Kentucky basketball, here’s your chance.
You want to make the college hoops world forget the season opener, right? You want to make that cover-your-eyes 118-84 demolition at the hands of the dastardly Duke Blue Devils be seen as a first-game fluke rather than a stone-cold fact, right? On a national stage, against a bright lights opponent, you want a shot at sweet redemption.
Here’s your shot. The CBS Sports Classic. Saturday at the United Center in Chicago. You know, the arena Michael Jordan built. The same Michael Jordan, who as president of the Charlotte Hornets gave guard Malik Monk, your former star, a love tap on the back of the head this past week when Monk picked up a silly technical foul. Where did MJ play his college ball? Oh yeah, North Carolina.
Yes, it’s Tar Heels time. Roy Williams and Company, dadgummit. All those titles. All that history. All that argyle. All those UK-UNC battles over the years. Dean Smith vs. Adolph Rupp. Dean Smith vs. Joe B. Hall. Dean Smith vs. Rick Pitino. Ol’ Roy vs. John Calipari. North Carolina is the marquee opponent you want. And need.
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True, you’ve won eight of nine since your Nov. 6 face-plant. Let’s be honest, no one’s impressed. Your performance has been spotty. Your opposition has been suspect. The second-best team you’ve played so far, Seton Hall, beat you in overtime at Madison Square Garden. North Carolina is much better than Seton Hall. So much better. Proof: Saturday.
The mighty Zags of Gonzaga rolled into Chapel Hill ranked No. 4 in the nation, an 89-87 win over Duke in the Maui Invitational final stapled to their resume. They exited the Smith Center with a 103-90 loss. UNC’s Cameron Johnson made six three-pointers and scored 25 points. Luke Maye — remember him? — scored 20 points and snatched 16 rebounds. Freshman guard Coby White, he of the best hair in all of college hoops, scored 15 points.
Even Ol’ Roy liked it. And before Saturday, Ol’ Roy had not liked all that much about his team. Williams crabbed when his Heels lost 92-89 to Texas in the Las Vegas Invitational. He fumed when his Heels were spanked 84-67 by host (and a really good) Michigan in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. “We stink right now,” said Williams that night, adding, “My coaching sucks.”
Two weeks later, the Tar Heels have turned it around. Numbers guy Ken Pomeroy ranks North Carolina as the nation’s fourth-best team behind Duke, Virginia and Kansas. UNC is third in adjusted offensive efficiency behind Gonzaga and Duke. As always, North Carolina can score.
In Saturday’s 88-61 win over visiting Utah, Kentucky showed it can make a basket or two, as well. It shot a season-high 58.6 percent. It made 12 of 21 three-point shots. (Not a typo.) On his way to 24 points, Keldon Johnson was seven of eight from three. Mr. Smooth drained his first five before his sixth try rimmed out. It was his only miss on an 8-for-9 night from the floor.
So, believe it or not, Kentucky, you’ve improved since Nov. 6. (Nowhere to go but up, right?) You’re young, of course, and you can drive your grayer-by-the-minute coach crazy, but your defense is improving and you’ve cracked the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Saturday’s most overlooked stat: Your six turnovers.
Still, you’ll be the underdog Saturday. North Carolina boasts the experience you lack. Maye, whose buzzer-beater in the 2017 South Region finals kept you from the Final Four, is a senior. So is Johnson, as well as fellow starter Kenny Williams. White is a dynamic point guard. Nassir Little, another heralded freshman, has shown flashes. Hey, it’s Carolina.
But as Calipari says, you can’t learn anything beating Popcorn State by 40. North Carolina is not Popcorn State. North Carolina is North Carolina. And in a temperature-taking opportunity, North Carolina is your chance at changing the narrative, at showing you’re better than people think.