Who knows when, or if, North Carolina and Kentucky will resume their usual regular-season series. They played 14 regular season games, alternating home sites, between 2000 and 2014, and UNC coach Roy Williams acknowledged earlier this week that he missed it.
He expressed doubt, too, about that series ever resuming given the constraints of playing 18 ACC games – and soon, starting with the 2019-20 season, 20 ACC games. But the Tar Heels and Wildcats will play on Saturday, nonetheless, in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas.
It's another top-10 match-up (the 13th) between two of the top three most victorious teams in college basketball history. Three things to watch on Saturday between the Tar Heels and the Wildcats:
1. How effective Joel Berry will be in his return
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It would have been surprising if Berry, the junior point guard, missed a third consecutive game after suffering a sprained ankle against Radford earlier this month. He was no longer wearing a boot while he watched UNC's narrow escape against Tennessee last Sunday, and Berry went through light running and shooting earlier in the week. So it was no surprise that UNC announced on Friday that Berry is expected to play on Saturday. Now his return creates more questions. Is his playing time limited? Or will he be able to play 25 to 30 minutes? And how effective will he be? The answer to those questions will go a long way toward deciding UNC's success, particularly defensively against Malik Monk, Da'Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe – the Wildcats' formidable trio of guards.
2. Transition defense
The Tar Heels like to run, and always have, under coach Roy Williams. Kentucky, though, operates at a different kind of speed. The Wildcats' possessions, on average, last about a second shorter than UNC's – a seemingly insignificant amount of time that adds up over the course of a game. Both teams would be content to play with a final score in the 90s. Amid all the running and gunning, though, which one does the better job of making it more difficult for the other to get out in transition? That could be the difference on Saturday. And if the Tar Heels place less of an emphasis on offensive rebounding so that they're more proficient at getting set on defense then that, too, could change the complexion of the game. It should be noted that Berry’s return is especially significant defensively for UNC.
3. Offensive rebounding and turnovers
OK, so that's two things to watch in one. But they're both critical. The Tar Heels are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, according to kenpom.com, and are securing about 43 percent of their missed shots. Kentucky isn't bad there, either, and ranks 10th nationally (it rebounds about 40 percent of its misses). When it comes to creating extra scoring chances, the primary difference between these teams is turnovers. UNC commits more of them than Kentucky does, and also forces fewer. Not a good combination, and one the Tar Heels will need to reverse on Saturday. Kentucky ranks sixth nationally in offensive turnover percentage, according to kenpom.com, and so limiting turnovers will be especially important for the Tar Heels given how unlikely it'll be for them to force a lot of them.
UNC vs. Kentucky
When: 5:45 p.m., Saturday
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas