CHAPEL HILL– After a year hiatus from the rivalry, the No. 21 North Carolina Tar Heels are again ready to take on No. 10 Kentucky in a Saturday home showdown between two of the top three winningest college basketball programs in history.
With exams now in the rear view mirror, the 6-2 Tar Heels can turn their full attention to the task at hand: beating a third top ten team of the season.
Carolina’s Joel James has earned a spot in the starting lineup. Head Coach Roy Williams says James is a work in progress, but he’s been impressed with his improved defensive performance.
“He’s consistently done some really good things defensively. He was the defensive player of the game against Michigan State. He had a good defensive grade against UNC-Greensboro. He gives us the size and the power to help control the rim area quite a bit better than we did last year. He is a project, which is okay. I love that part of him,” Coach Williams says.
Carolina leads the all-time series against the Wildcats 22-13, but Kentucky squeaked out a 73-72 win in Rupp Arena in 2011.
Coach Williams says what stands out most about this year’s edition is the ability of UK Coach John Calipari to get his young, highly touted athletes to play together as a team.
“John’s [Calipari] ability, the way he’s got them playing together. You know freshmen coming in with all the hoopla that they have tended to a lot of times try to live up that. I think John has proven many years, that he can get highly skilled players and get them to focus on the team aspect of it,” Coach Williams says.
Coach Williams knows how tough the game will be on Saturday as he says he tried extremely hard to recruit a couple of Kentucky’s young stars himself.
“They are an unselfish bunch. That part is going to get better and better and better. I just think when you have gifted kids, I mean, there is a lot of guys on that list that I tried to recruit. And a couple of them I tried really, really hard to recruit,” Coach Williams says.
Sophomore Marcus Paige gives some insight into the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ mentality of the Tar Heels so far this season. He says it’s just easier to compete at the highest level when facing the toughest competition.
“I think whenever you play a really highly ranked team or a big-time program, you just automatically have that. You still have to bring it against those other teams. But it’s a lot easier to get up for a game as big as the one we have Saturday or as big as the ones that we’ve won. I’d want to say that we’d come with the same approach every game, but honestly as a competitor, that’s just not the case,” Paige says.
Carolina will certainly be facing a hungry and supremely talented Wildcat team Saturday. So should Tar Heel Nation expect another top-notch performance from Carolina? We will see soon enough.