Preview: UNC @ Kentucky


If you needed us to tell you that UNC is playing Kentucky today, then this must be your first time at this blog or you stumbled across it randomly and are not, in fact, a Carolina fan. You regular readers, however, have had this game circled on your calendar since the schedule came out in the spring.

Carolina comes in to the match-up with one blemish on its record, otherwise it would have been the rare No. 1 vs. No 2. preconference game that almost never happens. Both teams are loaded with NBA talent, and you already know about UNC’s. I’ll get into UK’s a little in the bullets below, but up here I wanted to talk about one advantage that Kentucky will have — playing at home.

You hear about how devoted Big Blue Nation is from announcers all the time, but I have a little first hand experience. Last week, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my future in-laws. It was a great time with too much food, and it all took place deep in the heart of darkness — Lexington, Kentucky. My future brother in-law and his wife live there, so I ventured there just one week before the Tar Heels and Wildcats would meet on the court.

Now to preface what I found out, I want to say that I’ll be the first person to defend the atmosphere at the Dean Dome. Yeah, it has the wine and cheese reputation, but try and not be intimidated by 20,000 fans during a patented Carolina comeback. Even the gray hairs stand up.

But even with the Class of ’42 on its feet, the atmosphere at the Dean Dome will not be close to what the Heels are going to face in Rupp. I know this without stepping foot inside the arena. Here’s why:

Before I took off for Lexington from my layover stop in Atlanta, two strangers behind me on the plane were constantly refreshing their phones and comparing their read-outs to see who had the most up-to-date score of Kentucky’s game against Radford. The game had just started right before we were scheduled to take off.  I would probably be doing the same if UNC were playing, but they seemed particularly perturbed when then had to switch off for takeoff. Too perturbed for Radford in my opinion.

We landed in Lexington and before turning off the seat belt sign, our pilot informed us over the loudspeaker that Kentucky was up big in the second half. Wait, what? Was she checking the score or bringing us in for a landing? This was an older plane — no in-flight internet. And did I mention they were only playing Radford?

I managed to make it through the rest of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday without any more surprising encounters with UK. I knew that my SIL was a Kentucky fan so I wasn’t surprised by her. I just did my part to plant the seeds of UNC love in her two-year-old. Saturday, though, we decided to go to the mall.

A rough estimate of the people decked out in their game-day blue would be 50 percent. I’ve never seen anything like it. Entire families dressed in their Saturday best — Mom, Dad, 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. There are even two stores in the mall devoted solely to selling Kentucky memorabilia.

The Wildcat Wearhouse was gigantic.

Being just absolutely surrounded by these people, not close to the campus, I realized just what the Heels were walking into today — the epicenter of Big Blue Nation. I was merely witnessing aftershocks. This entire city loves its ‘Cats, if not its spelling (see above) and they’ll be out in force when Carolina comes to town.

  • Terrence Jones is leading the team in points, so in theory, he’s the one the Heels will have to pay the most attention to, but really the whole team is a threat. Jones will step outside a bit, so Henson and Zeller will have to be mobile to guard him.
  • Probably the most intriguing match-up will be John Henson vs. Anthony Davis (right). The two are as close to copies of each other as you’ll find in college basketball and with similar games. Both are long and athletic and block shots, and generally focus more on defense. Davis is a little more polished on offense than Henson was as a freshman, but most of his points come from put-backs and lobs, whereas Henson now has a baseline drive and mid-range jumper.
  • Kentucky will get up and down the floor, which is good for Carolina, especially after the arduous pace of the Wisconsin game. Hopefully UNC will be able to exploit UK on the fast break. It would be great if Zeller could get involved on the break and get him out of his recent funk.
  • Another key match-up will be PG Marquis Teague vs. X. Hopefully that X is Dexter Strickland. After his masterful job on Jordan Taylor, you’d think that Roy would automatically put him on Teague, the brother of former Tar Heel-killer Jeff Teague. But Roy has a way of trying things out at the beginning of games the way he wants them to work out, which ideally would be Marshall matched up against Teague. If Strickland marks Teague, the Heels will have a better chance of disrupting the flow of UK’s offense. Teague is a highly touted player, but he’s still a freshman, and has looked rattled at times this season, like the first half against Kansas. We’d prefer that Strickland hound him from the start so that he can never find a groove. Fingers crossed.

Oh, and UK fans ADORE Calipari. Because he got the school with the second most national championships ALL-TIME to ONE Final Four, you can buy someone’s, eh, flattering portrait of him. (Or a photo of a one-and-done player who DIDN’T get UK to a Final Four.) Despite their devotion, I just can’t see how they attach themselves to some of their recent history so quickly, even with the wins. I guess it’s the Al Davis philosophy.

I’m feeling a bit saucy about this game. UNC already got its wake-up call, and Kentucky has yet to receive its. I’m going to go against my gut here because, while I feel that Kentucky has the edge, I think Carolina will pull it out.

Prediction:

UNC 74, UK 71