As non-conference regular season games go, it doesn't get much bigger than Saturday's game at noon in Rupp Arena. Even since Kentucky went down in last year's Final Four, fans in the Bluegrass have been talking about Dec. 3, the day the Tar Heels would come to town. For UNC, it started even earlier, as UK ended the Heels' season late last March in the Elite Eight.
Even as UK had marquee games against Kansas in Madison Square Garden and St. John's on Thursday night in Rupp Arena, the game really generating the buzz around campus has been UK-UNC.
"Everyone wants to talk about North Carolina," freshman forward Anthony Davis said. "It's been that way for the last month."
CBS's first college basketball game of the young season won't feature the nation's two top-ranked teams as so many expected, but eight of the top 18 picks in next year's NBA Draft as projected by Chad Ford will be playing. Media from every corner of the United States will be making the pilgrimage to Rupp and the only people more desperate for a seat than members of the Big Blue Nation are NBA scouts.
Those in attendance should expect to be treated to quite a show. UK and UNC have shown themselves to be among the most dangerous teams in transition in country already this season and that's not expected to change on Saturday.
"You know, they pretty much play how they play," UK head coach John Calipari said. "We pretty much play like we play. I doubt if either one of us are going to try to hold the ball. I mean, it should be an up-and-down game I imagine."
According to KenPom.com, the Tar Heels play at the fifth-fastest pace of any team in the country. Taking into account the style of play of their opponents and Roy Williams' history as a coach, UNC has an adjusted tempo of 73.7. UK is just 61st in the country in that same category at 69.7, but that number is skewed slightly by the way UK played a season ago. The Cats have played up-tempo all season, averaging 72.6 possessions per game, including a season-high 79 against a St. John's team that tried to slow the game down in the first half.
UK put together a dominant defensive performance on Thursday against the Red Storm, breaking a school record with 18 blocked shots and holding St. John's to 31.7-percent shooting in an 81-59 victory. However, Calipari doesn't think the kind of effort UK turned in against the Johnnies would fly against UNC.
"I would be a very sad coach after the game I would say (if UK plays as it did against St. John's on Saturday)," Calipari said. "We have to play better than we played."
As of Thursday night, Calipari had not yet determined a game plan for UNC, so it's impossible to know quite how these teams will play against each other. It's true that the Cats and Heels faced off twice a season ago, but these are two very different teams, especially UK.
So, with that in mind, I turn to the statistics, as I so often do. Relying heavily on Ken Pomeroy's numbers, let's take a look at the offensive and defensive matchups between these two teams.
NOTE: All this analysis should be taken with a grain of salt. With just seven games of data, small sample size is an obstacle.
Kentucky offense vs. North Carolina defense
Unquestionably, this is area that most concerns Calipari. UK has gotten by on the offensive end thanks to transition opportunities, second chance points and sheer athleticism, but the Cats have been far from sound in the half-court.
"We're playing such a young team," Calipari said. "We haven't figured out each other yet, and it's going to take time. This team will be way better in March than it is right now."
In spite of that growth pattern, UK is already the fifth-most efficient offensive team in the country according to Pomeroy and it's due to solid numbers across the board. The Cats are 25th in the country in effective field goal percentage (a metric that takes into account the additional value of the 3-pointer), 51st in turnover percentage, 62nd in offensive rebounding percentage and 101st in free throw frequency.
However, UK has not faced a test the likes of the one in store for them on Saturday. Kansas and St. John's had horses, but UNC is the first team that can essentially match UK in size, speed and athleticism at most every position on the floor.
The Heels are also sound defensively, ranking 11th in the nation in overall efficiency. UNC makes its living primarily in two areas, the first of which is making its opponents take difficult shots. The Tar Heels are 72nd nationally in field goal percentage defense. Second, UNC keeps its opponents off the foul line. They're second in the country in defensive free throw frequency. Anchoring UNC's defense is junior forward John Henson, who is blocking an average of 3.3 shots per game.
On the plus side is the fact that UNC has not forced a great deal of turnovers this season, ranking 266th in the country in turnover percentage. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, UK has been fairly good at taking care of the ball, committing turnovers just 17.9 percent of the time, a very solid number.
The area where UK could potentially do some damage against UNC is on the offensive glass. The Wildcats could struggle to find quality first looks when the Heels set their half-court defense, but the length and athleticism of Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could earn them some second chance opportunities against a UNC team that has been average on the defensive glass. The Heels are just 131st in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.
North Carolina offense vs. Kentucky defense
Pomeroy currently rates UK as the best defensive team in the country as the Cats have an allowed an average of just 75.7 points per possession on defense. While UNC has been good at contesting its opponents' shots, UK has been great. Calipari's young bunch has limited its foes to an effective field goal percentage of just 35.6, which is second in the nation. Helping to drive that excellent number is the rate at which UK blocks shots. According Pomeroy, UK's block percentage is 27.1, which is 5.4 percent better than second-place Connecticut and nearly 18 percent better than the national average. Davis leads the way and is tied for the national lead with 4.9 blocks per game.
UK has also done well in limiting free throw opportunities (33rd in the country) and in rebounding (85th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage).
On the flip side, UNC is the ninth-best offensive team in the country on the strength of good shooting, taking care of the ball and getting to the foul line regularly. Star sophomore Harrison Barnes leads his team in scoring with 17.7 points per game while his mates along the front line, John Henson and Tyler Zeller, join him as double-figure scorers. Point guard Kendall Marshall may not even score five points a game, but he dishes out assists at an alarming rate. His average of 10.3 assists per game is second in the nation.
The Kentucky defense has excelled all season, but UNC's frontcourt presents an unprecedented set of challenges. Kansas forward Thomas Robinson is likely as good individually as any of the Heels' bigs, but UK was able to limit him because of his limited supporting cast. With North Carolina, UK can't afford to leave Zeller, Henson, Barnes or freshman James Michael McAdoo.
The Tar Heels' ability in the open floor is also something UK has not yet coped with. As young as the Cats are, UK must make good decisions with both passes and shots to minimize the damage UNC does in transition.
"You let them get in too much of an up-and-down game, you'll get killed," Calipari said. "So you've got to make it so that they are not getting just pass ahead layups."
Conclusion: We won't know until we know
Yes, I'm saying that basically all of the 1,300 words you just read could go out the window in an instant come tipoff. The bottom line is that it's impossible to know how Kentucky is going to react to facing a team with as much talent and experience as North Carolina. I can envision a scenario in which the Cats play out of their minds in front of 24,000-plus fans and win by double digits and, just the same, UK might not be ready for a stage of this magnitude.
For now, all I can tell you is to enjoy the show.