Two of the most famous and successful programs in NCAA basketball history face off this weekend in a matchup of Top 20 teams.
Although both No. 18 North Carolina and No. 11 Kentucky have already had their share of disappointment this season, Saturday's game should be a good one. While UNC handled Michigan State in a recent game, Kentucky lost to the Spartans in its third game of the season. And while the Tar Heels have suffered two upset losses already this season, Kentucky's upset came at the hands of a good Baylor squad earlier this month.
With talent littering both rosters, who comes out on top could be a case of figuring out which side has the advantage at each spot and who is playing better come game time.
North Carolina Point Guard: Nate Britt
Kentucky Point Guard: Andrew Harrison
Nate Britt has had a fine, if unspectacular beginning to his freshman season. He has shown the ability to score a bit but is not the focal point of anything North Carolina does on offense. On the defensive end, he has proven himself to be a good on-ball defender, even against some of the better point guards in the country, such as Michigan State's Keith Appling.
The story behind Andrew Harrison is quite different. Coming to Kentucky as the No. 1 rated point guard prospect in the nation, expectations were sky high, and he has struggled mightily to live up to them. Shooting poorly from the floor and turning the ball over too much, Andrew has become an afterthought on this loaded Kentucky roster.
The funny thing is, his numbers are still superior to Britt's. Harrison is simply a more talented and athletic basketball player. While the Wildcat point has averaged 10.3 points per game and is shooting 41.7 percent from the floor, it is considered an abomination of a beginning for him. However, Britt is averaging 5.6 points on 36.4 percent shooting without the elite upside of Harrison.
Also, Britt stands a below-average 5'11"; Andrew is a monstrous point guard at 6'6".
North Carolina Shooting Guard: Marcus Paige
Kentucky Shooting Guard: Aaron Harrison
Basketball fans are well aware of the start Marcus Paige has had to this season. Although his scoring and shooting touch have failed him a bit in recent games, he is making up for it in other departments. Last game, against UNC Greensboro, was a perfect example. While he was just 4-of-12 from the floor and scored 12 points, he also added five rebounds and eight assists. Simply put, he has been UNC's best player this season.
Aaron Harrison has struggled to find his stroke from outside. The highly touted freshman guard is scoring at a serviceable level for this loaded Kentucky roster, but his strength was supposed to be his shooting touch, and it hasn't really been there. His numbers from the floor are okay at 44.9 percent. However, from three, Harrison is shooting just 30.4 percent on 4.6 attempts. It is a far cry from what Kentucky faithful expected.
The defensive matchup for Paige may be a tough one, as Harrison is a solid 6'6" tall, and Paige has point guard height. However, Paige has held his own in previous games against tough shooting guards.
Edge: North Carolina
North Carolina Small Forward: J.P. Tokoto
Kentucky Small Forward: James Young
James Young is probably the least known of Kentucky's fabulous starting freshmen. The guard/forward has a reputation of being a sharp shooter though. So far this season, it has not really come to fruition consistently. In the Wildcats' loss to Michigan State, Young was hitting shots. He was really the only Wildcat hitting jump shots in that game. However, the very next game, he went 4-of-11 from the field and just 1-of-6 from the three-point line. His offensive game is still a work in progress.
But even with his occasional struggles, Young's game is leaps and bounds ahead of Carolina's J.P. Tokoto. The North Carolina small forward is really an energy guy and hustler who has been thrown into a starting role because of suspensions to better players. He is an important part of the Tar Heel team but is being overused in his current role out of necessity.
Speaking in terms of little things during the course of a game, this matchup may be even. But based on output generated from a starting player, James Young is the better bet. He may end up shooting more threes in this game than the entire North Carolina roster.
North Carolina Power Forward: James Michael McAdoo
Kentucky Power Forward: Julius Randle
Coming into the season, this would have been one of those anticipated matchups for weeks. People would have been speculating all December long on who had the advantage when the veteran James Michael McAdoo faced off against the youngster Julius Randle.
Instead, the two players are trending in opposite directions. McAdoo is struggling so much on the offensive end that fans are hoping he gets benched in favor of Brice Johnson. JMM has not shown the confidence or touch on offense that scouts expected. His shooting has dropped to a paltry 40.4 percent from the floor.
Meanwhile, Julius Randle is vying for a National Player of the Year award. On this deep and inexperienced Kentucky team, Randle is far and away the best player and leader. He is averaging a double-double with 17.8 points and 12 rebounds per contest. He also passes the ball relatively well and is shooting a good percentage from the floor. If not for Jabari Parker at Duke, Randle would be considered the runaway favorite to be the freshman of the year, as well as the country's top pro prospect.
North Carolina Center: Joel James
Kentucky Center: Willie Cauley-Stein
Still the starting center in name, Joel James is playing just 14 minutes per game. He is getting outproduced by reserves Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, yet Roy Williams continues to start him. It is not really a huge concern in the overall picture of the Tar Heels rotation though. Williams realizes who his best players are, which is why James is only playing 14 minutes per game.
Willie Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, is developing into a big-time player. It has just taken a little bit longer than people expected. Many thought the sophomore center would enter his name into the NBA draft after his freshman season. Instead, he returned to school and grabbed the starting job. He is averaging 9.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per game. He is currently tied for fourth in the nation in blocked shots. His free-throw shooting is still a disgrace, but the rest of his game looks much improved.
North Carolina Head Coach: Roy Williams
Kentucky Head Coach: John Calipari
Much like how the North Carolina/Michigan State game was a battle between two legendary coaches, so is this game. Like Roy Williams, Kentucky's John Calipari has also found great success at more than one school in his time. The difference is that Calipari has run into a bit of trouble with the NCAA at more than one location.
Here is Williams' resume:
- 700-plus career victories
- two national championships
- seven Final Four appearances
- two-time AP Coach of the Year winner
- nine-time conference Coach of the Year winner
This is what Calipari has done:
- approaching 550 career wins
- one national championship
- two official Final Four appearances, two more vacated appearances
- two-time Naismith College Coach of the Year
- eight-time conference Coach of the Year, in three different conferences
Whatever you want to say about Roy Williams, he has never encountered NCAA violations and sanctions like John Calipari. However, the dueling suspensions this season of two of his supposed starters put a damper on that advantage. Nevertheless, he has a better overall resume and has built two legacies at two premium schools.
Edge: North Carolina
North Carolina Bench: Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Luke Davis
Kentucky Bench: Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Dominique Hawkins
Each of these teams has three men grabbing at least 10 minutes per game off the bench. The upside for these groups is enormous.
For North Carolina, with the exception of Luke Davis, the reserves are coming in and outplaying the men they are replacing on a consistent basis. Brice Johnson has turned into the team's second-best player behind Marcus Paige while only playing 20.1 minutes per contest. And Kennedy Meeks is efficiency incarnate. He averages 8.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in fewer than 15 minutes of court time.
On the Kentucky side, the bench is pretty star-studded. Alex Poythress was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school and now, playing in his sophomore season, he is still settling in and trying to find his place. Dakari Johnson garnered a 5-star rating of his own entering his freshman season at Kentucky. He has shown glimpses of his abilities but is stuck behind a lot of talent and is playing just 10.2 minutes per game.
Dominique Hawkins, the team's most-used guard off the bench, hardly seems to fit on this roster. He is out of place on Kentucky as a 3-star prospect but has found a way to contribute to Coach Calipari's team.
With the way the two units are playing, Kentucky may have more talent coming off the bench, but North Carolina's group is certainly playing at a higher level right now.
Edge: North Carolina
While Kentucky has been struggling to find its composition and groove thus far, it is heavily talented at every spot on the court. The same cannot be said of the Tar Heels. The biggest advantage Kentucky has is at the starting big spots where Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein could wreak havoc for long stretches. However, Carolina's biggest strength right now is in the form of its forwards off the bench. How Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are able to hang with Randle may be more important even than how James Michael McAdoo does.
Of course, it is hard to predict what we will see out of UNC in general. They have beaten two elite teams already this season, but they've also lost to two inferior opponents. The matchups and lineups say Kentucky has a decided advantage here. The feeling surrounding North Carolina in regards to toppling juggernauts says otherwise. I have to see UNC make it three for three in such contests though before I will believe it.