John Clay

Be thankful Kentucky and North Carolina are playing basketball this year

North Carolina coach Roy Williams reacts during the first half of UNC’s 73-71 win over Tennessee on Sunday, December 11, 2916 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams reacts during the first half of UNC’s 73-71 win over Tennessee on Sunday, December 11, 2916 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. McClatchy/Raleigh News and Observer

Let us give thanks to CBS.

Let us give thanks to Les Moonves or Scott Pelley or Gayle King or Jim Nantz or the cast of the “Big Bang Theory” or whomever it was at the Columbia Broadcasting System who hatched the idea of pitting four college basketball powers in a December doubleheader called the CBS Sports Classic.

Without the made-for-television hoops event, now in year three, we would not have Kentucky vs. North Carolina, not this year anyway, and probably not any time in the foreseeable future. When the basketball blue bloods tip off Saturday at 5:45 p.m. amid the bright lights of Las Vegas it will be their first meeting since 2014.

From the 2000-01 season through 2011-12, the two teams played annually, rotating home-and-home. After a scheduling conflict in 2012-13, they reunited in Chapel Hill on Dec. 14, 2013, followed by the return game in Lexington on Dec. 13, 2014. Then came the birth of the CBS Sports Classic where UK embarrassed UCLA in Chicago two years ago before falling to Ohio State in Brooklyn last season.

Meanwhile, over the summer, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams pronounced that with the ACC adopting a 20-game conference schedule in conjunction with the conference launching its own ESPN-backed television network in 2019, he did not see room on the UNC schedule for a home-and-home series with a non-conference foe such as Kentucky.

Luckily, this week, CBS announced a three-year extension of its Classic, with UK playing UCLA in 2017, North Carolina in 2018 and Ohio State in 2019.

In other words, we need to cherish the matchup, especially this year when both the Cats and Heels boast top-10 teams with realistic ambitions of adding more NCAA Tournament hardware to their crowded trophy cases.

Kentucky rose to the top of the rankings for a couple of weeks before suffering a home loss to a suddenly resurgent UCLA. ESPN’s Jay Bilas pronounced North Carolina the best team in the country when the Heels beat Wisconsin for the Maui Invitational title, but then Williams’ club was sucked into the vortex that can be Indiana’s Assembly Hall and lost to the Hoosiers. UK’s John Calipari has been there, done that, back in 2011-12.

Since the loss to Indiana, Williams has been a busy man. He appeared on Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Sirius radio show. He wrote a sympathy letter to a woman whose dog, named Roy after Williams, passed away. And he surely cracked a smile when ex-Duke Blue Devil Reggie Love, who once worked for the president, said in an interview it was “sickening” how much Barack Obama loved the North Carolina coach.

Calipari hasn’t been sitting around either. After UK handled Hofstra on Sunday, the coach stuck around New York to promote his new book and be photographed with Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Lamar Jackson. When Calipari got back to Lexington he started both a podcast — Charles Barkley was the first guest — and Camp Cal.

When their schedules converge Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena, the two coaches will field teams that play similar styles but with different personnel. North Carolina is experienced and crashes the glass. The Heels lead the nation in rebound margin. Kentucky is young and flies up and down the floor. The Cats are third in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 94.4points per game.

Joel Berry is the key. North Carolina’s lead guard has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle. If Berry plays — and UNC has tweeted it expects he will — it says here Williams will improve his record against UK to 9-8. If Berry is a no-go, Kentucky’s guard trio of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe should take advantage of the North Carolina backcourt and give the Cats the victory.

Either way, just thank CBS they’re playing.

Last 10 Kentucky-North Carolina meetings

Date

Site

UK

UNC

Dec

Dec. 3, 2005

Lexington

79

83

L

Dec. 2, 2006

Chapel Hill

63

75

L

Dec. 1, 2007

Lexington

77

86

L

Nov. 18, 2008

Chapel Hill

58

77

L

Dec. 5, 2009

Lexington

68

66

W

Dec. 4, 2010

Chapel Hill

73

75

L

March 27, 2011

Newark, N.J. (NCAA)

76

69

W

Dec. 3, 2011

Lexington

73

72

W

Dec. 14, 2013

Chapel Hill

77

82

L

Dec. 13, 2014

Lexington

84

70

W

Kentucky vs. North Carolina

When: Saturday, 5:45 p.m.

Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

Records: Kentucky 9-1; North Carolina 10-1

TV: CBS (WKYT-27) with Brad Nessler, Bill Raftery and John Schriffen

Radio: UK Network (WLAP-AM 630) with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt; Westwood One (WLXG-AM 1300) with John Sadak and Steve Lappas.

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