UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Mood blue before battle of blue bloods

Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12), Tyler Uhlis, Devin Booker,1, Trey Lyles, and Alex Poythress,22, watched the last minutes of play  as #1 Kentucky defeated #5 Kansas 72-40 on Tuesday November 18, 2014  in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12), Tyler Uhlis, Devin Booker,1, Trey Lyles, and Alex Poythress,22, watched the last minutes of play as #1 Kentucky defeated #5 Kansas 72-40 on Tuesday November 18, 2014 in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

The day before a big game, the Joe Craft Center should be hopping. The Tar Heels are coming to Rupp Arena on Saturday. So is CBS and Marv Albert. Yes! It's the nearly annual matchup of college basketball's royals, Kentucky Blue vs. North Carolina Blue.

Instead, the team known for its outlandish length was wearing long faces around its practice facility Friday.

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UK-UNC PREGAME: Clay/Tipton/Story preview | Cal asks fans to show respect | Clay: Blue mood shades big game | Poythress out | Injury complicates UK's preparation

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"It's tough to see your brother — we've been through a lot — go down with a freak injury like that," said Kentucky's 7-foot forward Willie Cauley-Stein.

Friend and teammate Alex Poythress was the subject of the Big Blue sadness. The starting forward tore his left ACL in Thursday's practice. In the long term, the junior is lost for the season. In the short term, the injury news cast a dark cloud over what is traditionally a shimmering rivalry.

Kentucky is college basketball's all-time winningest program. North Carolina is No. 3, right behind Kansas.

Since 1996, Kentucky has won three national titles and reached six Finals Fours. North Carolina has won two national titles and been to six Final Fours.

This year, Kentucky is a unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll, a team so dominant on the defensive end of the floor opposing coaches have taken to referring to the Cats' stats as "silly."

Even without Poythress, UK's list of available McDonald's All-Americans slips to eight. You can only play five at a time, prompting Kentucky Coach John Calipari to implement a platoon system.

"I haven't seen a team like this," said North Carolina Coach Roy Williams on Friday. "None comes to mind in 27 years."

North Carolina is no hoops pauper. The Heels boast six McDonald's All-Americans. Roy Williams' club is 6-2 by way of a record, but has height, quickness and pedigree. Calipari considers UNC's two losses flukes.

"They should be 8-0," said the coach.

For both teams, the basket has been something of a moving target, especially when shots are hoisted from three-point range.

Kentucky is shooting 27.7 percent from three. The Cats made just 2-of-17 three-point attempts in their 56-46 win over Columbia on Wednesday. North Carolina is shooting 28 percent from three. The Heels made just 4-of-23 three-point attempts in a loss to Iowa last week.

"Both of us will hopefully shoot better," Calipari said. "I hope we shoot better this game and they shoot better the game after that."

And yet, examining the X-and-O story lines seemed almost cold-blooded given the shock over the sudden stop to Poythress's season. It's not as if the Tennessee native can no longer play basketball. It's not as if Kentucky doesn't have a deep bench of worthy replacements.

It's just that, in the eyes of his teammates, this was a really bad thing that happened to a really good guy.

"He's the good brother who's always doing the right thing," Cauley-Stein said. "Why's this got to happen to a dude who just does everything right and definitely doesn't deserve to go down with an injury like this?"

Can the Cats snap out of it by noon Saturday? Good question. Calipari himself was noticeably subdued Friday, refraining from his usual playful sparring with his friends in the media.

Asked if the Poythress injury might force him to scrap his platoon system, Calipari said he didn't know. Asked how his team would respond, Calipari said he didn't know.

That's not the John Calipari we know.

Still, the occasion remains Cats and Heels, a battle of basketball's blue bloods. Last time the two hooked up at Rupp, a youngster named Anthony Davis swatted away a last-second John Henson shot to preserve a white-knuckle Kentucky win. Last year in Chapel Hill, the Heels toughed out an 82-77 victory that included 57 fouls and 88 free throws.

"It's a great series," said Calipari on Friday.

His enthusiasm was tempered by the blue mood of the day, however. Hopefully, Saturday will be a better day.

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