Two of the most storied programs in college basketball history are set to go head-to-head on Saturday afternoon when the No. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels host the No.11 Kentucky Wildcats at Dean E. Smith Center.
Both teams enter the contest with something to prove. Kentucky began the season with the highest expectations of any team, as they were voted No.1 in the polls. Led by mostly freshmen, however, the Wildcats have shown that they are not yet ready to be called the best team in the country. They have faced two ranked opponents, losing games to Michigan State and Baylor.
The Tar Heels have dropped in the rankings since the preseason, but they’ve been impressive against top competition. North Carolina already gained a win against then-No.3 Louisville, as well as a victory over the Spartans, who were ranked No.1 at the time.
The problem has come against the lesser opponents. The Tar Heels were defeated at unranked UAB in a game in which they were 7.5-point favorites. They were also upset on their home floor by Belmont, despite being favored by 15 points.
Both teams, though, are looking to ride the momentum from their last wins. North Carolina handled UNC Greensboro by 31 last week. Kentucky bounced back from a loss to defeat Boise State, 70-55.
“I think this was a step forward for us,” said Julius Randle. “We still had some breakdowns and there’s a lot of stuff we could’ve worked on, but it’s a step forward. ... Every game is a learning process for us.”
The freshman will likely be the best player on the court this weekend. Through his first 10 games, Randle has arguably played even better than projected No.1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins. The 19-year-old leads the team with 17.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game.
The Tar Heels are a relatively young team, as well, but they’re nothing like their opponent. The Wildcats rely almost solely on first-year players. Nine of their top ten scorers are freshman, including the four players who average in double-digits. Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein starts, averaging 9.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
Marcus Paige has been the top player for North Carolina, leading the team with 18.8 points and 4.5 assists per game. P.J. Hairston, who was the Tar Heels’ No.1 scorer last year, as well as senior Leslie McDonald, have yet to play in the 2013-2014 season because of NCAA eligibility issues. It’s unknown when they will return to the court.
The two schools did not play last season after having faced off for 11 straight years. The Tar Heels lead the overall series, 22-13.
With the game set to be played in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels are slight favorites. The betting line has Kentucky as a three-point underdog. The Wildcats are 4-3-1 against the point spread, while the Tar Heels come in at 5-3 in that department.
Prediction: North Carolina 77, Kentucky 72