In many ways, North Carolina's 82-77 win over Kentucky Saturday in Chapel Hill went according to form. Once again facing a highly-ranked foe, the Tar Heels rose to the challenge. On the other hand, the young Wildcats showed plenty of talent but also some immaturity. Both teams struggled with free throw shooting despite ample opportunities (a combined 55 conversions on 88 attempts), and neither squad did much damage from three-point range (only four combined makes until the last 20 seconds of the game). But there were also two somewhat unexpected things that occurred, the combination of which swung the game in the Tar Heels' favor.
First of all, Julius Randle had the least productive game of his young career. His 11 points and 3-of-9 shooting were his second worst efforts of the year in each category. But unlike those two games where Randle at least contributed 15 rebounds despite a lackluster offensive effort, he only corralled five boards against North Carolina -- he had previously grabbed at least eight rebounds in every game. The first half was especially frustrating as the 6'9" freshman only contributed two points, and foul trouble limited him to 11 minutes of action. Plenty of credit goes to North Carolina's defense for denying Randle the ball and not letting him get established inside -- particularly James Michael McAdoo, whose 20 points, five rebounds and four assists made a case for him as the best big man on the floor on this night. In the postgame press conference, Kentucky head coach John Calipari said, "McAdoo absolutely killed us." Later, when asked about Randle's excitement to play North Carolina, Calipari responded that "maybe [he] was too excited. And McAdoo made a statement."
The other surprise was how well North Carolina played in the paint. Before the game, this was an area where Kentucky looked to have the advantage. The Wildcats came into the game leading the nation in offensive rebounding, pulling down an impressive 46 percent of its own misses. In this game the Wildcats pulled down 17 offensive rebounds and were right on their average, but the problem was that they turned those boards into only 19 second-chance points. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats came in as the second best team in the country in opponents' two-point field goal percentage, at 38 percent. But North Carolina was able to smash through that number with 51 percent shooting inside the arc and actually finished with a four-point edge in points in the paint. This included a scorching 16-of-26 on twos in the second half. A key to that performance was taking advantage of some fast break opportunities, and, in fact, the Tar Heels outscored Kentucky 10-2 in fast break points after halftime.
Overall this was not an awful performance by Kentucky, especially when you consider that it was the first true road game in the Wildcat freshmen's college careers against a quality opponent supported by an energized crowd. The Wildcats' perimeter of Aaron and Andrew Harrison along with James Young combined for 53 points but sometimes lost focus by committing too many casual turnovers and not getting back in defensive transition. According to Calipari, it was a valuable experience that will prepare the team for hostile road trips in the future. As for now, he said, "We're not a good team. Our emotion is all based on individual play." The next two games will continue to test that development, beginning with a home game versus Belmont next Saturday followed by the rivalry game with Louisville the next weekend.
As for North Carolina, it appears that Roy Williams' Tar Heels are starting to develop a positive identity. With no new information regarding the playing status of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, North Carolina must continue to build its current team as if that is the group it will have all year. Marcus Paige has been outstanding for most of the season -- not only did he score 21 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, he also made all 10 of his free throws, a glaring weakness for the rest of the team (16-of-35). Williams called Paiges' performance "sensational," and he is clearly gaining confidence as a big game player. Considering the 32 points he scored in UNC's 93-84 win over Louisville in November, the sophomore has a combined 55 points against the last two national championship winners (and two of the top three preseason AP teams).
It's difficult to place long-term takeaways from games in December, but this much is clear. North Carolina -- with or without its suspended players -- has proven that it can beat anybody in college basketball this season. Kentucky, which has yet to prove that it can beat a Top 25 team yet, still has the obvious ability to get there. Like most everything else, whether one or both of these teams ends up in Arlington a little over three months from now depends on their respective maturity and development. But if Saturday proved anything, both teams can get there.
Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) is a columnist for Rush the Court's ACC microsite, featuring news, commentary and analysis devoted to the ACC.