Previous attempts to announce its place among the college basketball elite this season found Kentucky stumbling and bumbling. At the moment of truth, the teleprompters blinked off and the Cats proved unready to ad-lib.
Late afternoon on Saturday, UK steps to the podium once more in hopes of reintroducing itself as a national contender.
"An opportunity for a statement game for us," Julius Randle said of Kentucky's game at North Carolina.
Kentucky has been in similar games twice this season. The Cats were not ready for prime-time players in a loss to Michigan State in Chicago in early November. Take II saw UK pushed around by an older, more experienced Baylor last weekend.
As a result, Kentucky completed a fall from pre-season No. 1 to outside the top 10.
"That is frustrating," Randle said. "But it'd be frustrating if we didn't know why we were losing. But we know why we're losing. Stuff that's easy to correct."
Teammate James Young also hit on the third-time-a-charm theme.
"Yeah, it's kind of disappointing we didn't come through with a strong win," he said of the losses to Michigan State and Baylor. "I think we should be good this time."
North Carolina (6-2) is Kentucky's polar opposite. The Tar Heels have played their best at the most opportune times, beating then-No. 3 Louisville and No. 1 Michigan State. UNC stumbled against Belmont and UAB.
UNC leading scorer Marcus Paige, who torched Louisville with 32 points, acknowledged how the Tar Heels' performance rises and falls depending on the perceived level of competition. Coaches can talk about the same eagerness to play no matter the opponent. "That's just not the case," Paige said.
Former star Eric Montross, who provides commentary on radio broadcasts of UNC games, saw those ebbs and flows.
"That, to me, is an indication of a very young team that doesn't understand how to maintain intensity regardless of the opponent," he said.
The pattern supports UK Coach John Calipari's contention that the Cats will bring out the best in North Carolina.
"Do you expect anything but the best they've played all year?" he asked reporters on Friday. "We're going to face North Carolina at their best. So we have to be our best, whatever's our best at this point in time."
Kentucky-North Carolina, which normally represents a clash of the bluest of college basketball blue bloods, is a work-in-progress bowl this season. Each team is finding itself, discovering its strengths and hoping not to have newfound weaknesses exposed.
"I don't know what to expect," said Jay Bilas, who will be on the ESPN telecast crew. "Which is kind of fun."
UNC has "less room for error," he said, because would-be starters P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald remain suspended during an ongoing NCAA investigation.
On Thursday, Paige spoke of a competition between inexperienced, yet imposing front lines.
As the cautious coach, Calipari accentuated the imposing part for North Carolina.
"As good as we'll play," he said of the Tar Heels' front line. "They're going to be physical. Guess what? We need it."
After UK beat Boise State on Tuesday, Willie Cauley-Stein noted how he expected North Carolina to try to physically impose its will in the same way Baylor did. He said he'd be willing to use two fouls just to show UNC that Kentucky was no pushover.
To which Calipari said, "As long as he doesn't get five (fouls), I'm fine.
"Willie's really made strides, but he knows this is kind of a game (to answer), can he perform?"
Cauley-Stein has blocked nine shots twice in the past three games. Calipari said he's not necessarily looking for something approaching a triple-double.
"You just have to be able to look and say, 'He held his own,'" the UK coach said. "Those dudes were all over him and he still rebounded the ball. He still blocked a few shots. He still made baskets. He's fine.'"
Similarly, Kentucky spoke not of some spectacular performance at North Carolina. The Cats seek a performance that speaks for itself in terms of growth.
"We're just focusing on us," Randle said. "... As long as we're giving our best effort, that's all that really matters."
Calipari noted how Kentucky has been in this position earlier in the season. After beating Providence, the Cats seemed on the cusp of a coming-out party against Baylor.
"Let's not do what we did between Providence and the next game," Calipari said. "Let's go from Boise (State) to the next game, and let's take a step up."
kentucky at north carolina
When: 5:15 p.m. Saturday | Where: Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. | TV: ESPN | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1 Records: No. 11 Kentucky 8-2, No. 18 North Carolina 6-2 | Series: North Carolina leads 22-13 | Last meeting: Kentucky won 73-72 on Dec. 3, 2011, in Rupp Arena