Staff Predictions: UK-UNC
The fact that Kentucky is taking on North Carolina in a regular season game is the perfect illustration of just how crazy this year, and this sports year, has been.
This is not going to be anything close to the most anticipated UK-UNC matchup in recent history, but it's huge for the 'Cats because at some point they have to stop the bleeding.
David Sisk, Jeff Drummond, and Justin Rowland offer thoughts and predictions before the matchup.
What are you most interested in seeing during Kentucky-Carolina?
David Sisk: There are a couple of things that will help decide this game. First, which freshman-laden backcourt will make the fewest mistakes? UNC's combination of R.J. Davis and Caleb Love are averaging 6.1 turnovers per game. UK's threesome of Terrence Clarke, B.J. Boston, and Devin Askew are making 8.1 miscues per game. Even though turnovers across the board are happening for both teams, the ball is mainly going to be in these players' hands. Also who can shoot the best from outside? For all of the individual talent both teams have they are two of the worst outside shooting teams in the country. The Tar Heels are 275th in the category out of 322 teams at 27%. The Cats however are only 296th at just 24.4%.
Finally, can Kentucky's bigs particularly Olivier Sarr stay out of foul trouble? UNC has 1,000 pounds of quality post players to throw at UK. They are tenth in the country with 27 free throw attempts per game. I think Olivier Sarr can hurt them on the other end with his pick and pop game. Their posts will play very soft in the ball screen game. That has been the very first point of attack for opponents. He could really stretch them, but they throw the ball inside, and their more physical inside players are going to go at him. That will be an intriguing matchup.
Jeff Drummond: Ordinarily, a switch from UCLA to North Carolina on the schedule right before the game would be the giant storyline, but the way Kentucky has played through five games this season, it's all about the Wildcats. No matter who they are playing Saturday, the big question is can UK put together a full 40 minutes of how they played the first half against Kansas or the second half against Notre Dame? Are they buying into the defense-first identity that John Calipari is stressing? It would be a great time to put it all together and give Big Blue Nation a nice gift going into Christmas.
Justin Rowland: As long as Kentucky's point guard situation remains so unsettled or such an issue it's going to occupy the top spot, because so many other things flow from that. The number one issue facing Kentucky has been a total inability to forge even the beginnings of an offensive identity and that goes back to the point guard issue in large measure. Terrence Clarke is getting all the run there in practice so it will be interesting to see if the light goes on at some point.
Secondly, can Olivier Sarr stay out of foul trouble? UK has had some foul trouble in some big games against North Carolina during the Calipari era, and we've already seen Sarr struggle to stay on the court at times because of fouls. If he's out of the game it becomes very difficult to see how Isaiah Jackson alone would be enough defending a front line that includes the ACC Preseason Player of the Year in Garrison Brooks and a very good freshman in Day'Ron Sharpe.
What's your prediction for the game?
Sisk: Those previously discussed scenarios that were mentioned in the first question will go a long way in deciding Saturday's outcome. These teams obviously have some common weaknesses: turnover problems, poor outside shooting, and youth. But North Carolina still has more strengths to hang their hats on. They are really good inside which also means they get to the line a ton and they grab a lot of offensive rebounds. On the other hand, after having watched every minute of both teams' games I believe Kentuucky is the better defensive team.
The differences in the teams are that Kentucky has been much more unpredictable. They have had new problems rear their heads each game. They have to cut down on the mistakes and bad play Saturday. Also, who can step up in the scoring column to help Sarr, Clarke, and Boston? Those three players combined for 50 of their 63 points against Notre Dame. They need a fourth and fifth player to step up with double digits. Once again, UK will need to hold the opponent to under 65 points in order to win. North Carolina 66 Kentucky 60
Drummond: Kentucky 71, North Carolina 69 -- I don't have a great reason to pick the Cats in this game, but I just feel like they are kind of "due" to play a really good game. Most people are down on them right now, but they've shown that they can be competitive against a good team like Kansas. I don't think the Tar Heels are much better than the Jayhawks (if at all) so I'm going to say the Cats get the job done in Cleveland.
Rowland: John Calipari's teams have gotten the better of Roy Williams' North Carolina squads more often than not since the former arrived in Lexington. Typically in Kentucky wins the difference has been length and the ability to disrupt a characteristically efficient UNC offense. I could see Kentucky's defense giving UNC some problems, but I can't see the Wildcats putting together 40 minutes of anything close to quality offensive basketball the way the season has gone. There are some similarities between these teams, but based on what I've seen UK's issues just cut quite a bit deeper to this point in the season. North Carolina 74, Kentucky 64.