After the blowout victory over Utah last weekend, Camp Cal is in full force. The Wildcats have had another very long week of practice and today they’ll play a game on a neutral floor for the third time this season. The previous two meetings were suboptimal to say the least. In the United Center with CBS on the call, the Wildcats will look to collect their biggest win of the season.
The Tar Heels are off to another solid start under Roy Williams and they’ll be bringing a top 1o ranking into the United Center. Luke Maye is still there (expect to see that Elite Eight last second shot 800 times today) and UNC is getting some excellent play from two freshmen to start the year.
In recent big time games against blue blood type programs, the Wildcats have struggled. With Louisville and SEC play bearing down, getting a huge win over a top 10 opponent would be a great booster for a team still trying to find themselves.
Nuts and Bolts
There’s no doubt about it, North Carolina is one of the premier programs in the sport of college basketball. The Tar Heels have won six national titles, 20 Final Fours, 40 regular season conference championships, and 26 conference tournament championships. UNC has had numerous All-Americans and some hall of fame coaches. They’ve been playing high level college hoops for a very long time and are showing no signs of slowing down.
Roy Williams is a UNC alum and a former assistant for a decade. This will always be Dean Smith’s program, but the success that Williams is having is nearly unmatched in college hoops. The former Kansas head coach has won three national championships in 14 seasons, has 432 wins, five Final Four appearances, and eight conference championships in Chapel Hill. That’s not even including what he did at Kansas.
He’s been as good as advertised in for Carolina and he’s one of the best coaches this sport has even seen. He just signed another extension with UNC and it’s clear that he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
This will be the 40th meeting between these two powerhouse programs and Carolina currently owns the series lead by a count of 24-15. In neutral sites, Kentucky is 5-12 against the Tar Heels. Since John Calipari’s arrival in Lexington, there have been eight previous meetings with Kentucky owning a 5-3 mark. These two squads have met four times in the NCAA Tournament with each game occurring in the the Elite Eight.
Out in the desert, North Carolina is 2.5 point favorite with a total of 165.5. That’s a projected final score of 84-81.5. This will be Kentucky’s first game as an underdog this season. For the year, North Carolina is 5-3-2 against the spread while Kentucky is 4-6. Against power conference opponents, the over has hit in every game for these two squads.
With the loss of stud point Joel Berry, UNC had some very big shoes to fill on the perimeter. The McDonald’s All-American was a three-year starter at point guard and received some All-American honors last season. Replacing him was going to be a tall task.
There were very big expectations for two freshmen entering the season. Both Nassir Little and Coby White were significant recruiting wins for Roy Williams and the two rookies have produced at a high level right away.
White is second on the team in scoring, has been efficient from three, and plays some point for the Tar Heels. Little, who many project as a top five pick, has been the best sixth man in the country. The Florida native is putting up 11.5 points per game off the bench and is hitting over half of his shots. The supreme athlete is outstanding at attacking the rim, crashing the offensive glass, operating in the post, and he’s dangerous in Carolina’s up-and-down scheme.
Kenny Williams has been a steadying force for the backcourt all season. The senior leads the team in assists and is second on the squad in minutes. He has been struggling with his jumpshot, but is doing everything else well.
Off the bench with Nassir Little, Seventh Woods is the only other perimeter player used for double-digit minutes. Williams loves to go 10 deep and this team is no different.
Yes, Luke Maye is still enrolled at the University of North Carolina. The former lowly rated recruit turned into a superstar last year. Building off the game-winning shot against Kentucky followed by the national championship in 2017, Maye put up monster numbers as a junior. The North Carolina native averaged 17 and 10 on his way to some All-America honors. Seemingly overnight, he became one of the best bigs in the country.
This year he is back to his old tricks through nine games into his senior season. Maye again is averaging a double-double with a 14 points and 10 rebounds. The three-point shot has been shaky to start the season, but he’s been very solid. The most dangerous weapon for UNC, however, is a very familiar name that plays next to Maye.
Cameron Johnson was a grad transfer from Pitt who Kentucky desperately wanted. The Wildcats missed and he’s made a significant impact in Chapel Hill.
After putting up 12 points per game and shooting less than 40 percent from three last year, Johnson’s numbers have taken a big step forward this season. The 6-foot-9 wing is playing a lot of stretch four for the Heels and he leads the team in scoring. From deep he is lighting it up by pouring in nearly half of his 53 three-pointers. Johnson is currently one of the most efficient offensive players in the country.
At the five spot, the Heels use sophomores Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley. Each is very good at protecting the rim. Brooks has started every game for UNC, but Manley is used quite a bit. As a duo they are putting up over 15 points and 10 boards per game.
Keys to Victory
- North Carolina, by a very large margin, will be the best offensive team Kentucky has played since getting trounced by Duke in the Champions Classic. The Wildcats were overwhelmed in Indianapolis and quickly got bulldozed. Kentucky must survive the early onslaught and play their game. North Carolina is going to go on some runs. UK must stick together.
- UNC is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation. Cameron Johnson is lighting it up from deep and both Luke Maye and Kenny Williams are proven shooters that are off to a slow start. Kentucky, meanwhile, is still one of the worst three-point defense teams in the country. The Wildcats cannot get outclassed from deep.
- The Tar Heels have been solid on defense to start the season, but they have had some foul issues. Meanwhile, UK has been great all season at getting to the charity stripe. Due to the three-point battle most likely going to go UNC’s way, Kentucky must win the battle at the free throw. Cats must stay aggressive and attack.
- Kentucky’s offensive rebounding has been excellent to start the season, but North Carolina isn’t far behind. The Tar Heels have been excellent on the offensive glass. It’s no secret that UK has some serious offensive issues so it will be essential to eliminate extra possessions. Kentucky’s P.J. Washington has been one of the nation’s best defensive rebounders and he must keep Garrison Brooks, one of the nation’s best offensive rebounders, off of the glass.
On A Heater
Throughout this series, we’ve seen some great individual performances. Tayshaun Prince hitting five consecutive threes before the first media timeout, Anthony Davis with the crazy game-winning block against John Henson, and the big three by DeAndre Liggins in the 2011 Elite Eight. However, no one had a bigger moment than Malik Monk.
On that day in December 2016, the bucket-getter from Arkansas put up 47 points and hit eight treys. The Wildcats won a thriller in Las Vegas and it was another North Carolina-Kentucky classic. Will we get another one today in Chicago?