No. 9 North Carolina (7-2) vs. No. 14 Kentucky (7-2), Saturday, Dec. 16
There may not be two teams in the country that have had better bounce-back starts to the season than the two that face off in Atlanta on Saturday afternoon. The North Carolina Tar Heels enter the weekend ranked No. 9 in the country and sit at 7-2 after falling to UConn in the Jimmy V Classic. Their opponents, the Kentucky Wildcats are No. 14 but have been a bit of a roller coaster of late. They ended November with a dominant performance against Miami but followed that up by being upset by UNC-Wilmington at Rupp Arena. Nonetheless, the Wildcats have had a strong start to the year with their only other loss coming to No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic.
Hubert Davis’ Tar Heels are 7-2 with a big win over Tennessee just after Thanksgiving and losses to UConn and a tough 83-81 loss to Villanova. Returnees RJ Davis and Armando Bacot have led the way for the Tar Heels, but it’s transfers Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan who have provided a shot a revitalization for the team. The two newcomers are netting 25.5 points, 8.3 boards, and 4.4 assists and Ingram is scorching the nets from deep at a 46% clip.
If North Carolina has been shot in the arm by transfers, Kentucky has taken the root of relying on freshmen for that shot in the arm and it has certainly paid off for John Calipari so far. The Wildcats are also 7-2 and four of their six double-digit scorers are freshmen and a fifth, Justin Edwards is averaging 9.8 per game. The quartet of Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, DJ Wagner, and Aaron Bradshaw account for 50 of the team’s 90.6 points per game.
This game is important for both teams because the Tar Heels have their eyes on that top-seed line and Kentucky could use a win over the Tar Heels for their resume and to close the gap between the two on the seed list, especially because as good as the win over Miami is, it’s still only a top 54 NET win.