North Carolina, Kentucky renew competitive non-conference series
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington, the Kentucky Wildcats are well ahead of almost every other college basketball program when it comes to recruiting and, for the most part, results.
Since North Carolina head coach Roy Williams last won a national title in 2009, the Tar Heels have missed the NCAA Tournament once and then failed to advance to the Final Four the four subsequent years. Not that bad, certainly, especially since they reached the Elite Eight in two of those four seasons, but from 2005 to 2009, Williams won two national titles and reached three Final Fours.
When these two programs meet on Saturday in Lexington, No. 1 Kentucky (10-0) and No. 21 North Carolina (6-2) look a lot like the programs they've been perceived to be over those stretches, with Calipari's latest young crop of talent dominating opponents early on and North Carolina posting somewhat inconsistent results.
Regardless of where each team has been, though, since both Williams and Calipari have been at their respective schools, this series has been as fun and competitive as any non-conference series in the country.
North Carolina leads the all-time series 23-13, but in the last four regular-season meetings, it's split at 2-2 and those four games have been decided by a combined 10 points. In fact, three games from 2009 to 2011 were decided by a combined five points.
The Tar Heels beat Kentucky last year at home and the two teams took a break the season before, so UNC lost its last trip to Rupp Arena by one point back in December of 2011. Kentucky would go on to win the national championship, and North Carolina might have given the Wildcats a tough run if point guard Kendall Marshall hadn't broken his wrist in the Tar Heels' second-round matchup.
The conversation about whether this 10-deep Kentucky team could knock off an NBA team has died down some, but this Kentucky team is still really good -- even without 6-foot-8 junior Alex Poythress, one of its more experienced players, who tore his ACL this week in practice.
It's unknown whether the Wildcats will still use the much-discussed "platoon" system -- five in, five out, all seemingly of equal talent with little to no drop-off -- without Poythress. Kentucky's rotation still features six players that are 6-foot-9 or taller.
Williams knows, though, that this Kentucky team still has depth and talent unlike many -- if any -- he's seen. When asked if there was a comparison, he laughed before saying "no."
"I know they're really big and really deep and really gifted, really talented," Williams said. "I haven't seen a team like this -- none comes to mind, in 27 years as a head coach. I haven't seen a team this deep and talented."
The Wildcats aren't without their flaws, however. They've been challenged at home by some lesser opponents, a mark of exactly what they are -- a young team. But they've ultimately been more than talented enough to pull those wins out. And some of those struggles with teams like Columbia (earlier this week, a 56-46 win) came after Kentucky's complete and utter dismantling of No. 10 Kansas.
So there's no question that Kentucky will be focused and ready for the Tar Heels. Williams knows his group will have its hands full.
"We've got to play the best game we've played all year. There's no question about that," Williams said. "We need to make some outside shots to try to open some things up for us inside. We need to play without turning the ball over carelessly. We've got to have our best rebounding game of the year. And we've got to hope that they miss some shots. Those things have happened, but all in one day, it's hard.
" ... It's a big-time challenge, and our guys understand that. There's been times before that we've been that big-time challenge for other people and we've tried to take people seriously, and my guess is that they'll take us very seriously too."
Kentucky and North Carolina are two of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and neither are dominant on the defensive glass (Kentucky is 173rd nationally, North Carolina is 299th). But the Tar Heels' struggles on the defensive boards have been more notable, dooming them in close losses to Iowa and Butler.
Neither team has shot the ball all that well, particularly from the outside (Kentucky shoots 28 percent from beyond the arc, North Carolina shoots 27.7 percent). But the biggest difference lies in block percentage.
Kentucky's long, lanky front line has helped the Wildcats lead the nation in block percentage (per Ken Pomeroy) at 25.9 percent -- to put that in perspective, North Carolina is 8th nationally and blocks 16.1 percent of its opponents' misses. The Tar Heels' opponents have shot 39.3 percent from two-point range; Kentucky's have shot 30.7 percent.
In other words, the Tar Heels' improved front line led by Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson is going to have to have a great game as they try to score amongst Kentucky's trees, as will any intrepid Tar Heel guard who ventures into the paint.
"You can't be intimidated. If you're going to go, you've got to go hard. I've always said the softer that you go against a shot-blocker, the more effective he becomes. If you move the ball around and try to stretch it out, it gives him more space to go get it. My one general rule is one pump fake and right at their face. If you go right at their face, it's more difficult for a shot-blocker," Williams said. "We're not going to make them lose six inches of their height or six inches of their reach. But we can't just say, 'OK, well we're not going to try to get the ball inside.' We've just got to be more aggressive with it."
Williams reminisced on how former Maryland coach Morgan Wootten prepared his high school team to face Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) by having his players defend with tennis racquets to simulate Abdul-Jabbar's length and shot-blocking prowess.
There hasn't been a lot of practice time, either. It's exam week in Chapel Hill, so the team didn't practice Monday or Wednesday. Williams joked that he reintroduced himself to his team on Thursday, and the team had an afternoon practice on Friday, even after 12 of his players were in exams earlier in the day. That's all the prep they're going to get in before facing the No. 1 team in the country.
Williams has plenty of experience in these types of games, though, as does the North Carolina program. The Tar Heels have 13 wins over No. 1 teams, which is already the most in NCAA history, and Williams has seven wins over No. 1 teams as a head coach, tied with Gary Williams for most.
Still, he knows better than to call this anyting other than what it is -- one game.
"Last year, we lost to Belmont and beat Michigan State. I mean, come on. And I love both of those guys, two of my favorite coaches, Rick (Byrd) and Tom (Izzo). But it's college basketball. There's some weird things going on," Williams said, citing Michigan's loss to New Jersey Institute of Technology in spite of John Beilein being "one of the best coaches in the game."
"It's still just one game."
One game, but almost always a fun one, if nothing else.