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UNC vs. Kentucky: Game Preview

Is the U(K) back? ….I’ll see myself out.

NCAA Basketball: Pennsylvania at Kentucky Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

We all know that UNC’s rivalry with Duke gets the most attention out of all of their heated feuds, but the Carolina/Kentucky rivalry isn’t one to sleep on either. Sure, maybe these teams’ hatred for one another isn’t as fervent as the Tobacco Road Rivalry, but what always makes this a rivalry to watch is the accolades — both of these schools account for 14 NCAA Tournament titles, 38 trips to the Final Four, and 63 conference tournament titles. Looking purely at NCAA championships, Kentucky and UNC are the second and third-most decorated programs in college basketball history.

This weekend, these two teams will face off for the 43rd time as part of the CBS Sports Classic in Atlanta, GA. To prepare for the game, let’s take a look at the tale of the tape between these two teams, and let’s also discuss what the Wildcats have been up to so far this season.

Tale of the Tape

All-time series record: UNC leads 25-17

Last 10 matchups: Kentucky leads 6-4

Most recent game result: December 18, 2021 - Kentucky 98, UNC 69

Most recent UNC win: December 19, 2020 - UNC 75, Kentucky 63

Most recent NCAA Tournament Meeting: March 26, 2017 — UNC 75, Kentucky 73

John Calipari’s record vs. UNC: 7-4

Hubert Davis’ record vs. Kentucky: 0-1

UNC’s current KenPom rank: #17

Kentucky’s current KenPom rank: #22

Kentucky scouting report

The 2023-24 Kentucky Wildcats entered the season with less fanfare than they usually receive from national media. The Associated Press named them the 16th-best team in the country in their preseason poll, which was only a few spots higher than the Tar Heels. Former Wildcat Oscar Tshiebwe moved on to the NBA and left a number of questions behind for this team, primarily when it came to their identity. While I don’t know that the complete picture of what this team will be has been painted just yet, I do know that their high-powered offense led by Antonio Reeves and Rob Dillingham has gotten a lot of attention.

Reeves is averaging 18 points per game this season and is knocking down 43.1% of his three-point attempts. Much to Carolina fans’ dismay, Reeves is another 6’6” guard that is very likely to give RJ Davis and Elliot Cadeau some issues in the backcourt. The good news is that Rob Dillingham is only 6’3”, but what he’s been able to accomplish so far this season is hard to ignore. So far, he is averaging 14.1 points a game, and is shooting an impressive 51.4% from the field.

Outside of Reeves and Dillingham, this team has been a pretty even-keeled unit, and that shows in how well they share the ball. Right now the Wildcats are averaging 19.6 assists per game, which is the eighth-best average in the country. Even more insane is that they lead the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, so it is going to be very difficult for the Tar Heels to pick their pockets. If UNC wants to win this game, their best bet will be getting stops, winning the rebounding battle, and flexing their offensive power. Both of these teams are close to identical in rebounding numbers, so it will be yet another 50/50 game to see who is able to rack up the most second-chance points.

Overall, this won’t be UNC’s toughest test so far, but it is definitely one of the more difficult ones remaining. Kentucky always knows what is at stake whenever these two teams play, and their play tends to reflect that. I’d expect this year’s Tar Heel team to match that energy, but the question is will it be enough to leave Atlanta with a win? We’ll find out in a couple of days.