LEXINGTON, Ky. – Are you ready for another high-scoring, up-and-down game between two bluebloods? Sixth-ranked Kentucky basketball hopes Saturday’s showdown with seventh-ranked North Carolina goes better than the Wildcats’ shootout with UCLA two weeks ago.
The good news is coach John Calipari seems to have the Tar Heels’ number. He’s 5-2 against them – and both losses came in Chapel Hill. Kentucky beat UNC in the 2011 Elite Eight, won a thriller at Rupp Arena the next season on Anthony Davis’ clinching block and cruised past the Heels in Lexington on the way to an undefeated 2014-15 regular season.
Now, as they meet again in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas, Carolina comes in ranked No. 1 nationally in rebounding margin (plus-14.8 per game) and No. 11 in scoring (88.0 points per game), while the Wildcats are third in the country in scoring (94.4) and sixth in offensive rebounding (15.8 per game) but 63rd in defensive boards.
These aren’t the same Tar Heels who were beaten on a Villanova buzzer-beater in last season’s NCAA title game – they lost double-double machine Brice Johnson and fellow NBA draft pick Marcus Paige, plus key role player Theo Pinson is out injured – but they’re still plenty potent.
“Unbelievable rebounding team. They play fast. If you don’t run, you’re giving up layups. They’ve got skilled guys both inside and outside, and they can either play fast or play slow and still beat you. They’ve been in close games, which tells you they’re not afraid,” Calipari said. “They’re a veteran team, Roy (Williams) is a Hall of Famer. It’ll be a hard game for us. I keep telling myself, folks, this is a process and I’ve got to keep staying in the moment. We can’t go like life or death, game to game, when you’re starting four freshmen. You just can’t do it.
“I get into the same mode of our fans, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we lost.’ You’re not getting eaten. It’s a process. We’ve had teams lose 9 and 10 games and get to the championship game.”
Kentucky basketball vs. North Carolina game time, details
Date: Saturday, Dec. 17
Time: 5:45 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena (18,000), Las Vegas
What TV channel is Kentucky basketball vs. North Carolina on?
The game will be broadcast on CBS (Channel 27 on DirecTV and DISH, Channel 9 on Time Warner in Lexington).
How can I watch Kentucky basketball vs. North Carolina online?
Who is calling the Kentucky basketball game vs. North Carolina on CBS?
Play-by-play by Brad Nessler, analysis by Bill Raftery, sideline reporting by John Schriffen.
How can I listen to Kentucky basketball vs. North Carolina?
Play-by-play by Tom Leach, analysis by Mike Pratt on Sirius 84, XM 84 and AM-630 (in Lexington).
No. 6 Kentucky (9-1)
G-De’Aaron Fox (6-3, Fr.): 15.1 ppg, 6.9 apg, 5.4 rpg
G-Malik Monk (6-3, Fr.): 19.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.4 apg
G-Isaiah Briscoe (6-3, So.): 16.6 ppg, 3.5 apg, 3.0 rpg
F-Derek Willis (6-9, Sr.): 7.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg
F-Bam Adebayo (6-10, Fr.): 12.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.8 bpg
TOP RESERVES – F Wenyen Gabriel, 6-9, Fr., 6.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg; C Isaac Humphries, 7-0, So., 4.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg; G Mychal Mulder, 6-4, Sr., 7.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg; G Dominique Hawkins, 6-0, Sr., 3.7 ppg, 2.9 apg, 1.9 rpg.
No. 7 North Carolina (10-1)
G-Nate Britt (6-1, Sr.): 6.5 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.4 spg
G-Kenny Williams (6-4, So.): 7.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.8 apg
F-Justin Jackson (6-8, Jr.): 15.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg
F-Isaiah Hicks (6-9, Sr.): 12.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 0.6 bpg
F-Kennedy Meeks (6-10, Sr.): 12.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.1 spg
TOP RESERVES – G Joel Berry II, 6-0, Jr., 14.8 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.8 rpg; F Tony Bradley, 6-11, Fr., 9.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg; F Luke Maye, 6-8, So., 4.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg; G Brandon Robinson, 6-5, Fr., 3.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.5 apg; G Seventh Woods, 6-2, Fr., 3.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.5 apg.
* Need for speed: Kentucky ranks fourth nationally in average length of possession – just 13.5 seconds. North Carolina ranks 12th at 14.4 seconds. Both teams want to go fast. So what will Calipari and Williams do? “I think both of us will be trying to slow down the other team, as far as getting back,” Calipari said. “You’ll hear him: ‘Get back!’ And you’re going to hear me: ‘Get back!’ We’ll both be yelling that probably 100 times a half. But they’re fast, we’re fast. It probably will come down to if you don’t get it quickly, who’s the better execution team? They got juniors and seniors and older players, and we’re playing freshmen, so you tell me.”
* Shifting into neutral: Since Calipari came to town, Kentucky has played fewer and fewer true road games. He prefers neutral-site meetings with high-profile opponents – or home games. “When I was at UMass, we played 27 games away from home because I was nuts, and I was 33 years old or 34 years old, whatever I was, and didn’t care,” he said. “Never in the history of the NCAA has any team played 27 games away from home. We did.”
It’s true, his 1996 Minutemen did that, including their run to the Final Four.
“I like all home games now as I get older,” Calipari joked. “We’re still going to play road games. But the neutral game, one, it’s the television of it. And two, it’s postseason. What I care about is postseason here. In postseason, you don’t go on an opponent’s court in front of 19-20,000 people going nuts, drunk, screaming, yelling, and that’s who wins and who loses.”
* Berry bad news? The Tar Heels’ junior point guard – No. 1 on the team in assists, No. 2 in scoring and 3-point percentage – has missed their last two games with a sprained left ankle. He recently shed a protective boot, but will he play against the Wildcats?
“I am not optimistic at all,” Williams told reporters before UNC’s practice in Chapel Hill on Thursday, “but I’m not pessimistic. I haven’t seen him and I have no opinion.”
Teammate Justin Jackson, however, said he expects Berry to play “because of the type of competitor he is” and added: “he seems like he’s pretty upbeat about playing.”