It’s no secret that this weekend’s game against North Carolina is shaping up to be the most important of Kentucky’s young season so far. Through 10 games this season, Kentucky sits at 8-2 overall. The problem of course is that they’re just 1-2 against Power 6 conference programs and 0-2 away from Rupp Arena.
That’s certainly not good, but it can all be erased with a victory over North Carolina Saturday evening in Chicago. The Tar Heels are currently sitting at 8-2 themselves and coming off a big win against Gonzaga. Meaning, that a victory over UNC would not only give the Wildcats a much-needed confidence boost heading into next week’s Louisville game, but also would give them a very important out of conference win to help their resume later in the season as well. It would also prove that maybe these Wildcats can play with the big boys after all.
So yeah, this one is big, and as we enter the game, it’s left all of Big Blue Nation wondering: What is it going to take to pull out a victory?
For fun, I decided to call an assistant coach whose team played North Carolina earlier this season for a scouting report.
Understand, his team played UNC a few weeks back, so the Tar Heels have changed a bit since the opener. But here were a couple of his thoughts, pointers and opinions on what makes the Tar Heels tick, what their weaknesses are, and how to beat them:
Point guard Coby White is what makes this team tick
Luke Maye may be the most recognizable player on North Carolina’s roster. Nassir Little is the best long-term NBA prospect. Cam Johnson the team’s leading scorer. But it’s freshman point guard Coby White, and his ability to push the ball in pretty much any situation, which makes this team so deadly.
“Coby White’s speed is really, really unique,” the coach said. “The way he’s able to push the ball on misses or makes, and to get the ball down the floor [is lethal].”
And that last part is key: Unlike so many point guards, White doesn’t just push the ball off turnovers or in transition. Roy Williams has given him the green light to push the ball at pretty much any time, including off an opposing team’s made basket.
“On a made basket he gets that outlet and he’s able to get ahead of the defense before it can get set,” the coach said.
“The pressure he puts on the defense is different than any other point guard we’ve seen all year.”
Kentucky’s big guys better bring their hard hats
Another thing that makes North Carolina so unique is the versatility of their roster. They can run out lineups heavy on the things that are important in modern college basketball, superficially three-point shooting and spacing, thanks to the versatility of guys like White, Johnson and Nassir Little. But with Maye, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman, they also have a dearth of “old-school” bigs down low who can mix it up and get physical.
“What I didn’t mention is how great of an offensive rebounding team they are,” the coach said, when asked about their size in the paint. “They really punish you on the glass.”
The stats back it up. North Carolina enters this game ranked No. 1 in the country in rebounding margin, averaging 14 more rebounds per game than opponents. The Tar Heels also rank in the Top 15 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounds.
The good news for Kentucky is that the Wildcats actually rank fifth in rebounding margin nationally. So it’s not like they’ll be completely out-manned on the boards.
But it does mean that for Kentucky to win, they’ll need Reid Travis and P.J. Washington to bring their hard hats.
It might also be a big day for E.J. Montgomery
When discussing the size of Carolina’s front line, the coach mentioned that while it might be a strength in some cases (that whole “dominating the glass,” thing) it could be a weakness as well. That’s because when the Tar Heels do face teams with smaller, quicker front lines that can stretch the floor and make jump shots, it makes that front-line susceptible on defense.
“That’s why Michigan gave them so many fits,” the coach said. “They had to guard smaller fours and more active fours and those guys aren’t comfortable playing like that.”
For those who missed the Michigan game, umm yeah, it wasn’t pretty for the Tar Heels. North Carolina lost to the Wolverines 84-67 on the road, in a game that Roy Williams said was “the worst” coaching he’s done in 31 years as a head man. And it was – in large part – due to what our coaching friend said: Michigan’s ability to space the floor. The Wolverines “power forward” Iggy Brazeikis finished with 24 points, including two three-pointers. Overall, Michigan hit 11 three’s as a team.
Add it up, and it means that as weird as it sounds, E.J. Montgomery – and his ability to space the floor – could be key to this game. If he can hit a few jumpers to loosen up the North Carolina defense, it could give the Wildcats the push they need. Also, could this serve as a breakout game for Jemarl Baker, who looked good in limited minutes against Utah on Saturday?
The longer you make North Carolina’s defense work, the more likely they are to fall apart
All season long, North Carolina has been known as a bad defensive team. And honestly, that assessment isn’t really fair. The bottom line is that because North Carolina plays at such a fast pace, it creates more possessions for both themselves and their opponents, which of course leads to more points for both teams. While I’m not a huge numbers nerd (listen to Monday’s podcast if you don’t believe me), it is important to note that UNC is ranked 39th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency stat, which basically factors in how fast they play with the number of points they give up. That’s not a great number, but not terrible either.
At the same time, the coach was adamant about one thing: If you can slow down the game, not give Carolina the chance to fast-break, and make them play 20-30 seconds of defense, they will eventually break down.
“If you’re able to reverse the ball and have a little bit of patience, they do struggle defensively reacting to the ball,” he said.
Then, he continued.
“I think that you need more of a disciplined offense when you’re playing against them. If you try to score early that’s not going to work. But if you keep the ball moving, you have a much better chance to score later in the shot clock.”
White can be turnover prone, and that’s especially the case in the half-court
To bring this bad boy full-circle, I think what we’ve all learned by now is that the Tar Heels transition game is what makes them so lethal. It allows them to feature their best trait (an ability to push the ball) while limit their weakness (half-court defense).
It also takes away what is their most important player’s individual weakness. That is Coby White and turnovers.
For all the great that White brings to the table, he is averaging 2.4 turnovers per game. And while there is no definitive stat to prove it, it seems like a lot of those turnovers come in the half-court, when White is asked to run an offense, as opposed to in the open court, where he is at his best.
“They’re good in the half-court but they’re better in transition,” the coach said.
The question now: Can Kentucky keep North Carolina out of transition?
That might be the key to winning and losing their most important game of the season.