In about as big of a matchup as you can get in college basketball, the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats will host the No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday. While many would give the advantage to Kentucky due to its lofty ranking and home-court advantage, I think the Tar Heels hold the edge in this matchup.
North Carolina had a bit of a slip up last week in losing to UNLV 90-80, but they bounced back quite impressively on Wednesday night by getting past No. 7 Wisconsin. The Tar Heels couldn't get out and run against Wisconsin like they are accustomed to, but that should change against the Wildcats.
Kentucky, despite its dominance thus far, is a team that is still searching for a true offensive identity. The Wildcats are able to operate at a fast pace, but they can also be effective in the half-court offense due to the presence of Terrence Jones inside.
There is no such confusion regarding what North Carolina wants to do offensively, and that is run up and down the floor and maximize the possible number of possessions. Since Kentucky is a bit wishy-washy in terms of what type of offense it likes to run, I think the Tar Heels will easily be able to sucker the Wildcats into a track meet.
While Kentucky most certainly has the athletes to hang with the Tar Heels for a while in that type of game, it ultimately favors North Carolina. The Wildcats have a couple bangers inside like Jones and Anthony Davis, and while they have the ability to run the floor, they aren't best utilized in that manner.
Where the Wildcats can really take control of the game, though, is on defense, particularly on the interior. Jones is one of the most feared defenders in the country as he defends the rim with a ferocious intensity. If the Tar Heels can get the fast break going, though, that may not be much of a factor.
North Carolina's offense is all about easy layups and open jump shots, so there won't be much reason to challenge Jones inside when the goal is to quickly find an uncontested shot. The Wildcats could already have plans to make a concerted effort to slow the pace, but it is extremely easy to fall into North Carolina's trap as its style of play is so enticing.
If the Wildcats can figure out a way to make the Tar Heels operate out of the half court, their chances of winning go up exponentially. It simply won't be easy to slow down Harrison Barnes and co., though, as it takes an incredible amount of discipline.
Wisconsin is perhaps the most defensively responsible team in the nation, and while it was able to hold North Carolina in check to a point, the Tar Heels still came out on top. Ultimately, I think the Wildcats' lack of a tried and true offensive method will hurt them and force them into playing a game they simply can't win.
Kentucky was able to weather the Tar Heels' offensive storm in an upset win in last season's NCAA Tournament, but there has been plenty of roster turnover. North Carolina shot very poorly in the field in that game, so if Roy Williams' squad executes this time around, a UNC victory should be on the horizon.