Does Kentucky basketball have something to prove against North Carolina?
Plans for watching Kentucky’s game against North Carolina on Saturday should include more than favorite snacks, beverages (adult and otherwise) and a recliner.
Wise UK fans will also consider a seat belt, re-entry shields and crash pads.
High-velocity basketball figures to be on display in the United Center in Chicago. The last time Kentucky played North Carolina in a regular season game saw both teams hit the century mark, a first and only in John Calipari’s 10 seasons as UK coach.
UK won that game 103-100 on Dec. 17, 2016.
Speed is the signature strategy of UNC Coach Roy Williams. UK fans of a certain age might recall that he guided Kansas to a 150-95 victory over Kentucky on Dec. 9, 1989. The Jayhawks’ glorified layup line set a scoring record for a UK opponent.
When asked to label Williams’ offensive philosophy, Calipari said, “They play fast. They get it upcourt in a hurry.”
Freshman point guard Coby White speeds the ball up the floor for North Carolina, which through games on Wednesday ranked third nationally in scoring (94.3 points per game).
“He is a rocket,” said Mike Pratt, the ex-Cat who does color commentary on radio broadcasts of Kentucky games. “He gets down the floor. Oh my gosh, he’s very aggressive and pushes the envelope in transition. There’s no hesitance with him. He’s driving that ball up the middle of the floor if you let him, and he’s doing it as fast as he can.”
Of course, speed can lead to turnovers. Through games on Wednesday, North Carolina’s average of 14 turnovers per game ranked No. 212 nationally. In their last game, the Tar Heels turned it over 23 times against No. 1 Gonzaga.
What should be divined from that stat? “We can turn them over,” EJ Montgomery said.
Not so fast, said Calipari, who pointed out that North Carolina beat Gonzaga 103-90.
“If we can beat them, they can have five turnovers,” Calipari said. “(I) don’t really care.”
Kentucky is not a slow poke. The Cats ranked No. 21 in scoring with an average of 84.6 points.
When a reporter suggested the Cats played better and were more comfortable in a fast-paced game, Montgomery said, “I think we’re better like that, too. We’re a transition team. There’s a lot of transition buckets when we go up and down.”
A skeptic might point out that Kentucky’s game against Duke on Nov. 6 had plenty of pace. Of course, Duke won 118-84.
If anything, Ashton Hagans suggested Kentucky had been playing too slow of late. The Cats had been working on picking up the pace, he said. For instance, UK wants the guard receiving an outlet pass to be further down the court as a way of increasing the pace.
“I think we’re doing very much better at that,” Hagans told reporters. “So on Saturday, you all can see.”
It seems logical that if Kentucky players prefer a faster pace, Saturday’s game can further the chances of meeting a goal emphasized by Calipari. At Thursday’s news conference, the UK coach repeatedly mentioned how his players needed to become empowered. In other words, the players needed to take greater pride and personal responsibility in how Kentucky played.
In theory, the players would be more likely to embrace a fast-paced game as theirs.
“When this team becomes empowered, that’s when they’ll take off,” Calipari said. “It’s got to be team-driven, not coach-driven. We’re still coach-driven right now.”
By players being empowered, Calipari said he meant more player-to-player communication, more huddling and, it sounded like, more caring.
Playing North Carolina figures to give the Cats the pace they say they want. But the blur will have abundant possessions for both teams. Kentucky can’t let an all-but-inevitable UNC scoring spree drain its empowerment.
“They come at you in a lot of different ways, and they’re going to score points,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to score, too. The games we’ve played against these guys, in most cases, it’s been two teams going right at each other. That’s how you’re going to have to play.
“Some of the shots they take are tough shots. But they make them. You can’t have that faze you.”
No. 19 Kentucky vs No. 9 North Carolina
What: CBS Sports Classic
When: About 5:15 p.m. EST
Where: United Center in Chicago
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 8-2, North Carolina 8-2
Series: North Carolina leads 24-15
Last meeting: North Carolina won 75-73 on March 26, 2017, in the NCAA Tournament South Regional finals at Memphis