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College Basketball Game Preview: Kentucky Wildcats at North Carolina Tar Heels

Willie Cauley-Stein

Willie Cauley-Stein

At first, the question for Kentucky’s trip to North Carolina on Saturday is: How did we get here?

The Wildcats and the Tar Heels have four losses between them. Kentucky’s two losses, even on neutral courts to major teams, are probably two more than fans hoped they’d see at this stage of the season. North Carolina’s two losses aren’t that surprising as a number. That the losses came to Belmont and UAB and not Louisville and Michigan State is shocking.

The more important question for John Calipari and Roy Williams is what happens next. Kentucky has this game, plus the all-important game against Louisville on Dec. 28. Calipari may have the best collection of freshmen in basketball history, but they’re still freshmen trying to find their way.

Williams has had similar lineup issues, exacerbated by the absence of projected starters P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. When his lineup is on, North Carolina can beat anyone. When Williams’ lineup is off, well, that’s how Carolina ended up as the nation’s biggest question mark.

Kentucky at North Carolina Game Preview

Whens and Wheres
Time: Saturday, 5:15 p.m. Eastern
Site: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Player to Watch: Julius Randle, Kentucky

One of four freshmen in the rookie of the year debate in college basketball, Randle has a double-double in all but two games this season, one of which was Kentucky’s loss to Baylor on Friday. Randle is averaging 17.8 points and 12 rebounds per game. Appointment viewing.

Top Matchup: Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein vs. North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks

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North Carolina’s freshman big man started to play like a big-time freshman in wins over UNC Greensboro and Michigan State. Meeks also had 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the win over Louisville on Nov. 24. Meeks will be facing Cauley-Stein, who has the advantage of a year of experience and three inches. The Kentucky forward has also flirted with triple-double numbers at times this season in the post, but Meeks is also gives North Carolina a leg up in transition as an excellent outlet passer.

Key Stat: 1-to-1. Andrew Harrison’s assist-to-turnover ratio in the last four games

Harrison has 12 assists and 12 turnovers in the last three games, and that includes a six assist, one turnover performance against Baylor. Kentucky, with all its youth, is still learning how to play together. The proof is in the point guard play.

Kentucky’s Key Storyline: James Young’s outside shot

The Kentucky wing Young has been on a hot streak in the last three games, hitting 11 of 22 shots from 3-point range. This comes after Kentucky shot 31.5 percent from 3 in the first seven games. Teams haven’t been shy about taking 3s against the Tar Heels this season — Belmont made 15 of 37 — so Young’s shot will be worth watching.

North Carolina’s Key Storyline: James Michael McAdoo’s slump

The North Carolina forward has been playing out of position at small forward at times, a factor that’s surely played a role in his slump recently. McAdoo was 4 of 8 for 13 points against UNC Greensboro, but he was 9 of 35 in the three games prior against Michigan State, UAB and Louisville. Facing Julius Randle probably isn’t conducive to breaking out of a funk.