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UNC vs. Kentucky: Three Things to Watch

UNC rolls into Chicago to take on the Wildcats.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

After yet another week off, the Tar Heels head up to Chicago ready to play another game. Waiting for them is Kentucky in the annual CBS Sports Classic.

The Wildcats come in at 8-2 and ranked 19th in the AP Poll and 18th in the Coach’s Poll. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this season has not lived up to their expectations thus far, but a win on Saturday would be a huge boost to them. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three items that will play a role in who wins Saturday.

Turnovers

Despite being a relatively comfortable win, there were a lot of ugly things about this past Saturday’s game against Gonzaga, and turnovers were perhaps the top of the list. Carolina turned it over 23 times. Yes, normally 23 is a great number for Carolina, but when it refers to possessions you give your opponents, it’s not so nice.

Carolina won on Saturday by overcoming the turnovers, as Dadgum Box Scores points out:

You just aren’t going to win too many games giving the ball up on over 27% of your possessions. The outstanding rebounding helped counteract the effect, and their amazing shooting percentage never gave Gonzaga a real chance to take advantage, but how many times will Carolina be able to get away with that?

However, it’s not just Carolina that turns the ball over, as Dadgum points out:

That stat is important as Kentucky hasn’t really kicked it into high gear since their drubbing against Duke. Only three of their wins have been by over 20 points, and the turnovers keep these teams with less talent than the Cats in the game. So does this become a game where each team gives the ball to each other, or can one team clean up their slippery hands?

Defense

The other worrying trend with the Tar Heels has been the defense. While the win on Saturday was easy, it was as much of an attribute to Carolina’s hot hands than it was effectively shutting down the Bulldogs. Gonzaga shot over 50% on the day, and over 36% from beyond the arc. It took a 54% effort overall and an insane 52% from three, plus rebounding, to overcome that shooting. Hopefully, with Kentucky’s proclivity to turn the ball over themselves, the defense will be able to study why the Wildcats have been able to have trouble holding onto the ball and exploit that to give them some margin of error.

Kentucky’s defense hasn’t exactly been lights out either, as opponents are currently shooting 39% from behind the arc. That has to make the eyes of Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, and Coby White light up. To dig further, in their two losses both Duke and Seton Hall shot over 42% from behind the arc, and well over 50% overall. If you can make shots against Kentucky, your chances are going to be pretty good that you can win.

When looking at the struggles of both teams, it’s tough not to think back to the 2016 game in Vegas. In a game that many called the best of the college season, both teams essentially rolled the balls on the court and just played up and down basketball. The players may be different this time, but don’t be surprised if that’s the type of game that breaks out, especially considering both coaches love to play that style.

Rotation

One of the biggest things that was noticed out of the Gonzaga game was the shortening of Tar Heels’ bench. While eleven players effectively played prior to the end of the game when Blue Steel came on, only eight players really played meaningful minutes. Of those eight players, Seventh Woods and Sterling Manley played under 20. Three starters, Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams all played over 30 minutes in a game that coach Roy Williams clearly made a priority to win.

While an official explanation was that both Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson were dealing with injuries which limited their minutes, it’s clear that a pecking order in who comes in has been established. It’s also clear that Williams noticed his teams’ proclivity to let a lead slip when the starters sit, and that minute spread is likely a sign of most of the games to come.

Just take a look back to the 2016 game and you see a similar spread of heavy minutes for the starters and reduced minutes for the role players. With another week off and this being another game Williams will likely want to use to make a statement, it’ll be interesting to see if role players get a few more minutes or if the starters’ share again creep over 30. Either way, it’ll be a sign as to where everyone stands as ACC Season is...wow...two weeks away.