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UNC vs. Kentucky: Three things to watch

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What to look for during Carolina’s marquee match up in Las Vegas

Tennessee v North Carolina Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday, the North Carolina Tar Heels will take on the Kentucky Wildcats at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Here are three things Tar Heel fans should look for in this December match up between these storied rivals.

The Status of Joel Berry II

The dynamics between these college basketball bluebloods could change drastically in the next 24 hours depending on the status of UNC point guard Joel Berry II. This UNC basketball team is different when Berry is the floor General. To be frank, Carolina was lucky to survive against Jack Gibbs and a veteran Davidson squad and the young and talented Tennessee Volunteers. It took very different individual efforts in each game to keep the Tar Heels in the AP Top 10.

In this type of game, a player like Berry will make a difference, not only on the score sheet, but also on the defensive end of the floor. This is especially true against a player like Kentucky guard Malik Monk. The talented freshman leads the team in scoring and is the centerpiece of their offense. The experienced Tar Heel guard will present a challenge for the freshman Kentucky, both on defense and offense.

In the pregame press conference on Wednesday, Coach Roy Williams was unsure of Berry’s status going into the game Saturday. Of Berry playing against Kentucky, Coach Williams said, “I am not optimistic at all. But I’m not pessimistic.” That Roy-ism does not give Tar Heel fans much hope for Saturday. However, later in the press conference, Justin Jackson said that he expected him to play. Tar Heel fans know the effort Berry puts in on both ends of the court in big games, and his presence, either in the starting lineup or off the bench, will be an asset for the Heels.

Offensive Rebounds

With the exception of blocks per game, the Tar Heels and Wildcats have similar team statistics early in the 2016-17 season. For rebounds per game, UNC is ranked fourth in the nation with 45.55 rebounds per game, with Kentucky ranked number 11 with 43.70. With two excellent rebounding teams, the difference will be in the front court. Which team will pull down the most offensive rebounds?

The Tar Heels and Wildcats are neck-and-neck in the offensive rebounds per game battle this season, with UNC and UK ranked fifth and sixth, respectfully, in the country. Second chance points will be the difference in Las Vegas. The Tar Heels have the clear experience advantage over the Wildcats in the front court. UNC will need Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks to leverage that experience against the two freshman forwards of Kentucky. Kentucky has tall options off the bench, so it will not be a matter of Carolina shutting down a key starter from the game. The UNC front court needs to establish their game early and often, while at the same time disrupting the rhythm of UK’s post play. Freshman Tony Bradley certainly impressed during against the come from behind victory against Tennessee, and it is a great opportunity for him to compete against his peers this Saturday.

The First Ten Minutes

At the 9:47 mark of the first half against Indiana, Carolina was down 28-11. At the 9:47 mark of the first half against Davidson, Isaiah Hicks just made a dunk to break an 18-18 tie. At the 9:56 mark of the first half against Tennessee, the Heels were down 23-13, and would be in the middle of a Volunteers run that would push their lead to 15 points.

In short, the Tar Heels cannot have a slow start to this game. If they do, they will be unlikely to come back against the high-powered Kentucky offense. This team has the talent and experience to win against the top competition in the country. However, poor starts can build a hole from which even the best teams cannot escape. The first ten minutes of the CBS Sports Classic will be critical to Carolina’s success.

The Tar Heels need to be like Rocky Balboa in his rematch with Clubber Lang and land punches from the first bell. They cannot wait to attack, and must play to their strengths. Roy Williams teams run the transition game and the secondary break better than anyone else in the business. Their front court is experienced and capable. UNC needs to establish these schemes early in the game.

If Berry returns to the lineup, this team may (should) respond as Indiana did against the Heels when James Blackmon Jr. returned after missing the previous game. If not, UNC knows the task and needs to rely on their strengths and create opportunities to capitalize on those through smart defense. At the second television timeout after the 12:00 minute mark, see where the Tar Heels are in their offensive sets and defensive efforts. If UNC can have success, at least in part, in their game plan and limit fouls and turnovers, Carolina will have a top tier win on their resume.