For all of the tradition between Kentucky and North Carolina, are you surprised to know that Saturday's game at Rupp Arena will mark the first time since 1995 that the two programs will square off when both are ranked in the top five in the nation?
That matchup came in 1995, in the South Regional final in Birmingham. Another came in the 1977 East Regional final and the only number one-versus-number two showdown occurred in December, 1981 at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Only one of the four top five showdowns came on a home court and that happened at Memorial Coliseum on December 7, 1968. The common denominator is that the Tar Heels won all four games, by margins ranging from seven to 13 points.
If Kentucky ends that trend on Saturday, it might well be one of the top five moments in this series for Big Blue fans. For now, here's my take on how that list would look:
#5/ Kentucky 93, #6 UNC 76 in December, 2000
North Carolina had won six straight in the series and the sixth-ranked Tar Heels were a solid favorite to make it seven against the unranked Cats.
But led by Marquis Estill's first career double-double, Kentucky went into the Dean Dome and demolished UNC 93-76. It was Carolina's second-worst defeat on its latest home court and it re-established UK's credentials nationally after a slow start to the season.
By year's end, Kentucky was one of the hottest teams in the country and played its way into a number two seed before getting upset in the Sweet 16 by Southern Cal.
#4/ Kentucky 100, UNC 80 in December, 1963
This marked Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp's only win over Dean Smith, the year after Smith's Tar Heels had beaten the Wildcats in the first-ever meeting between the coaching legend and the rising star who would become an icon, too.
Cotton Nash scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds as UK routed UNC 100-80 at Memorial Coliseum. Future NBA star Billy Cunningham led all scorers with 32 points in defeat--a mark that still stands as the most points scored by a Tar Heel against Kentucky.
#3/ Kentucky 68, UNC 66 in December, 2009
This was the game that made the first definitive statement about John Calipari's revival of the UK program.
A crowd of 24, 968 (11 short of the record that was set a few weeks later v. Louisville) watched the Wildcats race out to a 43-28 halftime lead. The surge was fueled by freshman point guard John Wall, the North Carolina native who took control of the game early with his speed.
Wall cramped up in the second half but junior leader Patrick Patterson provided the settling influence to help the young Cats hold off a UNC rally for a 68-66 win. Patterson led Kentucky with 19 points and seven rebounds while Wall contributed 16 points and seven assists, enabling UK to end a five-game winning streak in the series by the Tar Heels.
#2/ Kentucky 90, North Carolina 78 in December, 1974
This one gets the number spot on my list because to me, this game solidified Joe B. Hall's seat as head coach on the Kentucky bench.
Two days after the Cats were blown out by 24 at Indiana, they fell behind early at Freedom Hall to the Tar Heels. Hall benched the starters--a move that would use four years later in an NCAA first-round game, to key UK's title run. When he put them back in the game, senior Jimmy Dan Conner caught fire.
Conner finished the night with his best game as a Wildcat, 15 of 21 from the field en route to 35 points as the Cats won going away. Buoyed by that performance, Kentucky would eventually make it to the national championship game, falling to UCLA in John Wooden's final game.
#1/ Kentucky 76, North Carolina 69 in March, 2011
The young Wildcats threw the NCAA Tournament brackets into disarray with their upset of top-seed Ohio State but they needed to beat North Carolina to reach the program's first Final Four in 13 years.
Kentucky gained the upper hand midway through the second half but rookie star Harrison Barnes led a Carolina resurrgence. With the game on the line in the final minute, Deandre Liggins swished a three-pointer from the corner in front of the Kentucky bench to deliver the knockout blow.
Brandon Knight led the scoring for UK with 22 as Kentucky won its first Elite Eight matchup with the Tar Heels in three tries and it was on to Houston.