fear as their shots continually are either blocked or

altered by a freakishly long, athletic defender that seemingly appears

out of

nowhere. 

“I

pump-faked one of the Harrison twins and Cauley-Stein came out of

nowhere and just blocked it. I was like, ‘Where’d he come from? I

thought I was by myself!'” Johnson

said.

Paige —

who was held to two points in the first half on 0-of-5 shooting —

struggled with Kentucky’s long guards as well, often not able to get

inside the paint at all and having to settle for

three-pointers. 

“Their

length, athleticism, physicality — it’s surprising at the beginning of

a game. You talk about it, you watch it on film but when you get out

there and Willie Cauley-Stein is up at the rim, you’re like ‘Sheesh,'”

Paige said. “So it’s a little bit of an adjustment period, but still, I

had to stay the course, stay aggressive and just try to pick my spots

better and work harder on the offensive end in the second

half.”

He

certainly did that, finishing with 23 points (20 in the second half),

hitting 6-of-8 shots from the floor and 1-of-2 from three in the second

half

alone. 

“We

did a better job of screening for him in the second half. They did a

lot of switching, so we tried to get big screening for little,

particularly for Marcus. I think the guys looked for him more,” Williams

said.

Which

leads us

to…

2.

UNC needs Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo to be as good as they

were on

Saturday.

In

UNC’s other wins over ranked teams, one or both of the Tar Heels’ most

experienced players have had an off night while the younger ones picked

up the slack. McAdoo in particular had seemingly hit a wall recently –

in three games spanning Louisville-Michigan State, he hit just 9-of-35

shots and 5-of-15 free throws, getting a total of ten rebounds and

scoring 23

points. 

Against

UNCG last Saturday, he started to find his way (13 points on 4-of-8

shooting) and then against Kentucky, he dominated the first half and

finished with 20 points, getting to the foul line 19 times. He was

aggressive, driving to the basket instead of settling for jumpers, and

he looked comfortable and

confident. 

“Every

time he touched it, I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to move because

he’s coming.’ I don’t want to get in his way. I don’t want my man to go

over there and help,” Johnson said. “He was being very aggressive and I

love that out of him. That’s what I want him to do. That’s what he’s

best at.”

And he

was doing all of this while being one of the primary defenders on

Kentucky’s Julius Randle, one of the best freshmen in the country and an

absolute beast down low. Randle finished with 11 points on 3-of-9

shooting and just five rebounds. He was averaging over 17 points and 12

rebounds. 

Freshman

center Kennedy Meeks has had some nice games when McAdoo has struggled,

as has sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto. But the freshmen are going to hit a

wall, and the ceiling of some of the guys who have picked up the slack

scoring-wise are only so high. McAdoo is going to need to be this McAdoo

more often than not when ACC play rolls

around. 

Paige,

meanwhile, has all the pressure on him. He has to hit free throws (and

did, hitting most of UNC’s key foul shots late while his teammates

couldn’t) and three-pointers (he has 21 of UNC’s 25 made three’s this

season). He has to take on more of a scorer’s mentality after spending

most of his college career to date as a point guard. And he has to

overcome his slightly smallish frame with some

craftiness. 

“He

made two unbelievable shots,” Williams said. “The little floater on the

baseline (with 1:41 to go) was just — I’m always kiddingly harping on

how I don’t like floaters until you show me you can make them, and he’s

coming pretty doggone

close.”

And he’s

genuinely made the floater part of his

repertoire. 

“Sometimes

it looks like luck because you just kind of flick it up there and guys

are swatting at it and it just drops in. But it’s a shot me and (Britt)

practice all the time, because we’re not the biggest guys around, so

you’ve got to be able to be crafty when you get into the paint. He

wasn’t able to get that one, so I was happy when he didn’t block

it. 

“As

a point guard and someone who wants to be one of the better point

guards in our league, you have to have that shot in your arsenal. I

guess if I keep making it, (Williams) might have to live with them,”

Paige said,

grinning. 

3.

UNC has to be

tough. 

Kentucky

head coach John Calipari was worried entering the game that his team

wouldn’t be able to handle it if North Carolina was the more physical

team. Williams was asked after the game if he thought his team could

“bully” the young

Wildcats.

“Bully

them?” Williams said, incredulous. “We barely look good going through an

airport. We’re not going to win a street fight with anybody, my

gosh.”

And

Williams may have a point. Early, it was Calipari’s team that was

quicker to loose balls and dominating the paint and the glass. Kentucky

rebounded nearly 46% of its own missed shots in the game (and turned

them into 19 second-chance points), but turned it over 17 times (ten on

North Carolina

steals). 

The

Tar Heels, even if they couldn’t finish defensive possessions with a

rebound, overcame a slow start offensively and finished hitting 19-of-34

shots in the paint. UNC

got seemingly every offensive rebound when it mattered, too. They

couldn’t make a free throw late in the game to save their lives,

seemingly, but two of their eight second-half offensive boards came on

missed free throws in the final 59

seconds. 

But

it’s more than physical toughness, or hustle plays. It’s mental

toughness.

Last

year’s team — a group that included P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald,

two of UNC’s most experienced players that are sitting on the bench in

street clothes, still awaiting word from the NCAA on their eligibility

— managed to salvage a relatively slow start (16-8) by winning nine of

its final 12

games. 

But

last year’s team didn’t beat anyone that was better than them during

that stretch, either. It lost three times — to Duke, Miami and Kansas

— and while UNC was in all two of those games, it lost all of them by

double

digits.

The Tar

Heels’ most impressive win last season was arguably over a UNLV team

that lost in the first round of the NCAA

Tournament. 

This

year, UNC has three wins that are much better than that. Yes, the Tar

Heels’ young pieces are more experienced this season. But last year’s

team had a clearly-defined ceiling, and this year’s team seems to have

none, even without last year’s best returning player

(Hairston). 

So

what’s the

difference? 

“This

group does a good job of staying together through adversity better than

last year’s group. If a team makes a run, we don’t fold — or we

haven’t folded yet,” Paige said. “We’ve done a great job of staying the

course, as our coaches always say, whereas last year, if a couple things

went wrong we could end up being down 20 like that, especially early in

the

year. 

“This

team is just a little bit more mentally tough.”