This is a big game for Kentucky. A win here will be huge, especially for a young team. But, this is not the same UNC team that people are used to seeing. This isn’t the same type of team that Roy Williams is used to running out there. They were ranked in the top ten to start the season, but they are nowhere near a top ten team and this proves how irrelevant preseason rankings really are.
We are talking about a team that missed the dance last year. True, they did bring in the much-heralded recruit, Harrison Barnes, but seven games into the season it appears that the Tar Heels are struggling in the same areas that they struggled in last year.
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They enter the UK game with a 4-3 record, with their four wins coming over Lipscomb, Hofstra, UNC-Asheville and College of Charleston. None of these teams are world beaters. They have faced three BCS schools (Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois) and lost all three games. None of which were really close. Man I hate using the BCS term.
They have the talent. Their entire teams consists of McDonald’s All-Americans. But, they are really struggling to play together. They are lacking a leader and a go-to guy on the court. They thought they had one in Barnes, but early on it appears that he is feeling the pressure and forcing things a bit.
Harrison Barnes (6-8, 210) is a great basketball player and more than likely will eventually live up to the hype. But, just as the Tar Heels received a lot of unjust preseason hype by being ranked in the top ten, Barnes, too, was overhyped as he was selected to the preaseason all-american team. Something I imagine that was caused by the success of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins a year ago.
It’s not fair to place someone who has never stepped onto a college basketball floor on an all-american team. I realize that this is not the lone reasons for his struggles early, but the hype had to contribute a bit.
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Barnes is good in all areas, but not great in any. Through his first seven games, he is second on the team in scoring with 11.3 points. He is also pulling down 6.3 boards. But, he is shooting just 34-percent from the floor. In their three losses he is a combined 6-for-33, which is good for 18-percent, including an 0-for-12 performance against Minnesota.
One area where the Tar Heels could have a definitive advantage over the Cats is in their frontcourt. Junior center Tyler Zeller (7-0, 250), sophomore forward John Henson (6-10, 195) and the senior transfer out of Alabama, Justin Knox (6-9, 240), all have the size and ability underneath to cause Kentucky problems. This will definitely be a test for Terrence Jones, Josh Harrellson, and Eloy Vargas on the defensive end.
Zeller is the best of the bunch, but has battled injury problems through his first two years. When healthy, he has been effective as he has scored a point every two minutes of action. Not a bad ratio. He is often used as a screener and is really good at reading opposing defenses. He is extremely effective at rolling off of screens and getting to the rim along with floating off of them and knocking down 15-footers.
He is leading the Tar Heels in scoring and rebounding with 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds, while shooting 51-percent from the floor.
Despite his size, Zeller is not likely to go through defenders to get to the basket. Henson is very similar in his style of play. Instead, look for them to go around or use the jump hook to go over post defenders.
North Carolina really struggles with their guard-play and this is where Kentucky can really take advantage. Junior Larry Drew II (6-2, 180) is their starting point guard for now. In the first seven games he is averaging just 3.6 points and 3.4 assists while committing 2.1 turnovers and shooting a horrific 22-percent from the floor.
Freshman Kendall Martin (6-3, 186) is inching closer and closer to taking the point guard duties away from Drew. He has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is averaging more points than his junior counterpart, with 4.3 points.
UNC wants to get out in transition, so this should be an up-and-down game. But, the problem with the Tar Heels running is that they are struggling with their decision-making and protecting the basketball. One big reason for their three losses is the fact that they are turning the ball over 17 times a game. They are averaging more turnovers a game than their opponents, which is usually not a recipe for success.
In the last two years the Tar Heels simply have not proven that they have the toughness necessary to win big games. They have lacked leadership. Will Harrison Barnes find a way to step up and provide that leadership? If so, let’s hope it happens after Saturday.
For Kentucky to win on Saturday, and I think they will, they need to contain UNC’s bigs underneath, have their guards dominate the game, and force the Tar Heels into turnovers.
Still, on the road in Chapel Hill, this will be a big test for the Cats.
Kentucky 82, North Carolina 72