UK is used to playing in front of a sold-out and loud blue crowd after two home games.
Now it faces the same situation – just in front of fans wearing a slightly different shade of blue.
“This is probably the biggest game of my life here,” freshman Doron Lamb said in reference to UK’s Saturday game against North Carolina. “On the road, North Carolina, it’s going to be sold out.”
The Dean Smith Center will be filled with Tar Heel fans, but freshman Brandon Knight hopes to convert them.
“I enjoyed (going on the road). When the fans don’t like you coming in, and then you give them a beating, then they’re fans of you after,” Knight said. “They’re not really rooting for the home team anymore. That was fun in high school, but I’m not sure how it works in college.”
UK wants to be able to respond to that environment quickly to shut down the home court advantage. UK assistant coach John Robic said he wasn’t worried about the freshmen having to adjust. And although conventional wisdom says UK has some veteran players to help lead the way, Robic offered a dose of perspective.
“Don’t forget, Darius (Miller) is really the only one that’s been a starter on the road in a game like this, in front of a crowd like this,” Robic said. “But these kids understand.”
While the crowd may be a substantial factor in the game, UK also has to worry about the other five players in a North Carolina uniform.
Most prominent among them is freshman forward Harrison Barnes, who was named to the Preseason All-American First team. He was the first freshman ever to achieve that award.
“He’s a very talented player,” Robic said. “I’ve never seen him play in person, just on tape. At 6-foot-8, he’s a jump shooter who can create his own shots. He’s a talent. He’s a pro. We have our hands full with him because of his size.”
Barnes and UK freshman Terrence Jones were compared frequently while they were being recruited, although their statistics so far show Jones has a clear edge. Jones is averaging 20.7 points and 10.2 rebounds and has recorded four double doubles this year.
Barnes hasn’t performed up to the gaudy expectations so far this season. He is averaging 11.3 points and 6.1 rebounds and is shooting 33.8 percent from the floor.
Jones, for his part, said he didn’t pay any attention to preseason awards or hype or comparisons.
“That’s just him having a great high school career, that’s what it came with,” Jones said in reference to Barnes’ All-American selection. “Brandon (Knight) had a great high school career. I feel I did, too. There’s lots of great players in our class, and he just got the, whatever that was, I don’t even know what that was called.”
Robic said the excessive media pressure has probably been a factor for his start. And he says it’s only a matter of time before Barnes starts heating up – and UK only hopes it isn’t against them.
“Knock on wood as much as you can before this game,” Robic said.
Another key battle in the game will be held in the frontcourt. North Carolina’s 7-foot Tyler Zeller is scoring 14.7 points per game and grabbing 7.3 rebounds per game, and 6-foot-10 John Henson is averaging a double double with 11.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. Darius Miller said going up against Enes Kanter in practice has helped prepare UK’s big men for the length of the Tar Heels’ front line.
The Tar Heels look to get the ball to their post players early in the shot clock, something UK has been focusing on stopping.
“The biggest thing for our guys is getting back on transition,” Robic said. “They do a great job of getting early post position, and that is their first look.”
Like Barnes, North Carolina hasn’t quite lived up to high preseason expectations, either. After starting the season ranked in the top 10, the Tar Heels are 4-3 on the year and have fallen outside the top 25.
But UK doesn’t expect for a second that North Carolina won’t be fired up to earn a statement win with a victory.
“They probably feel they can bounce back with a win against us,” Knight said. “I expect them to play to the best of their abilities, not only because they’re down but because they feel like they have to make a statement.”
Follow Aaron on Twitter @KernelASmith.