College Basketball

Kentucky vs. UNC: Breaking Down Key Battles in Marquee Matchup

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 10:  Julius Randle #30 and James Young #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats share a smile during the game against the Boise State Broncos at Rupp Arena on December 10, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Timothy RappFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2013

When Kentucky travels to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina, two of the most decorated programs in college basketball history—and two of the most talented teams in the country this season—will battle for bragging rights. 

The intangibles may favor the Tar Heels in this contest. They're at home, for starters, and are currently 2-0 against ranked teams on the season, while Kentucky is 0-2 in those contests. 

Still, games are played on hardwood floors, not stat sheets, and this game promises to be a real doozy with plenty of intriguing matchups to focus on. Let's break down three key matchups in this game.

 

Brice Johnson and James Michael McAdoo vs. Julius Randle

Nov 24, 2013; Uncasville, CT, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson (11) dunks the ball against the Louisville Cardinals during the second half at Mohegan Sun Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

This game very well could be won on the boards. If Kentucky hits the offensive glass hard, it will keep North Carolina from getting its transition game going, for one. And without question, the team's best player is Julius Randle, who's averaging 17.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game.

That means both Brice Johnson and James Michael McAdoo will have their hands full in this one. Neither player is a slouch, of course—Johnson averages 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, while McAdoo chips in with 13 points and 5.9 rebounds. But keeping Randle in check—and crashing the defensive boards hard to spark the transition game—will be huge.

If North Carolina wins that matchup, there's a very good chance it will win this game.

 

Marcus Paige vs. the Kentucky Backcourt

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 22:  Marcus Paige #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels looks on during a free throw during a game against the Villanova Wildcats in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Sprint Center on March 22, 2013
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

James Young and the Harrison brothers will have their hands full with Paige, who is averaging 18.8 points and 4.5 assists per game. Paige's ability to bomb from beyond the arc (39.2 percent) will be a key factor if North Carolina struggles to establish its transition game, as he'll likely be called on to shoot over the Kentucky defense.

But Paige will also be tasked with keeping North Carolina's talented post players in the flow of the offense. If the Kentucky backcourt can force him into bad shots and prevent easy entry passes into the post, North Carolina will really, really struggle with its half-court offense.

 

Transition vs. Half-Court Game

Dec 1, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA;  Kentucky Wildcats player Willie Cauley-Stein (15) defends against Providence Friars player Carson Desrosiers (33) in the first half at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

This game ultimately comes down to a clash of styles. The Tar Heels will need to run to be successful, not allowing the Wildcats to settle into their excellent half-court defense. Don't be surprised to see them drive to the hoop or shoot early in the shot clock, hoping to beat the Kentucky big men to the rim.

If the game is slower and Kentucky can sink back into its defensive assignments, the task becomes more difficult for North Carolina. Kentucky has great length across the board and will contest every mid-range jumper North Carolina takes, so if the Tar Heels can't run the inside-outside combination of their post players, utilizing Paige from long range will be vital.

But for North Carolina, the best bet is to score in transition. If it loses the battle on the boards, its style of play will be compromised and Kentucky will win.

 

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