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UK trying to avoid being UNC's breakthrough game

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MBSK 09_10 UK_UNC Web  11.jpgA year ago, two programs vying for one very important landmark victory met in what would end up being a crossroads game.

One program pulled off the win, won the race to 2,000 victories and sent a loud and clear message to the rest of college basketball that it was back among the nation's elite. The other stumbled to live up to preseason expectations, struggled to get to 2,000 wins by season's end and found itself out of the NCAA Tournament for only the third time in the last 36 seasons.

Who would have thought one game would mark such season-changing directions for Kentucky and North Carolina?

Spare the pity for the Tar Heels, though. Despite suffering a subpar season last year by UNC standards, the Tar Heels are by no means on life support. What they are in need of as they've gotten off to a bumpy start this season is a marquee victory similar to the one Kentucky got last year in the rivalry.

A loss, what would be North Carolina's fourth of the season, won't ruin the Tar Heels' season, but a win could go a long way in turning the year around and reasserting them back in the national title picture.

"They are at North Carolina for a reason, just like our guys are here for a reason," said assistant coach John Robic, who once again pinch hit for head coach John Calipari in media interviews. "No one is in a slump when you play them."

In terms of the rivalry, no, but technically speaking, in terms of an early season 4-3 record and preseason expectations, UNC is in indeed in a slump. After starting the year in the top 10 of both major polls, the Tar Heels have lost games to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and No. 21 Illinois and tumbled out of the top 25.

Critics have been quick to pile on highly touted freshman Harrison Barnes for the Tar Heels' struggles, but Robic isn't one of them.

"I think they're expecting a lot (but) I think it's unfair what the media has done with him," Robic said. "He sure is talented. He's a pro. We have our hands full with him and his size."

Barnes has shown signs of what earned him a consensus top-five ranking among all incoming freshmen, scoring a combined 33 points in his first two career games. But starting with an 0-for-12 night against Vandy, Barnes has hit just 14-of-57 shots over his last five games, and fans in Chapel Hill, N.C., are starting to grow restless.

Robic said Barnes is the type of player that's going to start hitting his shots eventually. The Cats are hoping it's just not against them.

"Knock on wood as much as you can before this game," Robic said. "Harrison Barnes is a very talented player. I haven't seen him play in person, just on tape. At 6-foot-7, he is a jump shooter that can create his own shots. They look for him for big shots. They will look for him on isolations, and he is a good offensive rebounder."

Of course, Barnes won't be the only freshman that will have to shield the spotlight. In the first real road test of the year, several young Cats will get a taste of how tough life on the road can be.

"It's probably going to be like a tournament atmosphere, especially against the competition that we're playing against," junior guard/forward Darius Miller said. "I think it's going to be a great experience for us, especially with us being a young team. It's going to make us better."

Miller is the only Wildcat to have started in a road test like Saturday's, but the third-year veteran said neutral games like the Washington and Connecticut contests in Maui, Hawaii, should have the youth of Kentucky prepared for a hostile Dean Dome .

"We've been playing great teams already," Miller said. "I'm sure they'll know what to expect. Washington was a really, really good team and they handled it pretty well. I've got all the confidence in the world in them."

North Carolina's size could pose problems for a thin UK frontcourt. Five Tar Heels stand 6-7 or taller, including 7-footer and leading scorer Tyler Zeller (14.7 points per game).

"Their length presents a big challenge," Robic said. "Zeller is a seven-footer who can really run. The biggest thing for our guys is going to be getting back on defensive transition. (North Carolina) does a good job of getting in an early post position and that is their first look. Everybody who has played them, forever, has focused on defensive transition. You can't allow them to have any easy baskets. You have to make their post players work and you can't give them angles to the goal."

North Carolina's bugaboo in its three losses has been turnovers. For the season, the Tar Heels are averaging 17 turnovers per game, including 18.7 in the three defeats.

Turnovers were one of the biggest problems in UNC's struggles a year ago.

"I think people are saying their guards are struggling because of the Illinois game," Robic said of UNC's nationally televised, 18-turnover game against the Fighting Illini. "That was their first true road game. I like their speed. The style that they play that enables their kids to get the ball and go. They are at home, so they are going to feel more confident about knocking down shots."

Which is exactly what UK is hoping to avoid. It's a big game for North Carolina and an even bigger chance for the Tar Heels to get their season back on the right foot, but Robic said Kentucky can't fall into the big-game trap.

"Every since I've worked for Cal, what he's taught us and what he teaches these guys is it's the next game on the schedule," Robic said. "I know it's a cliché, but it's an important game because it's the next game. It's different. This is Kentucky. Every team that you play is going to give Kentucky its best shot."

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