Bluebloods put aside exam blue books, prep for on-court test
North Carolina’s players are finally done with final exams. Now comes a different kind of big test.
No. 18 UNC and No. 11 Kentucky resume a series between two of the three winningest programs in college basketball Saturday at the Smith Center (5:15 p.m., ESPN).
“This is why you coach and why you play, to play in games like this,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “Think of the history. Think of the players that have gone through this. They’re schools and states that really take great pride in their program.”
Kentucky has the most wins in NCAA history (2,119), followed by Kansas (2,107) and UNC (2,096).
This season, Kentucky (8-2) and UNC (6-2) both come in with two losses, though they came in much different circumstances. The Wildcats are 0-2 against ranked teams after losing to No. 5 Michigan State and No. 14 Baylor, while the Tar Heels beat Michigan State and No. 6 Louisville but lost to unranked Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham.
When asked how UNC could have such big wins and tough losses — all in a five-game span — Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said “it’s young teams, it’s college basketball, it’s parity, it’s all those kinds of things.”
Whatever the reason, Calipari doesn’t expect an inconsistent performance from UNC today.
“Do you expect anything other than the best game they’ve played all year?” Calipari said. “We’re going to face North Carolina at their best, so we have to be at our best.”
Motivation or a lack of effort could have been a factor in UNC’s losses, but sophomore Marcus Paige said that getting up for Kentucky won’t be an issue today.
“Whenever you play a highly-ranked team or a big-time program, you automatically have that,” Paige said. “You still have to bring it against other teams, but it’s a lot easier to get up for a game as big as the one we have Saturday. I want to say we come with the same approach every game, but honestly, as a competitor, that’s just not the case.”
UNC officials are helping set the mood with the Smith Center’s first-ever “whiteout.” Every fan will be provided a white t-shirt to wear, and the players will wear all-white shoes and socks.
Dean Smith’s family will also be honored at halftime in recognition of the former coach receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom last month.
“They’re pulling out all the stops,” Calipari said.
UNC has only held full practices Wednesday and Friday this past week because of exams, but Paige doesn’t think the reduced prep time will be a factor. Instead, the game will likely be decided in the paint. Kentucky freshman Julius Randle is averaging 17.8 points and 12 rebounds, while sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein has more blocks (43) than UNC’s entire team (36).
“They have a lot of length and athleticism, so it’s going to be a challenge, but we have some size and athleticism as well,” Paige said. “The frontcourt matchup is going to be pretty exciting to watch if you’re a fan of post play.”
The Tar Heels will counter with junior James Michael McAdoo (13 points, 5.9 rebounds), reigning ACC rookie of the week Kennedy Meeks — who was 12-of-18 from the floor and averaged 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in the past two games — and sophomore Brice Johnson (13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds), who is second in the ACC in field-goal percentage (62.2).
“Their frontline players are as good as any we’ll play,” Calipari said.
UNC and Kentucky met for 12 straight seasons before taking last year off. Today’s game will also feature two of the youngest teams in the country — McAdoo is the only player on either team who played in the 2011 meeting at Rupp Arena and will be on the court again today.
McAdoo had two points in Kentucky’s 73-72 win, which featured nine first-round NBA draft picks and ended when future No. 1 overall selection Anthony Davis blocked future first-round pick John Henson’s shot in the final seconds.
UNC junior P.J. Hairston scored 11 points in that game, but he and guard Leslie McDonald are out indefinitely because of issues with their eligibility.