Mark Story

How Kentucky and North Carolina match up — with a game prediction

Keldon Johnson: ‘I’m not afraid to take the big shot’

UK freshman Keldon Johnson scored 24 points and made six three-pointers in Kentucky's 88-61 victory over Utah in Rupp Arena on Saturday night. He was 8-for-9 from the floor.
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UK freshman Keldon Johnson scored 24 points and made six three-pointers in Kentucky's 88-61 victory over Utah in Rupp Arena on Saturday night. He was 8-for-9 from the floor.

How No. 19 Kentucky (8-2) and No. 9 North Carolina (8-2) match up at each position — with a game prediction:

Small forward

Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson is coming off the best offensive game of his brief college career. In UK’s 88-61 spanking of Utah, the 6-foot-6, 211-pound freshman made eight of nine field goals, six of seven three-pointers, and scored 24 points. Two games ago, Johnson (team-best 16.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) hit a half-court shot at the regulation buzzer to force overtime in what became UK’s 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall.

North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (16.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 53.2 percent FGs, 49.1 percent treys) lit up Gonzaga in the Tar Heels’ 103-90 victory over the then-No. 4 Zags. The 6-9, 210-pound graduate transfer from Pittsburgh hit eight of 12 shots, six of eight three-pointers, and finished with 25 points and four assists. The performance earned him ACC Player of the Week honors.

Advantage: North Carolina

North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13), a transfer from Pittsburgh, leads the Tar Heels in scoring at 16.6 points per game. Gerry Broome AP

Power forward

Kentucky’s PJ Washington followed up a monster performance in the loss to Seton Hall (29 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) with a quieter effort (nine points, seven rebounds) against Utah. UK could use more consistent production from the 6-8, 228-pound sophomore (13.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 51.7 percent FGs) from Dallas.

North Carolina’s Luke Maye ended Kentucky’s 2016-17 season when his buzzer-beating jumper gave the Tar Heels a 75-73 win over the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament round of eight. The 6-8, 240-pound senior from Huntersville, N.C., had a double-double, 20 points and 16 rebounds, in the win over Gonzaga. It was a breakout performance in what has otherwise been a sluggish offensive start to the season for Maye (14.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 45 percent FGs, 31.3 percent treys).

Advantage: North Carolina

Luke Maye shot that beat UK
Now a senior, North Carolina’s Luke Maye hit this shot as a sophomore to beat Kentucky 75-73 in the 2017 NCAA Tournament South Region finals. The Tar Heels went on to win the 2017 NCAA title. Charles Bertram


Kentucky’s Reid Travis (14.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 59.7 percent FGs) has scored in double figures in eight of UK’s 10 games. A 6-8, 238-pound Minneapolis product, the graduate transfer from Stanford scored 21 points (on 8-of-13 shooting) and had six rebounds, three steals and two assists against North Carolina last season in a 96-72 loss by the Cardinal.

North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks (9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is a 56.5 percent field-goal shooter, but his main value is as UNC’s top interior defender. A 6-9, 230-pound sophomore from Lafayette, Ala., Brooks started 16 games early last season but his playing time diminished later in the season. Once a Mississippi State recruiting commitment, Brooks had nine points and nine rebounds in the win over Gonzaga.

Advantage: Kentucky

Reid Travis
Kentucky’s Reid Travis is averaging 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. Alex Slitz

Shooting guard

Kentucky’s Tyler Herro (12.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.1 apg) shot 43.5 percent from three-point range last season while averaging 32.9 ppg at Wisconsin’s Whitnall High School. So it is surprising that the 6-5, 195 pounder has so far shot a frigid 14-of-50 (28 percent) on three-point tries as a UK freshman.

North Carolina’s Kenny Williams is another shooter mired in a funk. The 6-4, 185-pound product of Midlothian, Va., has made only 26 of 70 field-goal tries (37.1 percent) and 10 of 41 three-pointers (24.4 percent). Williams contributes in other ways, though. He leads UNC with 48 assists and the senior is considered UNC’s best perimeter defender.

Advantage: North Carolina

UK freshman guard Tyler Herro scored 17 points in Kentucky's 88-61 victory over Utah on Saturday. He's looking forward to the Cats' next two games against North Carolina and Louisville.

Point guard

Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans has impressed as a freshman with his defensive tenacity. Offensively, he leads the Wildcats in assists (31, versus 18 turnovers). The 6-3, 192-pound product of Cartersville, Ga., has struggled mightily to make shots, however. Hagans (3.5 ppg, 1.1 rpg) has made only 13 of 34 field-goal tries, one of seven three-point attempts.

North Carolina’s Coby White is one of the top freshman guards in the country. A 6-5, 185-pound product of Goldsboro, N.C., White is averaging 15.2 ppg, 3.9 apg and has made 42 percent (21 of 50) of his three-point tries. White did commit five of 23 UNC turnovers in the victory over Gonzaga.

Advantage: North Carolina

Coby White.JPG
North Carolina freshman point guard Coby White had 15 points, six assists and five turnovers in the Tar Heels’ 103-90 win last Saturday over Gonzaga. Paul Sancya Associated Press


Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley (7.6 ppg) has quietly begun to shoot the ball well. Over the past two games, the 6-3, 185-pound freshman from Havre De Grace, Md., has made seven of 13 field-goal tries, four of six three-pointers. Freshman big man EJ Montgomery (5.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, team-high 14 blocked shots) and sophomore center Nick Richards (3.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 13 blocks) each logged only 12 minutes of playing time against Utah. After seemingly being injured his entire time at Kentucky, redshirt freshman guard Jemarl Baker made his Rupp Arena debut late in the victory against Utah and drained a pair of treys.

North Carolina freshman Nassir Little was the No. 2-ranked player in the 2018 Rivals 150, but UNC Coach Roy Williams is using the 6-6, 220-pound Orlando, Fla., product (11.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 52.3 percent FGs) off the bench. Junior point guard Seventh Woods (4.9 ppg, 4.1 apg) was stellar against Gonzaga. The Columbia, S.C., product had 14 points and four rebounds in 17 minutes. Sterling Manley (4.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg), a 6-11, 235-pound sophomore, and Rechon “Leaky” Black (3.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg), a 6-7 freshman, have each played in all 10 North Carolina games.

Advantage: North Carolina

UK freshman point guard Immanuel Quickley scored 12 points and was 2-for-3 from the three-point line in Kentucky's 88-61 victory over Utah on Saturday night in Rupp Arena.

History and intangibles

North Carolina leads the all-time series with Kentucky 24-15. However, since Dean Smith (13-3 vs. UK) retired after the 1996-97 season, the Wildcats are 9-8 vs. the Tar Heels.

Under John Calipari, UK is 5-3 vs. UNC. After going 1-3 vs. UK as head coach at Kansas, Roy Williams is 8-6 against the Wildcats since taking the North Carolina job in 2003-04.

Advantage: Even


North Carolina 89, Kentucky 82


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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talked on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018, about how it's hard for him to have a team with experience. Sophomore guard Quade Green left UK on Wednesday. The Wildcats play Utah on Saturday at Rupp Arena.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.