Because his mother works at the University of North Carolina, Kentucky freshman Sacha Killeya-Jones has one more reason to look forward to Saturday’s game.
“I’m excited to play,” he said Thursday. “It’s going to be cool to come full circle. Growing up watching them, and now playing against them is going to be cool.”
His mother, Ley Killeya-Jones, works in quantitative research at UNC. This made it almost inevitable that her son would be a Tar Heels fan.
“A little bit,” he said before adding, “Not really. I was never like a diehard UNC fan or anything like that.”
North Carolina showed recruiting interest, but Killeya-Jones signed with Kentucky. “Coach (Roy) Williams is great and everything,” he said.
The decision to play for Kentucky was not universally applauded. But of the negative reaction, Killeya-Jones said, “It was never too, too bad.”
His mother doesn’t catch much flak because her son plays for Kentucky, he said. She keeps her allegiance to Kentucky undercover. No bumper sticker on her car. “It’d probably get ripped off,” he said. No wearing of a UK jersey with her son’s number on it. “Not around Chapel Hill,” he said.
Killeya-Jones said he is well acquainted with several UNC players. He and the Tar Heels freshmen were part of the same recruiting class.
“Also the older dudes,” he said of UNC players he knows, “just from going over there and playing pickup.”
Another UK freshman, Bam Adebayo, grew up in Little Washington, N.C. He said he was not a UNC fan.
“I wasn’t,” he said. “I grew up watching them. . . . It’s the hometown team.”
When asked what college team he rooted for, Adebayo said, “Nobody, really. I was just one of those dudes who just liked college basketball.”
Yes, UNC recruited Adebayo. He knows several UNC players. He was on the same AAU team as Seventh Woods. He played in the same Jordan Brand and McDonald’s All-American games as Tony Bradley.
“Great player,” Adebayo said. “If you are in college and you’re at a big-time school, I think you’re a great player.”
In recent days, UK Coach John Calipari has talked about how he wanted confident players. That suggested some UK players are not confident.
On Thursday, Calipari explained.
“Most of these kids — and can you blame them? — have their minds set down the road a little bit,” he said. “And when stuff doesn’t go right, you start having anxiety.”
Calipari said he sent a text to players Wednesday asking them not to think of the future, say the 2017 NBA Draft.
“Stay in the moment and try to get better,” he said. “(You) can’t worry about six months down the road . . . You can’t worry about our game next week.”
At a news conference Thursday, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams avoided a direct answer about whether point guard Joel Berry will play against Kentucky on Saturday.
“I am not optimistic at all,” he said. “But I’m not pessimistic. I haven’t seen him. I have no opinion.”
Berry, who has missed UNC’s last two games because of a sprained ankle, is widely viewed as an indispensable part of the team.
When asked if he’d judged how the UNC team looked without Berry, Williams said, “Yeah, I don’t like that.”
Will UNC slow pace?
Williams scoffed at the notion of North Carolina slowing the pace against Kentucky . . . or any other team. He playfully considered a slow-it-down strategy, saying, “I think I really screw up everybody if I say we’re going to start the four corners and slow it down.”
Williams acknowledged that forsaking a signature strategy can send a bad message to the players. Then he playfully added, “I think they’d all drop dead if I started in the delay game, so it’d be bad for their five players to still be alive and my five to be dead. So I really don’t think that’s going to happen.”
As a head coach at Kansas and North Carolina, he never ordered a team to slow the pace, Williams said.
And if one of his teams tries to slow the pace, fans should think “they’ve got me in a witness protection program somewhere,” Williams said, “and somebody else is coaching that team. It ain’t me.”
“It’s the one thing you have to deal with,” Bilas said of UNC. “If you don’t deal with it, you’re going to get beat. That’s an absolute.”
Strength vs. strength
Adebayo saw the game as strength against strength.
“They’ve got length,” he said of the Tar Heels. “They’ve got height. They’ve got speed. We’ve got those same things. So it’s going to be a good battle.”
Brad Nessler, Bill Raftery and John Schriffen will call Saturday’s game for CBS.