Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY
When: Saturday, December 3rd, Noon
Records: UNC 6-1; UK 7-0
Last spring when the dust from the NBA Draft decision storm settled, this date was circled on everyone's calendar as the college basketball game of the season. With the NBA not playing basketball until Christmas, this will be the only game this season with this many NBA-caliber players on the floor at the same time. So much so ten NBA scouts will be in attendance along with countless members of the national media.
UNC unexpected loss to UNLV last Saturday prevented this game from being the #1 vs #2 match-up everyone thought it be. Still this is widely acknowledged as a potential preview of a Final Four game in New Orleans. For both teams it is a test to go against another team of equal caliber to best ascertain where the holes lie. While winning or losing is important, neither UNC nor Kentucky will be greatly damaged or uplifted by either result. There is simply too much season left and it would only be a single loss.
From the viewpoint of UNC players, there is some familiarity to this team based on the two meetings last season but overall UK brings a different squad into the game. Of the top seven in minutes played, only Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller return from the team UNC beat in Chapel Hill and lost to in the Elite Eight. Of those three only Lamb had a memorable outing, 24 points in the regular season game. Of course performance last year mean very little since this is a different UK team with three freshmen now playing significant minutes. UK starts their third straight freshman PG in Marquis Teague. Anthony Davis is very similar to John Henson at the PF. Both are lack bulk, have tremendous length and pride themselves on rebounding and shot blocking. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is going a little bit of everything at the small forward position.
Clearly this is a team that can match UNC talent for talent at every position on the floor. The upside for the Heels is this game will be played a tempo of the Heels' liking. The downside is Kentucky rebounds and shoots threes fairly well which could create problems for UNC. One edge the Heels have is they are the more experienced team and accustomed to playing and winning in tough games, the results versus UNLV not withstanding. With both teams boasting so many quality interior players, officiating will be crucial as it was last year when UNC got the better of the foul trouble in Chapel Hill only to be bit by it in the regional final. The backcourt matchup is also intriguing since Dexter Strickland can only guard one of two UK guards leaving Kendall Marshall to deal with the other one.
Regardless of previous results this season, both teams will show up and make this a competitive and compelling game to watch. As I said, the result is almost moot providing neither team blows the other one out and even then it is only December 3rd with plenty of time to circle the wagons. A loss here for UNC would means the Heels could still finish the non-conference slate at 15-2 and be in great position for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A win would be a nice notch on the belt but like last season, the one that could come later will be the game that matters most.
I have basically been counting this as a loss even before the season started so I am going to go with that in the prediction although I also get a feeling that UNC will be out to prove something in this game following the loss to UNLV and the grind it out effort versus Wisconsin.
UK 77 UNC 72