How No. 6 Kentucky and No. 7 North Carolina match up — with a game prediction:
▪ One of three guards in John Calipari’s starting lineup, Malik Monk has emerged as Kentucky’s most explosive player. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound freshman from Lepanto, Ark., leads UK in scoring (19.4 ppg) and is shooting a solid 38.5 percent (30-for-78) on three-pointers. Against a rugged North Carolina front line, Monk (2.6 rpg) and the other Wildcats guards must help the UK bigs on the boards.
▪ North Carolina’s Justin Jackson , a 6-8, 210-pound junior from Tomball, Texas, is the Tar Heels’ leading scorer (15.5 ppg) but epitomizes streaky. In UNC’s 73-71 escape against Tennessee on Sunday, Jackson went 3-for-15 from the field, 0-for-6 on three-pointers. Against Davidson in the contest prior, Jackson hit seven of 13 three-pointers and tied his career high with 27 points. A 1,000-point career scorer (1,066), Jackson hit three treys in UNC’s heartbreaking loss to Villanova in last season’s NCAA title game.
▪ Either Kentucky’s Derek Willis (five starts) or Wenyen Gabriel (five starts) will face a stiff challenge. North Carolina is outrebounding foes by almost 15 a game (45.5 to 30.7). Neither of UK’s slender four men is well-suited physically to wrestling for rebounding position against UNC. If Willis (7.3 ppg, 4 rpg, 35.7 percent three-point shooting) gets the call, the ability of the Bullitt East product to stretch the floor with perimeter shooting could negate some of Carolina’s inside muscle.
▪ A 6-9, 242-pound senior, Isaiah Hicks leads North Carolina in field-goal percentage (61.8) and is third in both scoring (12.7) and rebounding (5.1). Last season’s ACC Sixth Man of the Year would be even more productive if he could stay on the court. The Oxford, N.C., product has been foul prone throughout his career, and has played only 31 minutes combined in UNC’s past two games due to excessive fouling.
Advantage: North Carolina
▪ UK’s Bam Adebayo (12.6 ppg, 8 rpg, 54.5 percent FG shooting) enters the matchup with his home state’s flagship university on a streak of seven straight double-figuring scoring games. After picking up four fouls in three of Kentucky’s first five games, the 6-10, 260-pound product of Little Washington, N.C., has not had more than three infractions in the five games since. Playing aggressively without fouling will be vital because UK needs Adebayo on the court against UNC’s imposing big men.
▪ At 6-10, 260 pounds, North Carolina senior Kennedy Meeks has dropped 40 pounds since coming to Chapel Hill as a freshman. He is off to the best start of his career this season, averaging 12.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg. Meeks is relentless on the offensive glass (40 of his 102 boards). The Charlotte, N.C., product has good hands and is a clever passer in the post, too.
Advantage: North Carolina
▪ Isaiah Briscoe had a disappointing showing (4-for-14 shooting, 0-for-5 three-pointers) in UK’s prior marquee matchup, the 97-92 loss to UCLA in Rupp Arena, so the husky 6-3, 210-pounder from Newark, N.J., will be looking to bounce back vs. UNC. Briscoe (16.6 ppg, 3 rpg, 53.8 percent FGs) averaged 5.3 rebounds as a freshman last season; Kentucky could very much use a return to such production on the boards vs. UNC.
▪ Kenny Williams was originally committed to Shaka Smart and VCU, but switched to Roy Williams and UNC after Smart went to Texas. After playing sparingly as a freshman last season, Williams has started seven games in 2016-17 and has emerged as a sold contributor. A 6-4, 180-pound sophomore from Midlothian, Va., Williams (7.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg) leads UNC in three-point FG percentage (44.1 on 15-for-34) and is a sneakily effective offensive rebounder (18, tied for third on the team).
▪ Even by the sky-high standards of Calipari point guards, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox (15.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 6.9 assists) is off to a roaring start. Through 10 games, the sleek, 6-3, 187-pound freshman from Houston is 20 assists ahead of Tyler Ulis’ pace from last season (69-49). You’ll recall, Ulis went on to set the UK single-season assist record (246). Fox was credited with a triple-double (14 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) in the Wildcats’ rout of Arizona State, only the second player in Kentucky men’s basketball history to do it. The area where Fox has not excelled is jump shooting — he is 3-for-21 on three-point shots.
▪ The MVP of last season’s ACC Tournament, North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (14.8 ppg, 4.4 assists) was off to a rousing beginning. A 6-foot, 195-pound junior from Apopka, Fla., Berry was MVP of the Maui Classic and is already a two-time ACC Player of the Week. However, he suffered a sprained left ankle against Radford and has missed UNC’s last two games. The team tweeted Friday that Berry is expected to play against Kentucky. If he can’t go, senior Nate Britt — a determined defender who has shot 4-for-22 in the two games Berry missed — will probably start.
Advantage: North Carolina (if Berry plays); Kentucky (if he doesn’t).
▪ Kentucky senior guards Dominique Hawkins (29 assists vs. three turnovers) and Mychal Mulder (7.8 ppg in 12.3 minutes) have each been productive. Hawkins is a relentless defender but has made only 11 of 33 shots; Mulder is a scorer (16-for-39 three-pointers) but has yet to earn John Calipari’s trust defensively. UK big men Isaac Humphries (4.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Chapel Hill, N.C., product Sacha Killeya-Jones (4 ppg, 3 rpg) will need to produce if the battle on the boards becomes a war of attrition.
▪ Tony Bradley has been a revelation for North Carolina. The 6-11 freshman from Bartow, Fla., is averaging 9.3 ppg and 6.5 rpg in 17 minutes of action and has been unusually effective on the offensive glass. Luke Maye, a 6-8 sophomore forward, missed five games after spraining an ankle, but had 10 points and six rebounds vs. Davidson. Freshmen guards Brandon Robinson (3.5 ppg) and Seventh Woods (3.4 ppg; 17 assists/20 turnovers) are both regulars in the playing rotation. Junior swingman Theo Pinson, a key player on last season’s national runner-up team, has not played this year after breaking a bone in his foot.
Kentucky, having lost to UCLA and playing in the middling SEC, has only three chances left for a marquee win in 2016-17: North Carolina, at Louisville, Kansas. That makes the matchup with UNC bigger for the Cats than the Tar Heels, who will have opportunities to move the needle in ACC play. Historically, North Carolina has had Kentucky’s number — the Tar Heels are the only team in history to have beaten UK more than 10 times (23-14) and have a winning record vs. the Cats. However, under John Calipari, UK is 4-2 vs. UNC, including a 76-69 NCAA Tournament victory over the Tar Heels that sent UK to the 2011 Final Four. Roy Williams is 8-8 vs. Kentucky overall, 7-5 as North Carolina head coach.
Kentucky 83, North Carolina 81