LEXINGTON — With college basketball tradition-rich schools, Kentucky and North Carolina, facing each other in Saturday’s marquee showdown in Chapel Hill, I decided to ask colorful broadcaster Dick Vitale, who is arguably the sport’s biggest ambassador, and get his thoughts about the matchup.
Vitale, along with Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas, will also cover the 5:15 p.m. game for ESPN.
Eleventh-ranked UK — which is the least experienced squad in the nation according to KenPom.com — will be facing a talented team that has been up and down so far in November and early December.
“North Carolina is an unpredictable team this season,” Vitale told this columnist earlier this week via e-mail. “The Tar Heels could have lost to Holy Cross (in a 62-54 victory). They fell against Belmont and UAB, but upset Louisville, snapping the Cardinals’ 21-game win streak. UNC won at Michigan State, stunning the nation’s No. 1 team.
“They have proven that they can beat anybody. When they have rhythm and balance, they are very tough.”
Leading the 6-2 Tar Heels, who are ranked No. 18, is sophomore point guard Marcus Paige, a McDonald’s All-American from Iowa. He also leads the team in scoring (18.8-point average) and assists (4.5 average).
“Marcus Paige has shown ability to come up big against the best competition and he will be a key,” added Vitale.
In UNC’s 93-84 neutral-court victory over U of L, Paige gunned in a career-high 32 points.
Vitale also points out that the Tar Heels are tough to beat at 21,750-seat Smith Center, which opened in 1986.
“It is never easy to win at Chapel Hill,” said the TV analyst, a Hall of Famer who once was the head coach for the University of Detroit and NBA’s Detroit Pistons during the 1970s.
In his 10-plus years at North Carolina, coach Roy Williams’ overall record at Smith Center is 146-19, a winning percentage of 88.5.
But the Wildcats, who improved to their record to 8-2 after a 70-55 victory over Boise State at Rupp Arena Tuesday night, can overcome the Tar Heels if they hit the boards hard, according to Vitale.
“The biggest factor for Kentucky is rebounding,” he said. “The Cats were dominated on the glass by Baylor (last Friday night) and I feel rebounding is dictated by effort. They have to have a big effort on the glass against North Carolina. Baylor had a 41-25 edge and that is an area of concern for coach (John) Calipari.”
Unlike the Baylor game, the Cats won the rebounding battle against a smaller Boise State squad with a 43-27 margin as Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and James Young led with the UK attack with a total of 27 rebounds.
Another potential problem for the Cats is if they have poor free throw shooting against UNC. In Kentucky’s two setbacks this season, it only hit 55.6 percent against Michigan State and a season-low 52.2 percent vs. Baylor from the line.
“It’s going to be a hard game (at UNC). We have two days of practice,” said Calipari moments after the UK-Boise State contest.
Calipari, as the UK boss, is 3-1 against the Tar Heels, winning two in Lexington and one in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Kentucky and North Carolina, by the way, are No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation with 22 and 15 former players, respectively, on opening-day NBA rosters for 2013-14. (Duke also has 15 ex-players on the NBA’s season-opening rosters.)
In the overall series between both schools, North Carolina has the edge, winning 22 games against 13 losses.
Asked about his most memorable moment in the UK-UNC series that he has seen on TV or in person, Vitale said, “There have been many great moments in the Kentucky-North Carolina rivalry. This is a matchup of college hoop royalty. These are two elite programs, winners in every way.
“One that stands out came a few years back, in December of 2011. John Henson looked like he was going to have the game-winning basket but Anthony Davis came through with the key block in a 73-72 win for the Big Blue Nation. That was excitement personified.”