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UNC Basketball: Kentucky Game Preview

The Wildcats look to avoid going 0-2 against their rivals in North Carolina.

Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The North Carolina Tar Heels are in Chicago, IL to take on the Kentucky Wildcats in the CBS Sports Classic. This will be the 40th meeting between the two programs, with the Tar Heels leading the all-time series 24-15. They are the only school in the country that has won more than 10 times while holding a winning record against the Wildcats.

This chapter of the UNC/Kentucky rivalry is bound to be an interesting one. The Heels are coming off of a win in Chapel Hill against Gonzaga, who was the second-best team in the country prior to this week’s AP poll. The Heels dominated the game for just about the entire night, despite turnover issues and poor defense. Their lights-out performance on the offensive side of the ball helped mask a lot of their issues, as they shot 54.7% from the field and 52% from three.

As far as Kentucky goes, this year’s edition of the Wildcats is a bit of a head-scratcher compared to their previous iterations this decade. While an 8-2 record is nothing to scoff at, the fashion in which they lost each game indicates that this is truly a young team with a lot to learn. Even more indicative of their lack of polish are performances like the one against UNCG, where the Spartans were able to keep things extremely interesting until Keldon Johnson scored 6 of the team’s 14 points during the 14-2 run that helped them escape with a win. The really painful part, depending on one’s rooting interest, is that UNCG only scored 4 points in the final ten minutes of the game.

We will dive into what has gone wrong for Kentucky in just a bit, but for now let’s talk about what they are doing right. The Wildcats have been an efficient shooting team, ranking 19th in the country with an average field goal percentage of 49.8%. Their 84.6 points per game is good enough for 23rd in the country, with Keldon Johnson being their leading scorer averaging 16.1 points per game.

Their second-best scorer is former Stanford forward and fifth-year senior Reid Travis, who is currently averaging 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. The Heels are rather familiar with Travis, as he scored 21 points while grabbing six boards in last year’s game against the Cardinal. The scary part is that Travis might not be the only big man that the Heels have to worry about, with a strong emphasis on the word “might”.

Freshman forward PJ Washington has had an odd start to his college career, considering the expectations that are normally bestowed upon Kentucky’s stars. Washington scored just 11 points in his first two games, and then scored a total of 63 points in the next three games. Following his double-double performance against Winthrop, Washington has scored 61 points total in the games that followed, with a bulk of that coming from his 29-point performance in the loss against Seton Hall. Due to his hot and cold nature, there is no telling which version of Washington shows up tomorrow. However, one thing is for sure: Washington knows how to clean the boards, averaging 8.3 rebounds per game.

Going into this game, UNC is the fourth-best team in the country in total rebounds per game, grabbing 46.1 per game. This is going to present an interesting matchup; while Kentucky only ranks 58th in that department (39.4 per game), they are first in the country in Total Rebounding Percentage to UNC’s 3rd, with both teams pulling down about 60% of available rebounds. Both teams are elite on the offensive glass, ranking in the top 10, but if there is a difference it is on the defensive glass, where UNC ranks 21st and Kentucky a pedestrian 93rd. Given UNC’s ability to dominate when given second opportunities, as seen with Luke Maye’s 20-point 16-rebound performance helping the Heels steamroll Gonzaga with second-chance points, it could be a worse situation for the Wildcats than the numbers imply. However, that probably won’t be the biggest issue for John Calipari’s squad.

Kentucky’s three-point defense this season has been troublesome, to say the least. Right now they are ranked 336th in the country in their ability to defend the three, allowing opponents to shoot 39% from behind the arc. To put their struggles into perspective: UNC is allowing opponents to make 33.1% of their attempts, which is good enough for 167th in the country. The good news, depending on how the Cats look at it, is that both teams are shooting close to the same percentage from long range. The big difference here, however, is that UNC has a ridiculous amount of shooters, which might be too much for them to handle. While Cameron Johnson has been the most consistent and deadliest shooter for the Heels, we can expect the likes of Coby White, Kenny Williams, and Luke Maye to join in on the fun. Maye had a blast the last time UNC played Kentucky, so maybe this will be the game he needs to recover his stroke? We shall see.

All and all, this should be a fast-paced, sloppy, fun, and potentially frustrating game. The big thing for the Tar Heels is to not have an absurd amount of turnovers like they did against Gonzaga, and to find a way to keep Reid Travis and/or Keldon Johnson from getting hot. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to bet that UNC has next to no issues scoring, and so really it is about limiting errors and not coming into the game complacent off of their win against Gonzaga. By the way, if you thought that you were going to make it through this entire preview without seeing Luke Maye’s shot against Kentucky in the Elite Eight set to Titanic music, you were sorely mistaken. Enjoy. Go Heels.

Prediction: North Carolina 92, Kentucky 85