UK Men's Basketball

UK-North Carolina always ranks as big game

North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes, left, and the Tar Heels will host Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight and the Wildcats Saturday afternoon.
North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes, left, and the Tar Heels will host Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight and the Wildcats Saturday afternoon.

With North Carolina unranked and owning a pedestrian 4-3 record, Kentucky's game in Chapel Hill on Saturday lacks some of the blue-blooded quality that makes these encounters so much fun.

Then again, the Tar Heels see a victory over No. 10 UK as the perfect vehicle to begin returning its basketball profile to an appropriately lofty level.

"We need that one big-time win," forward John Henson said Friday, "and I think tomorrow could be the chance for that. For a young team, that could get us rolling."

Turnovers, uneven point-guard play and good competition have prevented North Carolina from flying as high as Kentucky so far this season.

After a 79-67 loss at Illinois on Tuesday, Coach Roy Williams made the players watch a video edited to show each of the Tar Heels' 18 turnovers.

"Mind-boggling," Williams said Friday of the giveaways, which included twice stepping on an out-of-bounds line and three turnovers "passing and catching, that's all it was."

Noting how John Wooden welcomed some turnovers as a sign of aggressiveness, Williams added, "I can live with some turnovers. But we're making some that aren't very intelligent."

Most critics cite the struggles of point guard Larry Drew II, who has the misfortune of following the stellar Ty Lawson. When asked about Drew's confidence, Williams spoke of the medicinal value of a few shots that go in the basket. Drew has made only 22.2 percent of his shots (including 2-for-12 from three-point range).

"His numbers don't look very good," Williams said. "His confidence would go up a great deal if the ball went into the basket."

UNC fans expected freshman Kendall Marshall to win the point-guard role. But against Illinois, he made only one shot and committed four turnovers.

Kentucky assistant John Robic, who substituted for head coach John Calipari at a Thursday news conference, played down the notion of a weak UNC backcourt.

"They're at home," he said. "So, of course, they're going to feel more comfortable knocking down shots.

"They're at North Carolina for a reason, just like our guys are here for a reason."

That reason is because they are considered high-quality players.

Perhaps no player in the game better fits the oversell/underdeliver atmosphere surrounding North Carolina's program than freshman Harrison Barnes. Much of Williams' meeting with reporters Friday dealt with Barnes not living up to expectations set at stratospheric heights when he became the first freshman to be named to The Associated Press pre-season All-America team.

"He made strides," Williams said. "If anything, he may overanalyze a bit, but that's OK. That means he cares."

When told that Barnes did not look like the star who dominated high school and AAU play, Williams, said, "Neither did Michael Jordan."

Bigger, stronger, faster competition in college requires an adjustment, not only for Barnes but his teammates as well.

"Basketball people probably picked us to have a difficult time against those two teams," Williams said in reference to losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico. "And most people would feel the same (against Illinois).

"But it's still North Carolina, and we don't accept that."

Clark Kellogg, who will provide commentary on the CBS telecast of the game, sees Kentucky and North Carolina as similar teams. "Both young teams with outstanding talent," he said. "They will go as far and as quickly as the young guys mature and grow."

Henson spoke of the possibility of the Kiddie Cats wilting. "If we can rattle them a little bit, it could bode well for us," he said. "It happened to us last year."

Williams saluted how UK freshman Terrence Jones played so well from the beginning. "What he's done has been amazing," the UNC coach said.

Brandon Knight has lived up to his billing as one of the top point guards coming out of high school.

One wild-card contributor is Josh Harrellson. "Nobody in this room, including the head coach, knew his name before the season," Williams said.

Before his team played Michigan State earlier this week, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called it a "program game." Rankings and other concerns did not matter as much.

Whatever North Carolina's struggles, a game against Kentucky seems to fit that bill.

"If I'm lucky enough to retire from coaching rather than being fired," Williams said, "it's the type of game I'll like to come and watch."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader