To borrow from Kentucky Coach John Calipari, any “Basketball Bennie” can identify the challenges presented by North Carolina. The difficulty comes with bringing UNC to heel, so to speak.
“North Carolina may be the easiest team in college basketball to prepare for,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said this week. “Everybody knows what they’re going to do. You just can’t stop it.”
Bilas likened North Carolina’s signature approach — press the accelerator in transition, inside-out offense — to Southern California football’s student body-right power sweep.
“Knowing what’s coming is the easy part,” he said. “Stopping it is the hard part.”
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So going into Saturday’s clash of college basketball bluebloods, Kentucky knows it must deal with North Carolina’s speed and rebounding prowess.
“Unbelievable rebounding team,” Calipari said at a news conference Thursday. “They play fast. If you don’t run, you’re giving up layups. They’ve got skilled guys both inside and outside. And they can play fast or play slow, and still beat you.”
UNC leads the nation in rebound margin: plus 14.8. To emphasis how well the Tar Heels rebound, Calipari said, “When they shoot — are you ready for this number? — half of the misses they rebound. ...
“That’s why they shoot it quick. Because they rebound it.”
Through the first 11 games, North Carolina has missed 367 shots. The Tar Heels have grabbed 177 offensive rebounds, which translates to 48.2 percent of the misses.
Calipari suggested that North Carolina’s rebounding ability was no accident.
“I don’t believe any team can be great at everything,” he said. “You’re not. So as a coach, you decide, OK, what are our strengths and let’s be really good at those things. And let’s hide the things we’re not good at.”
When asked how UK would try to contain North Carolina on the boards, Calipari joked about trying to have a sixth player on the court. More seriously, he spoke of a will to rebound and putting the best rebounders on the court regardless of other strengths and weaknesses. He pointed out that Mychal Mulder, who came to UK billed as a three-point shooter, played power forward at Vincennes University.
On Sunday, Hofstra became the fourth opponent in 10 games to outrebound Kentucky. The Pride’s 19 offensive rebounds were a season high for a UK opponent.
Sacha Killeya-Jones suggested that better rebounding would come through increased aggressiveness.
“Going to boards first ... ,” he said.
Calipari has lamented how UK players can be guilty of watching the ball rather than going after it.
When asked why a player might watch rather than snatch, Killeya-Jones said, “We play with a lot of big guys on the court. You expect somebody else to get it. You have to be that guy to go get it.”
Kentucky must also deal with North Carolina’s speed. The Tar Heels rank No. 11 in scoring offense (88 points per game).
UK is no slowpoke, averaging 94.4 points (third in the nation).
“Both of us will be trying to slow down the other team as far as get back” on defense, said Calipari, who joked (?) about how he and UNC Coach Roy Williams will pay attention to transition defense.
“You’ll hear him (yell), ‘Get back!,’” Calipari said, “and you’re going to hear me (yell) ‘Get back!’ We’ll both be yelling that probably 100 times a half.
“But they’re fast. We’re fast. Probably will come down to: If you don’t get (a score) quickly, who is the best execution team. They’ve got juniors and seniors and older players. We’re playing freshmen. So you tell me.”
While No. 6 Kentucky and No. 7 North Carolina provide the makings of a high-stakes showdown in the desert, Calipari tried to tamp down the idea of a must-win game.
You can’t have a life-or-death mentality, especially with a team dependent on freshmen, Calipari said. To illustrate the point, he said, “We’ve had teams here lose nine or 10 games and get to the final game.”
UK lost 10 games en route to the 2014 national championship game. UK lost eight games en route to the 2011 national championship game.
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.)