Man, I love the modern tradition of the UNC-Kentucky game, as you know if you've read this blog over the last five years. So even this season, when I haven't been excited about the team since the Hofstra game, I'm looking forward to this. It helps that even in the disastrous last season, UNC played the Wildcats to a two-point finish after being blown out with a 28-2 run early on.
I'm not sure how to judge this Kentucky team; they lost what six major players from last season? Their biggest returning guys are Darius Miller and Darnell Dodson, and only Miller played more than 35% of the available minutes last season. Calipari brought on another bumper crop of freshmen and a junior transfer, and all but Enes Kanter have made the floor; the team, in fact, looks a lot like UNC last year.
I mean, really, doesn't this sound familiar? A young team gets a couple of easy wins before their fall tournament, where they play well but are blown out in the finals by a Big East team supposedly beneath them; they recover, but now face an awkwardly scheduled winter game as their next true test. Bring on the loss and the long slow spiral towards the NIT, right?
I don't think so; there are just too many differences. This Kentucky team isn't the turnover-machine UNC has been the last two seasons. After the personnel loss, they're actually playing a lot like what UNC fans wanted from Carolina last season. They've slowed the pace down, refocused on hitting the offensive boards and scoring more efficiently. Statistically, they're better than last year, and they'll be tough to handle. Terrence Jones has been a breakout star, averaging a double-double on the season. He'll spend most of the game matched up with John Henson or Harrison Barnes, and will be a tough test of either of their defense. Brandon Knight has by comparison struggled, but only by comparison – he's still averaging 17.3 points a game, but pairs with with 4.5 turnovers. He's the biggest chance for UNC to get the easy bucket, so I would expect to see Dexter Strickland on him a lot.
Turnovers have of course plagues the Heels when they have the ball, and that's the one bright spot in this. Kentucky doesn't generate that many, preferring just good shot defense and strong rebounding. Of course, Carolina doesn't so much have turnovers forced upon them as give them up willingly, but if there was ever a game for this to stop, it would be here. The other thing UNC will have to do is hit the boards, of course. Josh Harrellson has gone from being a returning senior not worth profiling to a strong presence on the boards, along with Miller and Eloy Vargas. Undersized UNC will have to keep Zeller out of foul trouble and not give Kentucky second chances on the offensive end. Making their outside shots, if the even choose to take the, would help a lot.
I'm not picking Carolina to win a big game until they actually do so; I've been burned too many times. This would be the day to do so, and I hope to be proven wrong, of course.