UNC men’s basketball beat Kentucky 75-63 on Saturday.
Read that opening line again — it’s one of the only unquestionable statements that can come from a game that left a lot of question marks about the future of a young, albeit talented, roster. While beating Kentucky sounds great on the surface, this is not the usual Wildcat team for head coach John Calipari. These Wildcats have started 1-5 for the first time since 1926.
UNC certainly didn’t play a great game, but it played a good one. So here are the key takeaways — and what to expect with ACC play starting next week.
The big men need to play, well, big
“We try to get the ball inside because we have some of the best bigs in the country, if not the best bigs in the country,” senior guard Andrew Platek said. “That’s our advantage night in and night out.”
Platek said it best. With a team that's more talented in the post than most, UNC needs to rely on its big men every possession. That may seem like an obvious assessment, but UNC's offensive rebounding percentage was only 29.4 percent in the first half compared to Kentucky’s 47.3 percent.
The second half showed the importance of height advantage — not only from UNC’s big men dominating, but from the slow disappearance of Kentucky’s. The Wildcats’ top three big men — Isaiah Jackson, Olivier Sarr and Lance Ware — combined for nine points, 16 rebounds and 15 fouls, with all three fouling out.
“We knew early in the second half that was our advantage and if we kept attacking, we knew we could get their bigs in trouble and get free points at the line,” Platek said.
Sophomore forward Armando Bacot snatched 14 points and eight rebounds, and first-year Day’Ron Sharpe led the team with 11 boards to successfully wither out Kentucky with muscle in the paint. The Tar Heels also cleaned up their act on the boards, with a 38.4 percent to 17.8 percent edge in the second.
No matter what anyone says, size matters.
The first-years are emerging into elite talent
If you ask head coach Roy Williams, first-years Puff Johnson and Kerwin Walton were his favorite part of Saturday’s victory.
“No doubt in my mind, Kerwin and Puff gave us the biggest lift in the game,” Williams said.
The duo led a 10-2 run during a critical second-half stretch with UNC down two and in foul trouble.
It was high time to see some three-point prowess from a team that came into Saturday’s matchup shooting just 27 percent from the three-point line, good for 285th nationally. Walton had six points combined in the first six games, but he left the court Saturday with 13 against the Wildcats.
“I feel Kerwin is our best three-point shooter,” Williams said.
While Walton secured his title as an elite perimeter punch and Johnson proved himself as a spark off the bench, first-year Caleb Love also proved his scoring potential despite a slow start to the season.
Love entered Saturday with more turnovers than assists. He finished with 11 points, six assists and two turnovers. Love has certainly not met his potential — he still went 0-5 on 3-point attempts — but Saturday showed further development in Williams' point-guard-driven system.
“I think this was good for our younger players’ confidence,” Platek said. “Kerwin made some big shots. Caleb played really well, took care of the ball today and that was huge.”
This is not last year’s team
“We've been getting bad starts,” Bacot said. “We still have yet to put together a good two halves of basketball.”
It was a frustrating opening, defined by missed free throws, minimal success from outside the paint and a lack of energy from the bench. No question UNC struggled in the opening. But while that was the rule last season, the Tar Heels believe it is just an exception this year.
When the Tar Heels found themselves trailing double digits (19-8) to their opponent once again — a killer deficit for last year's group — Bacot said history would not repeat itself for this version of North Carolina.
“We went down early and they thought they would punk us,” Bacot said. “But this isn't last year. We're not going for none of that shit this year.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.