UNC faces it's toughest matchup of the season to date on Saturday, with a road game against Kentucky. Put aside the fact that they're the number one team in the country, or the seventeen tons of history wrapped up in these two teams. Kentucky knocked the Heels out of the tournament last season, in what was a particularly painful loss. Watching the FInal Four a week later, you couldn't help but think UNC should be there.
Of course, this is not the same team as last March. Brandon Knight, the freshman who led all scorers in that Carolina game, is currently cooling his heels waiting for the NBA to start up. Also gone is Josh Harrellson, the big man who gave John Henson so much trouble, and DeAndre Liggins, the player charged with defending Harrison Barnes with limited success. But John Calipari is great at bringing in new talent to replace the old, and there's a whole crew of big men set to harass Henson and Zeller tomorrow.
Anthony Davis is this season's phenomenal freshman, who has already been declared next year's top pick in the NBA draft by, well, John Calipari. After a three point, six rebound performance. Calipari is obviously not planning on building a dynasty around this kid. Then again, the Penn State game was an aberration; as was last night's game against St. John's, where he had 15 points, 15 rebounds and 8 blocks, part of Wildcat-record 18 rejections. Davis's is the team's best rebounder, on both ends of the floor.
Davis is teamed with Terrence Jones, who Carolina fans are familiar with. First for the way he was completely shut down by John Henson in their first meeting. And then his performance in the second game, where he was better – Henson's foul trouble helped – but still overshadowed by the performance of his teammates. It's not that Jones is a bad player. He was the focal point of the offense last season, and although now in a tandem with Davis, is still the team's leading scorer. Together, the two are a large part of why Kentucky currently has the best defensive efficiency in the country, the most blocks per possession, and the second best two-point shot defense.
So we should learn something from Jones's play against Carolina. Either UNC has had his number, or freshmen big men have a rougher transition on the college level. If the first is true, Davis is the much bigger threat; if the second, Terrence Jones will have the bigger night. Their toughest competition to date has been Kansas, where Jones and Davis combined for 29 points. The Jayhawk's frontcourt isn't their strong point, however.
I'll briefly mention the reserves, Eloy Vargas and freshman Kyle Wiltjer. They average under nine and sixteen minutes a game this season, and are more likely to be absent for the bigger opponents – they played 7 and 3 minutes against Kansas, and Vargas was barely seen in last year's tournament game. Early foul trouble for Davis or Jones could press them into service, however. They're much more limited than the starters. Wiltjer might follow Jones out to the three-point line, but he's not nearly as effective there, and Vargas is a solid defender but not much else.
The core of this Carolina team has played this Kentucky team twice. In the first meeting, UNC dominated the interior game, the second they were ineffectual. If the Wildcats can control the paint to the extent that, say, UNLV did – which was just slightly above a draw – the Tar Heels are probably toast. But the Kentucky win will come the perimeter; more on that in the next post.