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Coach Cal letting Kentucky-Carolina speak for itself

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Julius Randle is averaging 17.8 points and 12.0 rebounding entering a Saturday matchup with North Carolina. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Julius Randle is averaging 17.8 points and 12.0 rebounding entering a Saturday matchup with North Carolina. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
John Calipari isn't normally one to get caught up in the hype surrounding a regular-season game, but even he's stopped in his tracks by a matchup between Kentucky and North Carolina.

"Think about the players that have gone through there and the players that have gone through here," Calipari said. "You think about from Frank Maguire, Dean Smith on, from Adolph Rupp on, it's craziness. This why you coach and this is why you play, to play in games like this."

The numbers say it all.

Between the two titans, there are 4,215 combined wins and 13 NCAA championships. UK is the all-time winningest program in the history of the sport, UNC third. When it comes to college basketball, it's hard to even have a conversation without including Kentucky and Carolina's two shades of blue.

For that reason, Calipari feels no need to spend any time crafting a special pregame message for his team.

"It's Carolina-Kentucky," Calipari said. "What do I got to do? I need a Knute Rockne speech? It's Carolina-Kentucky."

Even though the stage is big and the Wildcats young, Calipari believes his team has relevant experience heading into a road trip to Chapel Hill, N.C., namely UK's games against Michigan State in Chicago and Baylor in Dallas.

North Carolina, however, will present a unique set of challenges on Saturday (5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The No. 18/21 Tar Heels (6-2) have been a source of intrigue all season. Missing top players P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald due to suspension, UNC has still managed two of the most impressive wins by any team this season, taking down Louisville on a neutral court and then-No. 1 Michigan State on the road. On the other end of the spectrum, the Heels have dropped decisions to Belmont and UAB.

Though experts have been flummoxed by Carolina, No. 11/10 UK (8-2) knows what to expect.

"They're going to compete no matter who they're playing," Julius Randle said. "They've had some missteps but they're a great team, a great ball club and have a great coach, so regardless who they're playing they're going to compete."

Calipari is even clearer about that.

"Do you expect anything other than the best game they've played all year?" Calipari said. "We're gonna face North Carolina at their best. So we have to be at our best."

When Kentucky has been at its best, the Cats have capitalized on their size and punished opponents on the glass. UNC, however, is one of a handful of teams capable of coming close to matching Kentucky inch for inch and pound for pound in the post.

"Look, their frontline players are as good as any we'll play, and that's what's given us trouble," Calipari said.

Kentucky ranks fourth in the nation in effective height according to kenpom.com, North Carolina 15th. The Tar Heels' frontcourt rotation of James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Joel James runs 6-foot-9, 6-9, 6-9 and 6-10. Meeks and James weigh in at 290 and 280 pounds, respectively.

UNC's top offensive threat, however, is on the outside. Marcus Paige, who has shifted away from point guard in Hairston and Strickland's absence, is averaging 18.8 points and is the only Tar Heel who has attempted more than 8 3-pointers this season.

"It's a good challenge, a good challenge for both of us," Randle said. "Each team has a lot of weapons. It's just going to come down to who wants it the most at the end."

He can't say what will happen in the final minutes, but Coach Cal knows how much UNC wants it right now.

"You're going down there and they want you bad," Calipari said. "It's a white out. They're honoring Coach (Dean) Smith, which I think is outstanding. They're pull out all the stops, and you know what? It's what my team needs. Let's go see where we are. But I'm excited to coach in it. This is why you coach: games like this."

Randle, UK's top scorer and rebounder, feels the same way, particularly considering this will be his first opportunity to play in a true road environment in college.

"I'm looking forward it," Randle said. "I kind of love having that feeling of just us, everybody against us."

Calipari likes hearing about Randle's enthusiasm, though he knows it must be tempered.

"We need to have a team full of guys excited that way," Calipari said. "Now, that also leads to too hyped: fouling and doing stuff and out of control."

Randle is fairly confident he'll be able to handle himself just fine. The last time he played in in front of a hostile crowd was in the semifinals of the Texas state tournament on March 2 against John Paul II High School.

"It was a big rival that thought they were going to win the state championship, but it didn't happen," Randle said.

So, how did the star freshman play in his second-to-last game as a high schooler?

"I had 40," Randle said, omitting the 15 rebounds he snagged.

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