LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky and North Carolina have a combined 13 NCAA championships. So here are 13 thoughts on their meeting Saturday in the Dean Smith Center on North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus.
1. WHICH TAR HEELS? North Carolina has been the nation's most enigmatic team. It has lost to Belmont and UAB. It has beaten Louisville and pounded then-No. 1 Michigan State in East Lansing. But there's no question in UK coach John Calipari's mind as to which UNC team his Wildcats will encounter on Saturday.
"Do you expect anything other than the best game they've played all year? We're going to face North Carolina at their best. So we have to be at our best, which is our best at this point in time -- be as good as we for December whatever."
2. STORIED STORYLINE. Calipari said that even though his roster is populated by freshmen, his players understand the history represented by the two programs. Kentucky freshman Julius Randle said he's aware of it.
"You look at the players that they programs have produced and the championships they've won," he said. "You know it's a big game."
Calipari said: "This is Carolina-Kentucky. What do I gotta do? I need a Knute Rockne speech? It's Carolina-Kentucky. Both programs the most wins in the history of the game. Think about the players that have gone through there and the players that have gone through here. ... This is why you coach and this is why you play, for games like this."
3. NOT LIKE THE OLD DAYS. North Carolina coach Roy Williams says it's a big game -- but not as big as it used to be.
"Nowadays it's not as important as it was five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago because those times you didn't see these kinds of matchups," Williams said. "Now with the tournaments going on you see these kinds of matchups and exempt events or special one-day events or two-day events, you see a lot of those things. So to me it's still important, but it's not like it used to be. ... It used to be the first Saturday in December and you knew North Carolina and Kentucky were going to play. Well, now we've already played Louisville and Michigan State -- two of the top three teams. Kentucky has already played Michigan State and (Baylor). Kansas has played Duke, (Duke) has played Arizona. It's so many of those matchups you didn't used to have, so I think it's probably lost a little bit of that because it used to be the only one that there was. Now those top 10 matchups are every week now in the preseason."
4. SIZE MATTERS. The Tar Heels are one of the few teams in the nation who can match UK's size. Baylor was another. It's something that has given UK problems so far, and Calipari said he's just looking at the game as a barometer for how much his young players have learned.
"Their frontline players are as good as any we'll play, and that's what's given us trouble," Calipari said. "Their guard play is solid. They don't shoot it well, but neither do we. . . . Their four or five guys on their front line are as good as we'll play. They're physical, and we need it. We need to figure out what are we when another team gets really physical with it."
UNC is getting good production from 6-9, 290-pound freshman forward Kennedy Meeks (8.5 ppg. 6.5 rpg), along with 6-9 sophomore forward Brice Johnson (13.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and 6-9, 230-pound James Michael McAdoo (13.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
5. ROAD TEST. Calipari discounted the notion, but it should be remembered -- this is the first road game of the season for his freshman-dominated squad. Calipari said that between travel basketball and their trips to the United Center and Cowboys Stadium this season, his team should be ready for the crowd. But the players have braced themselves anyway.
"It's the road," Randle said. "It's going to be intense. If you're a competitor, you like that a little bit and feed off it. I kind of like it."
6. FREE WILLIE. The key player for UK in the battle of the bigs is 7-1 center Willie Cauley-Stein. He's improved significantly this season, and has blocked nine shots in two of the past three games. But when facing taller players in UK's game against Baylor, he was less of a factor. Calipari said this game presents a significant test for Cauley-Stein, on a national stage.
"Willie's really made strides, but he knows, this is the kind of game, can he perform?" Calipari said. "Now he doesn't have to have 20 and 10 and 9 blocks. You just have to be able to look and say he held his own. Those dudes were all over him and he still rebounded the ball, blocked a few shots, he made baskets. He's fine. That's what he needs to show. The only way you build confidence in that kind of situation is demonstrated performance. You know they're going to be physical and you perform. . . . For our team, it's the same way."
7. SCHEDULE COMPARISON. North Carolina has played the No. 47-ranked non-conference schedule in the nation this season, according to KenPom.com. UK's non-conference schedule so far ranks No. 212.
8. COACHING MATCHUP. Williams and Calipari are deadlocked 7-7 in their careers. North Carolina lost to UK in 2004 in Williams' first game against the Wildcats as North Carolina coach. UNC then won five straight. UK has won three of the past four.
9. WILLIAMS ON THE CATS. Williams was asked what impressed him about Kentucky's team. "Their ability," he answered. "John's ability, the way he's got them playing together. Freshmen coming in with all the hoopla that they had tend to try to live up to that. I think John has proven several years, many years, that he can get highly skilled players and get them to focus on the team aspect of it. I think that, I was just looking down here (at stats), now 129 assists, 132 turnovers. You watch them during the course of the season, that stat is going to get a heck of a lot better because a lot of those turnovers are attributed to being freshmen. But they are an unselfish bunch. That part is going to get better and better and better."
10. DEPTH CHARGE. North Carolina has quality depth, with Johnson and Meeks both having put up big numbers off the bench. The Tar Heels got 38 points and 18 rebounds off the bench in their victory over Louisville. Calipari said Carolina's depth is a concern, but noted he has some depth of his own.
"I remember one year someone said you know their bench outscored your bench by 25," Calipari said. "I said that's OK our starters outscored theirs by 50. It doesn't matter. What you'd like to have is balanced scoring, five guys. You'd like to have a bench that adds energy. It may not be bench scoring. What if it's bench defense and rebounding and assists? It's not just points. Alex (Poythress) and Dominique (Hawkins) and Dakari (Johnson), those guys are important to this team."
11. GROUNDING THE SNOWBIRD. One way North Carolina hurt Louisville was leaking players out on defensive rebounds to beat the Cardinals up court in transition. That's going to be a taller order against Kentucky, a much bigger, better-rebounding team. UNC may get some fast-break points because it's big men run the floor well and its guards are drilled in pushing the pace, but don't expect many cheap baskets from early departures off the glass.
12. UNC FAVORED -- BUT BARELY. The Tar Heels are a consensus three-point favorite, according to VegasInsider.com. Getting three points for home court, that basically assumes the matchup is even going in.
13. STATEMENT GAME? Having lost twice in its two national matchups this season, Randle said the game could be a coming-out party for the young Wildcats if they put it all together.
"It could be an opportunity for a statement game for us," Randle said, noting the losses to Michigan State and Baylor. "That's frustrating (he said of those games). But it'd be worse if we didn't know why we were losing. But we know why we're losing, and it's stuff that's easy to correct."