While rebounding will be much discussed before, during and after Kentucky plays North Carolina on Saturday, one of the most important players on the court might be the smallest.
“The first question I would have is: Is Joel Berry playing?” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said Wednesday. “That is key. You take away your catalyst, your point guard. They still are a very good basketball team. You’ve got to respect that. But he is a special player.”
Berry, a 6-foot junior, missed the last two games because of a sprained ankle. North Carolina was not the same team in victories over Davidson (83-74) and Tennessee (73-71).
On his radio show Monday night, UK Coach John Calipari said Berry’s absence greatly reduced the value of watching video of those games. So the game-planning involved watching the Tar Heels win the Maui Invitational during Thanksgiving week, thus a dated view of the opponent.
Associate coach Kenny Payne, who also appeared on the radio show, chuckled as he all but predicted Berry would play against Kentucky.
Berry’s availability changes how Vitale assessed the UK-UNC game.
“If Berry plays, now you’ve got to give an edge . . . ,” he said. “I’d go with Carolina. A slight edge if Berry is in the lineup. Without him, I’d give the edge to Kentucky.”
Another ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, saw Berry and North Carolina up close in Maui. Berry makes his teammates better. “Justin Jackson was terrific with him in the lineup,” Bilas said.
Berry on the sideline unsettles North Carolina’s rotation.
Maybe most importantly, Berry directs the Tar Heels’ signature up-tempo playing style. And Vitale and Bilas scoffed at the notion that North Carolina would not try to outrun Kentucky. Speed is Kentucky’s most striking asset, but it’s also synonymous with Tar Heels basketball.
Yes, Kentucky wants opponents to run.
“You can make that point,” Vitale said. “But you’re not going to take away your strength. (The Tar Heels) are one of the premier running teams in the country. And Carolina is not going to just back it out for anybody.”
That’s even more true with Berry back at point guard, Vitale said.
“With Berry in the lineup, that makes them a much more effective and efficient transition team because he pushes the ball. He can find people and he can score.”
Berry is North Carolina’s second-leading scorer (14.8 points per game). He’s made 41.9 percent of his three-point shots, an accuracy that spreads out defenses and creates operating room for UNC’s “bigs” around the basket and Jackson on the wing.
Berry also had an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1 (42-19).
Bilas dismissed even the hypothetical possibility of North Carolina trying to make it a half-court game in Las Vegas. Presumably with Berry back on the court, the Tar Heels will run.
“Because that’s what Carolina does,” Bilas said.
When asked if that was a risky strategy, Bilas said, “The risk is on both sides. Both teams want to run. . . .
“That’s the way they play, and that’s the way they’ve played for 15 years under Roy Williams. They want to play fast, and they’re not going to slow down for anybody.”
North Carolina has the talent to run. Of “bigs” Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and freshman Tony Bradley, Bilas said, “I’m not sure there is a better interior trio in the country than those three.”
Jackson is North Carolina’s leading scorer (15.5 ppg).
After his team lost to Kentucky by 46 points, Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley questioned the wisdom of running with the Cats.
“I agree with that if a team is subpar in talent,” Vitale said. “But these teams we’re talking about — Carolina, Duke, Indiana — they put talent on the floor just like Kentucky.”
That’s even more true Saturday if Berry plays.
No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 7 North Carolina
What: CBS Sports Classic
Where: MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas
When: 5:45 p.m. EST Saturday (second game of doubleheader featuring No. 2 UCLA vs. Ohio State at 3 p.m.)