But despite the tradition and the setting, a great game did not happen. Kentucky overcame an early 10-point deficit and pounded UNC 93-76 on Saturday afternoon, handing the Tar Heels their second-worst defeat ever at the Smith Center.
It was an embarrassing loss for the Tar Heels, who could only watch as Kentucky - unranked after a 1-3 start - beat them in every aspect of the game.
"I just want to open up by apologizing to the fans and students," UNC coach Matt Doherty said as he addressed the media. "I thought the atmosphere was great - it was a great college basketball atmosphere. The fans did their part, and we didn't do ours."
Early on, that wasn't the case. UNC (3-2) scored the first seven points of the game and led 21-11 midway through the first half after getting field goals from six different players.
The Wildcats were staring 1-4 - and a very unhappy trip back to Lexington - in the face. But they didn't blink.
"We came out with a must-win attitude," Kentucky guard Keith Bogans said. "We weren't accepting anything else."
With that attitude, they got right back into the game.
Substitutes Marquis Estill and Erik Daniels combined for 11 points in a four-minute span as Kentucky tied the game at 25. Estill killed the Tar Heels all day, going off for career-high totals of 19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
But the guy who hurt the Tar Heels the most in the first half was point guard Cliff Hawkins. Hawkins, who entered the game averaging two points in 10 minutes per game, had nine points and three assists in 11 minutes at the half.
UNC's Adam Boone and Brian Morrison were supposed to be the marquee freshman point guards in the game, but Hawkins outplayed both of them.
Boone went scoreless for the third time in five games, and Morrison shot 2-for-9 for five points. The two players combined for eight assists and six turnovers, and they were beaten several times for layups in transition when they failed to balance the floor.
"We need to take better care of the basketball," Doherty said.
Hawkins didn't have those problems. He scored just two points after halftime, but he finished with five assists and one turnover.
"He was the key, I thought, in the first half," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "He really set the tone. He was able to penetrate, and that's what I thought broke them down when we came back from 10 down. He really brought us back with his penetration and energy."
Behind the strength of their bench play and an 18-4 run, the Wildcats led 38-35 at the half.
But just as they did to start the game, the Tar Heels came out of the locker room hot. Center Brendan Haywood (18 points, 11 rebounds) scored twice on putbacks and threw down a thunderous dunk to put UNC ahead 48-45 with 16:10 to go.
But Haywood disappeared after that. The Wildcats, who played an extended 2-3 zone almost the entire game, began making it more difficult for UNC to get the ball inside.
That created open shots on the perimeter for the Tar Heels, but they missed them. Guard Joseph Forte struggled for the second game in a row, shooting 8-for-22 on his way to 19 points. Eight of those points came in the final 1:05, when the game had long been decided.
"It was an ugly 19 points," said Forte, who was 5-for-16 against Michigan State in UNC's last game. "The shots weren't falling once again."
The Wildcats, meanwhile, began connecting from long range with regularity for the first time all season. Forward Tayshaun Prince (15 points) and guard Keith Bogans (18 points), a high school teammate of Forte, combined to go
3-point range in the second half.
The Wildcats made 7-of-12
3-pointers in the second half against UNC's matchup zone after going 2-for-14 in the first half.
"We just started to pass the ball," Smith said. "We were holding the ball a little too long (in the first half).
"I thought we did a better job of attacking inside either with dribble penetration or with the pass and then passing it back out. We were able to get better looks at the basket because of that."
Bogans scored six points and Prince had five during a 17-2 run that blew the game open for Kentucky. A Bogans trey capped the spurt and gave the Wildcats a 62-50 edge with 10:23 remaining.
The Tar Heels, known for great comebacks in Chapel Hill, were unable to muster one. Kentucky added three more 3-pointers and made 10-of-13 free throws to end the game, and the margin grew as large as 23.
The good news for the Tar Heels - if there is any - is that there is only one direction they can go after a performance like that.
"We will get better," Doherty said. "It is December 2nd. Kentucky was 1-3 coming in here, and they didn't quit. They battled.
"Kentucky is a good team, but we didn't expect to lose by the amount we lost. But it's early. We're going to get better."
The Sports Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.