COLUMN: Cats, Heels always a big matchup



Down year, shmown year. Any time UK and the North Carolina Tar Heels meet it’s still a big game.

The two college basketball juggernauts square off on Saturday on national television in a game that will be called by the easily-excitable Gus Johnson and the consummate professional, Clark Kellogg, in what will be the first true hostile environment for UK’s six freshmen inside the Dean Smith Center.

It should, and probably will, be an electric atmosphere, yet the game doesn’t exactly have the label of a potential Final Four matchup; many fans and pundits are willing to write this off as a marquee contest gone sour.

But don’t be fooled by the Tar Heels, who have indeed stumbled out of the gate this season with a mediocre 4-3 record, having lost all three games of substance on their schedule (Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Illinois).

However, taking a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately perspective when it comes to North Carolina basketball minimizes its accomplishments, which includes five national championships, 18 Final Fours and 41 NCAA Tournament appearances. Those players in powder blue know a thing or two about winning as well.

A down year by Tobacco Road standards isn’t necessarily a down year at all at most schools.

Sure, the Heels may not have met expectations over the past 12 months, but these youthful Cats are not so young that they fail to recall what vintage North Carolina is all about.

“(UNC’s) always a school I saw a lot on TV growing up: North Carolina, Georgetown, Duke, those great schools,” said freshman forward Terrence Jones, who has been alive for three of the Tar Heels’ championship-winning seasons. “It means a lot playing them.”

Freshman guard Doron Lamb elaborated on what exactly “a lot” means.

“Probably the biggest game of my life is North Carolina,” said Lamb, who added that the Louisville game is the other one that stood out on the schedule. “I just can’t wait for Saturday at noon to play that game.”

The problem is that the Tar Heels probably can’t wait for gameday to arrive, either.

Recall that last year’s game in Rupp Arena between Carolina and UK, which the Cats won 68-66, was realistically touted as a potential Final Four matchup. UK was undefeated and ranked fourth while the one-loss Tar Heels were No. 11 in the nation.

From that game onward, UK matured into an Elite Eight team while Carolina spiraled toward an NIT runners-up banner. Oh, and UK reached the 2,000th win plateau before the Tar Heels.

Defeating UK would surely help the Heels rekindle their swagger of old.

Even if the winning traditions of these two storied programs isn’t enough to entice, consider all of the personal rivalries and bragging rights at stake in this game.

The Heels and Cats’ rosters are loaded with former McDonald’s All-Americans, 10 in total (seven for Carolina, three for UK).

For many of these former high school standouts, it will be the first time playing against one another, as opposed to running and gunning with one another.

Jones said he has known Carolina freshmen Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall for about two years and previously played on Team USA with Carolina freshmen Reggie Bullock and junior John Henson.

Lamb said he was also friends with Bullock, Barnes, Marshall, but that they “ain’t friends anymore on the court.”

Hey, when there’s this much raw talent colliding on the floor, it means one thing. It must be a big game.