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Wildcats bracing for the unknown in North Carolina showdown

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Darius Miller averaged 12 points in two games against North Carolina in 2010-11. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Darius Miller averaged 12 points in two games against North Carolina in 2010-11. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Returning all of its major contributors from an Elite Eight team in 2010-11, North Carolina was, for the most part, a known commodity coming in to this season. Because of their gifted frontcourt, the playmaking ability of Kendall Marshall at point guard and the talent Roy Williams added to the mix, the Tar Heels entered 2011-12 as the nation's top-ranked team.

Kentucky, on the other hand, was a little more of a question mark. It was well-known that John Calipari was adding a four-man recruiting class hailed as the best in the country to a nucleus of three returners from last year's Final Four team, but any opinions on how those gifted pieces would fit together were merely conjecture.

Seven games into the season for both UK and UNC, the Wildcats have maintained an unbeaten record and risen to No. 1 after a Tar Heel loss to UNLV. The fact remains, though, that Roy Williams' bunch has an established identity, while the Cats are still figuring themselves out entering a matchup between the two that has been circled on the college basketball calendar for months.

"We are what we are right now and it's December," Calipari said. "Are we good enough to compete with these guys? We're going to see. The ball is going to be thrown up and we're going to find out."

Tipoff for the game between No. 1 UK and No. 5 UNC will be at noon Saturday in Rupp Arena with a CBS crew of Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg on hand to call the network's first NCAA basketball games of the season. Nantz and Kellogg can go through all the preparation in the world, but it's impossible for them or anyone else to know how things will play out.

"We're just going to tell them to play. We have to guard them and they have to guard us," Calipari said. "Do they put (Marshall) on Doron (Lamb)? Do they put him on Marquis (Teague)? Do they back off Marquis and say, 'shoot balls?' We all have the same issues (with) how we're playing. It should be interesting."

Calipari and his Cats aren't hiding from the fact that Saturday's game is a big one, but at the same time, they're not getting lost in the hype. The calendar reads "December", not "April", so by no means will the loser see its season end as North Carolina did when these same two teams met in the Elite Eight last season and UK won 76-69.

A lot of talk over the past week has revolved around the subject of non-conference scheduling and whether or not it's sustainable to play UNC and other high profile opponents on an annual basis. Much of that conversation has suggested Calipari wants to avoid games like this one as much as possible, but that couldn't be further from the truth. He knows just how much he and his team can benefit from stern tests like UNC, win or lose.

"You want games that help you learn about your team and you want your team to learn about themselves so they can be better coached," Calipari said. "That's what you want in these kinds of games."

Senior guard Darius Miller has been through more than his fair share of hype-filled regular season games, including one last year in Chapel Hill, N.C., when the Heels prevailed 75-73. His history allows him to see the need for balance between improving and trying to win.

"I think it's a little bit of both," Miller said. "In order to figure out where we are, we're going to try to win and try to compete with these guys. We know they're a very good team and it's probably our biggest test so far. We're just trying to see where we're at right now."

A test is exactly what UNC will be. Marshall is orchestrating a Tar Heel offense that is scoring 88.0 points per game and the 6-foot-4 sophomore is dishing out 10.3 assists per outing. The majority of his passes are directed to arguably the nation's top front line, which is led by forwards Harrison Barnes (17.7 points and  4.6 rebounds), John Henson (14.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.3 blocks) and Tyler Zeller (13.4 points and 7.1 rebounds).

UK likely boasts the only frontcourt in the country that even belongs in the same ballpark in terms of talent as North Carolina's. However, Calipari starts a pair of freshmen (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and a sophomore (Terrence Jones) in the three spots where Williams sends out a senior, a junior and a sophomore, all of whom started a season ago.

Henson, though, isn't buying in to the notion that experience will be the deciding factor.

"It matters to an extent, but at the end of the day you have to go out there and play," Henson said. "Obviously Kentucky hasn't had too many problems with experience because they haven't lost yet but experience does come into play sometimes, but also you just have to go out there and play."

In the end, speculation about which front line will get the better of the other or how any aspect of the game will shake out is just that: speculation. It's unknown whether Teague will be able to capitalize on Marshall's occasional defensive struggles or whether Barnes will get the better of his matchup with Kidd-Gilchrist and Miller. UNC has an unquestioned edge in experience, but UK could overcome it with 24,000 fans cheering them on.

Besides, there's no saying if the team that does come out on top would do the same in a potential rematch late in the NCAA Tournament. No two schools in the country better demonstrated how much a team can improve from December to March than UK and UNC. Early in the season, both were dismissed as non-contenders with too many flaws to overcome, but by spring, the Cats and Heels were playing for a berth in the Final Four.

The bottom line is that there's only so much preparation Calipari and Williams can put their teams through for a game this early, no matter how many media members or NBA scouts are in attendance.

"We're as ready as we need to be for this kind of game," Calipari said. "I'm not sweating it, we're not changing a whole lot, I doubt if they change a whole lot. We're going to find out where their team is and where our team is. That's what this will be."

For all that's impossible to guess about UK-UNC, there are a few things you can take to the bank. First of all, there won't be a regular season game all season to feature more talent. Second, that talent is going to run up and down the floor, then run some more.

"I really believe they could save power in Rupp Arena and not even have the shot clock this weekend," Williams said. "Kentucky wants to run and we want to run."

Whatever the case, it's going to be worth watching.

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