John Clay: UK-UNC clash a rarity in today's college game

It's no longer No. 1 vs. No. 2, but Kentucky vs. North Carolina is worth the hype

Herald-Leader sports columnistDecember 3, 2011 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

The waiting was the hardest part.

That's because in college basketball, games like Saturday's Kentucky-North Carolina showdown of hoops royalty don't come around that much anymore, not in a sport so affected by the one-and-done virus, not when parity reaches so far and wide.

We media types use the old "heavyweight fight" cliché too much, but that's what this build-up has felt like, a throwback to boxing's old days, to a Frazier vs. Ali, like a "Rumble in Rupp Arena," with the anticipation turning from slow burn to five-alarm fire.

Come on, now, is this not the most highly anticipated event in these parts since Rick Pitino's return to Rupp?

"Everybody wants to talk about North Carolina," said the freshman Anthony Davis on Thursday night after he swatted eight shots to help dispatch St. John's in the team's final prelim. "It's been that way for a month."

"At least since the beginning of the season," said Kentucky senior Darius Miller, the elder statesman, meaning that since school has been in session he's had an entire student body to remind him there was something special happening on Dec. 3. "There's been a lot of talk about it, a lot of hype about it."

Truth be told, bees have buzzed ever since the final horn sounded in Newark last March and Kentucky was dancing on to the Final Four while a disappointed North Carolina was sulking home to Chapel Hill.

Then Heels' hero Harrison Barnes announced he was skipping the NBA Draft for a second season of college basketball. (Think he would have done that had the Heels not lost to Kentucky?) Next thing we knew, on Kentucky Derby Day, no less, Kentucky's Terrence Jones made Big Blue Nation feel like it had hit the "Pick Six" when the sophomore-to-be announced he too would return for another year.

Factor in John Calipari's current rookie highlight factory, his third consecutive No. 1 signing class since dropping anchor at the UK campus.

Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Kyle Wiltjer and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had all inked the dotted line during the early signing period. So even before Jones and Doron Lamb extended their stay, you knew Kentucky had the makings of a knockout punch.

North Carolina is loaded for liftoff, as well. The Heels boast Tyler Zeller, the 7-foot senior center; the pterodactyl-like John Henson at forward; the smooth sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall and eight months of chewing on a score to settle.

True, on the long road here, North Carolina slipped on a banana peel, losing to a UNLV team that drained 13 three-pointers, thus ceding the top spot in the polls to the Wildcats. But if Kentucky's record is spotless, its play has shown its coach some holes.

"We've got a long way to go," Calipari said Friday, repeating his consistent mantra since the opening tip of the season.

Ah, but look what they have for the ride. Some scouts say there could be as many as 10 first-round draft picks on the floor.

ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep tweeted on Friday that Rupp on Saturday would hold 21 players who were ranked in the top 100 of their respective recruiting classes.

"It means there's going to be a lot of great players and a lot of great competition," said Jones on Friday. "It's going to be a real good way to test ourselves."

It's an even better way for us basketball fanatics to enjoy ourselves.

After all, games like this don't come around that much anymore.

"Hopefully," said Darius Miller, "the game will be (played) at the level everybody thinks it will be."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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