The Tar Heels will be in Atlanta this weekend to take on Kentucky as part of the CBS Sports Classic. The last time these two teams faced off, the Heels were ran out of the building mostly thanks to former Wildcat Sahvir Wheeler. This time, however, things feel like they are more even as far as talent goes. Fans that do not have a rooting interest in this game will likely have a blast watching it, but for Heels and Wildcats fans, this is probably going to be a stressful, tense battle that may be decided in the final minutes.
Let’s discuss three things to keep an eye on in this big-time matchup.
Will the Heels be rusty coming off of finals week?
The Heels landed in Chapel Hill after their loss to UConn having to immediately shift gears to their final exams. That means practices were limited this week, but there was a lot of “work on us” things happening in the Dean Dome. You can learn more about that by checking out Adam Lucas’ piece here, but what should be emphasized is that Hubert Davis still held a highly competitive practice Sunday, and has been tweaking some things to get ready for Kentucky.
While it sounds like practices have been going well, it will be a different story when the Heels have to play their first game in 11 days. Kentucky took down Penn on December 9th, so they likely will be going into this game with a non-zero amount of momentum. Does that mean that the Heels won’t show up to play? History tells us that there’s definitely a chance, but also this roster seems to be more locked in than any roster we’ve seen in a long time. This could be a non-factor going into Saturday’s game, but there’s always a chance that it will be.
Will RJ Davis continue his hot streak?
Senior guard RJ Davis has been on an absolute tear over the last five games — he has scored at least 20 points over that span, and only failed to score 25+ points against Villanova. The Heels have faced some tough defenses during that stretch, but it seems like they all have had a hard time stopping Davis from doing what he wants to do. The addition of Elliot Cadeau has done wonders for how free Davis is playing right now, but also a lot of this is just showing how badly his injury last season hindered him from being as effective as he could’ve been.
This is when I am supposed to tell you that Davis will be in trouble because 6’6 guard Antonio Reeves, but we also thought he was going to have issues being effective against UConn, who not only had taller guards, but were one of the top 20 defenses in the country according to KenPom. I’m also obligated to mention that Tennessee still has the third-best defense in the country, and Davis was able to drop 27 on them with no issues. The only thing that could stop the New York native at this point would be his hot streak naturally cooling off, but perhaps this game will just further confirm that he belongs in the All-American conversations in March. Let’s hope the latter is the winner.
This game could come down to second-chance points
I’m sure die-hard Carolina fans are fully aware that most games are won in the rebounding department, but there’s a particular reason that it will be especially important this weekend. UNC is currently averaging 38.9 rebounds per game, while Kentucky is averaging 37.8. That is a very small difference between these two teams, and ultimately something will have to give in this matchup. Hubert Davis is fully aware of this fact, and emphasized the need to improve the team’s rebounding this week in practice.
The interesting thing here is that Kentucky doesn’t actually have a player that is averaging double digits in rebounding right now. Their best man on the boards is 6’8 sophomore guard Ado Thiero, who is currently averaging 6.4 rebounds per game. Ultimately all eyes will be on Armando Bacot for the Tar Heels, who should be able to dominate the paint in this game. He has managed to crack 10+ rebounds in his last three games, and is currently averaging 11.9 boards per contest. With Oscar Tshiebwe long gone, Bacot should have a an easier night than he did a couple of years ago. Win the rebounding battle, capitalize on second-chance point opportunities, and there’s a good chance that Carolina comes out on top.