With a glance back to last March and a hopeful eye toward next March, Kentucky and North Carolina stage a high-noon showdown Saturday.
This long-awaited competition of top-five teams allows North Carolina a chance to make amends for the Elite Eight loss to Kentucky in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
"Of course, we're definitely ready for that game," point guard Kendall Marshall said in the pre-season when asked about playing at Kentucky in December. "They ended our season, so we feel like we won the wrong game last season."UNC nipped UK in Chapel Hill almost exactly a year ago today. Then Kentucky beat UNC in Newark, N.J., to advance to the Final Four.
"I'm not going to sit here and say, 'We're taking it one game at a time,' which is the classic answer," Marshall said. "And which we are doing. But at the same time, being the prideful player you are, and that competitive nature, you're going to want to get that get-back when you go up against them again."
Kentucky senior Darius Miller said much the same thing Friday when asked if UK-UNC on Dec. 3 is just another early-season teaching tool and lesson planner. In other words, the line UK Coach John Calipari peddled in his day-before-the-game meeting with reporters.
"It's not just another game," Miller said. "We'll treat it like just another game. But we know it's going to be a different-level game, a high-intensity game."
Although Kentucky supplanted North Carolina as college basketball's No. 1-ranked team this week, Calipari lamented his team's sometimes sputtering offense.
"We're not making the game easy for each other," he said. "That's the biggest issue we have right now."
Calipari suggested that this battle of the sport's blue bloods can all but force Kentucky players to abandon individualistic play.
"A crisis brings about change," Calipari said. "... When they need each other, they'll play better. This is one they know they're going to need each other."
Coincidentally, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas saw the game affecting North Carolina in a similar way. If UNC hasn't been as dominant as expected, particularly in the 90-80 loss against UNLV last weekend, the Tar Heels will be on Powder Blue alert in Rupp Arena.
"Their survival instincts will kick in against Kentucky," Bilas said, "and they'll play harder and they'll play better."
With another freshman-oriented team, Calipari ceded the advantage in experience to a "seasoned" UNC team. Sophomores Harrison Barnes and Marshall are grizzled veterans by UK standards. Big men John Henson (a junior) and senior Tyler Zeller are old-timers.
That big-game experience, which included the hyped game against Michigan State on an aircraft carrier to start the season, suggests North Carolina is more likely to handle the Rupp Arena Cat-mosphere.
Yet Miller pointedly declined to acknowledge any advantage in big-game experience.
"We've been going against each other (in practice)," he said. "We feel we're the best competition in the country."
Before Thursday's victory over St. John's, Calipari said he wanted to create a robust self-esteem among his players. But the UK coach suggested Friday that much improvement must be made.
When asked if freshman point guard Marquis Teague could succumb to the temptation to show what he could do on the grand stage, Calipari said, "He could do it. He just has to learn from it.
"I've probably been dragging this team faster than they need to go."
In early December, a freshman-oriented team like Kentucky should show the need for improvement. Should get off to slow starts. Should play less than crisp basketball.
"That's the advantage Carolina has," Calipari said.
UNC Coach Roy Williams acknowledged the "tough, tough situations" his team endured last season.
"So nothing could really faze us at that moment," he said. "I think that's what's special about this team."
But Kentucky is not devoid of big-game experience, said Calipari, who cited the victory over Kansas in Madison Square Garden.
"Look, we're as ready as we need to be for this kind of game," he said. "I'm not sweating it."