In an alternate reality, North Carolina fans had to enjoy a team in pale blue making a run at Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Alas, that game was three days too early, and the school was Columbia rather than the Tar Heels.
Columbia jumped to an early 11-0 lead on Kentucky on Wednesday, and though the Wildcats defeated the Ivy Leaguers 56-46, the game was a clear wake-up call for Kentucky. The Wildcats are a near-unanimous No. 1 team whose defensive play may be the best in recent history.
Yet Columbia reminded John Calipari that he has a team full of 18-22-year-olds who may be concerned with their December plans rather than the game at hand.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, that kind of game occurred Wednesday instead of Saturday.
The Tar Heels have been uneven this season and could use a strong performance against Kentucky to bolster their case heading into the ACC season. North Carolina has already lost 60-55 at home to Iowa and 74-66 on a neutral floor to Butler, two losses that a Tar Heels team with Final Four aspirations shouldn’t be taking.
After this game, neither team will have much of an opportunity for rest. Kentucky faces UCLA and North Carolina faces Ohio State in Chicago on Dec. 20 in the CBS Sports Classic before the Wildcats return from the holiday to visit Louisville on Dec. 27.
North Carolina at Kentucky
Site: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Time: Saturday, noon
What’s on the line for Kentucky
Another big game, another chance for Kentucky to prove its case as the clear national championship favorites. Slow starts against teams like Buffalo and Columbia notwithstanding, Kentucky has been outstanding on the national stage. The Wildcats have defeated their three major-conference opponents (Kansas, Providence and Texas) by a combined margin of 64 points.
What’s on the line for North Carolina
Texas walked away from a 63-51 loss on Dec. 5 feeling OK about its performance at Kentucky, especially with a backup point guard. North Carolina fans may be tougher to assuage, but the Tar Heels can’t look at this game as pass/fail based on the scoreboard. An upset would be great, but if North Carolina can find a way to challenge Kentucky consistently into the second half, that should count as a good sign for the Heels.
You’ll tune in to watch: Another dominant defensive effort from Kentucky
Kentucky is holding teams to 30.7 percent shooting from 2-point range. To put that in perspective, that figure would rank 90th in the country — in 3-point defense. The Wildcats, by the way, already rank 14th in that category, holding teams to 25.4 percent shooting from long range. The Wildcats are outstanding at every defensive position. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are good bigs, but North Carolina may be in trouble.
Pivotal player: Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison
If we’re going to pick on Kentucky, the 3-point line would be a good place to start. Kentucky is 6-of-42 from 3-point range in the last three games. Andrew Harrison, specifically, has struggled, going 0-for-5 from long range against Columbia in the last game. Just as troubling, Harrison also went 1-of-7 from 2-point range in that game. Calipari said Harrison was seeking foul calls that never came. How will Harrison adjust, both from long range and in getting to the rim?
Biggest question: Can Marcus Paige make enough shots to challenge Kentucky?
With Kentucky’s size, maybe opponents have to start thinking like a mid-major and light the Wildcats up from 3-point range. That’s what Columbia did for a time, starting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. Paige is North Carolina’s only major threat from long range, but he’ll have to do better than 34 percent from beyond the arc for North Carolina to have a shot at Kentucky. Paige is 4-of-19 from 3-point range in his last three games.
David Fox: Kentucky 71-58
Braden Gall: Kentucky 81-65
Mitch Light: Kentucky 77-60
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 64-60