If UNC vs Duke is the biggest rivalry of the season when it comes to basketball, #18 North Carolina (6-2) against #11 Kentucky is a very close second. And that is exactly what will be featured today at the Dean Dome, with tip off at 5:15 p.m. EST (ESPN). Both programs have two losses in the early season, and who comes out of this match up on the wrong end, will have a third, something neither fan base thought would be happening. However, the reality is that these are two of the top winningest programs all time, with the Wildcats having 2,119 wins (1st) and the Tar Heels 2096 (3rd).
For head coach Roy Williams’ squad this is the second game of a six home stand to close out the year, and will be the third time this campaign that North Carolina has faced a ranked opponent. The last three regular season clashes between UNC and UK have ended with the two teams being separated by two points or less when it was all said and done.
For the game the university has decided to do a “white out” at the Dean Dome, asking all to wear a white t-shirt and having one on each chair for the fan base. Another sign to show how much this game means to both programs. This even more when both squads have not looked at their best in the early part of the season.
If this game is not enough for a Saturday afternoon, the fact that UNC will honor Dean Smith at half time for receiving the Presidential Medal of Honor is just so perfect when you think the magnitude of what the former coach did and the magnitude of this game between two storied programs. Coach Smith’s family will be on hand for this, however you can not rule out that the man himself could be at the arena that was named in his honor so long ago.
Just like I said against Louisville first and then Michigan state, the two ranked teams that Carolina beat already, this should be the toughest competition that the Tar Heels will have faced this season. And, as we all know, they will once again be doing it without the services of junior P.J. Hairston and senior Leslie McDonald, who are still waiting for the NCAA to make a decision. I once again wrote about the situation a few days back.
On the other hand the Tar Heels have seen the development of several of their younger players, sophomore point guard turned shooting guard Marcus Paige, who is the only truly outside threat for UNC, and freshman big man Kenned Meeks, who last week earned rookie of the week in the conference. Along with Meeks, another big coming off the bench, sophomore Brice Johnson, have been the one-two punch that gives a huge lift to the squad. The two forwards are putting up double digit points and grabbing a ton of rebounds for the team, but most of all, they seem to be improving with each game they play.
Both will be needed as North Carolina face the combo of Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein. Which team wins the war of the glass will be in the driver’s seat in winning this game. On the other hand, the one player all Tar Heel nation is waiting for is junior James McAdoo. A break out game from the power forward turned small forward due to the missing players today could be just what is needed for the Heels to bring home its third win against a ranked opponent.
In the back court, where Kentucky has a huge size advantage, it will be up to freshman Nate Britt to be able to keep the Heels moving and the ball up court. Britt has been shaky at times, but just like the other younger players on this team, he seems to be improving with each game. Both teams have been zoned against and both have not fared well. So, it should not be a surprise if you see both head coaches going to a zone against one another.
Whichever team takes the loss is by no means out of contention of going to the NCAA Tournament this March, but the winning side will have bragging rights for months to come and a nice win on their resume. And that alone is going to make this game “a must watch” for anyone that enjoys college basketball.
The Vegas insiders has North Carolina as a three point favorite, which in my opinion means pretty much a toss up. And that is exactly as I see this one, one that both programs could win, one that both could lose, all depending on which team shows up today. I have to believe that since both the coaching staffs and the players know the magnitude of this one, each team will bring their best, and if so, this should be an instant classic! On the flip side, look for the losing side’s web boards to be melting down quickly, cause that is just the way it is.