NCAA Basketball

No. 22 Tar Heels look to keep Kentucky reeling

Keeping track of who the opponent will be is just one of the chores for Kentucky and No. 22 North Carolina as they prepare to meet Saturday afternoon in Cleveland.

No matter who these teams play, they want to concentrate on improvement.

These are the two winningest programs in Division I men's basketball, but the teams haven't always looked formidable this season. They weren't supposed to play each other during this regular season until a sudden change.

Initially, North Carolina (4-2) was to play No. 20 Ohio State, while Kentucky (1-4) was to face UCLA -- both as part of the CBS Sports Classic. On Wednesday, a switch of opponents was announced, with the revised scheduled intended to more closely align COVID-19 testing protocols between the competing programs and their respective conferences.

"This is a little unusual to say the least, but these are unusual times and that goes for college basketball, as well," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "Our team wants to play in the CBS Sports Classic. Instead of Ohio State, we'll play Kentucky. Perhaps it would have been better to make a change like this earlier, but the bottom line is we want to play. Kentucky, Ohio State and UCLA all have fantastic programs and we are excited about having the opportunity to play."

Kentucky is off to its worst five-game start to a season since 1984-85.

"We have a couple guys that are not playing to where they need to play, fight, competitive spirit, coming up with balls, toughness, rebounding," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

North Carolina is 4-2, with both losses to Kentucky, in CBS Sports Classic games. Kentucky is 3-3. Overall, North Carolina leads 24-16 in the series against Kentucky.

North Carolina hasn't played since last Saturday's 73-67 home victory against North Carolina Central in a matchup that was added after each team had games wiped out by would-be opponents' coronavirus issues.

Kentucky also hasn't played since last Saturday, falling 64-63 to Notre Dame after trailing by 22 points at halftime. A game for Tuesday night against Detroit Mercy was called off because of coronavirus testing logistics.

"Look, there's hope now," Calipari said in reference to the strong second half against Notre Dame. "Now we got to play 40 (minutes). If that's who we are those 20 minutes, there's hope. If some guys shouldn't be starting, they won't start."

The Wildcats haven't won since the Nov. 25 opener against Morehead State. If the latest schedule stays in place, Kentucky will play three consecutive opponents from the Atlantic Coast Conference because a Dec. 26 date with Louisville would come after the North Carolina game.

Kentucky's Olivier Sarr ought to look familiar to the Tar Heels because they faced him in the ACC before the forward transferred during the past offseason from Wake Forest.

Sarr said it's critical that Kentucky gets on the right track.

"Winning for the record and for the confidence in us players is just important for us overall," Sarr said.

North Carolina's perimeter shooting -- it made 2 of 15 attempts in its last game -- has been a hindrance.

"We need to really step up and hit some shots to help our bigs," said guard Andrew Platek, who accounted for both the team's long-range baskets.

At least North Carolina had some notable free-throw shooting, making 17 in a row during the N.C. Central game and finishing 25 of 31 at the foul line.

The Tar Heels figure they should be able to rely on post players Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot. There's largely a youthful group handling the ball in the backcourt, so freshman Caleb Love needs to cut down on his turnovers.

North Carolina has had more turnovers than assists in four games this season, including 18 giveaways to N.C. Central. The Tar Heels average 12.5 assists and 16.5 turnovers a game.

"He has to get better and he wants to get better," Williams said in assessing Love, who has scored in double figures in four of the games despite turnover issues.

North Carolina was going to play the first game of Saturday's twin bill. Then, the North Carolina-Ohio State game was shifted to the back end of the doubleheader so there wouldn't be an overlap with Ohio State's football team in the Big Ten Conference title game. Now, the Tar Heels are back to the first game of the doubleheader with Kentucky as the opponent, with the Ohio State-UCLA game to follow.

--Field Level Media

Updated December 17, 2020

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