Preview: Kentucky set to take on late replacement North Carolina in CBS Sports Classic


Freshman guard Ashton Hagans waiting to be put into the game while squatting next to a UNC player. University of Kentucky men’s basketball team defeated University of North Carolina 80-72 in the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center on Saturday, December 22, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Scott Clarke

After having its game against No. 17 Ohio State canceled due to COVID-19 concerns within the Buckeyes program, the No. 21 Kentucky Wildcats will now take on North Carolina on Saturday, Dec. 18, in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas at the T-Mobile Arena.

The 8-2 Tar Heels, who were originally supposed to play UCLA on Saturday, will enter Las Vegas on a five-game winning-streak.

UK will look to get back to winning ways after losing to Notre Dame in South Bend last Saturday, 66-62.

Kentucky will look for more out of its guards after they scored a combined 23 points against Notre Dame, while shooting a collective 2-19 from 3-point range.

As for the Tar Heels, they are led by sophomore guard Caleb Love, who leads the team in scoring with 16.2 points-per-game on 43.9 percent shooting. Junior big man Armando Bacot has been a force down low for North Carolina, averaging 14.3 points and 9.8 rebounds-per-game.

The matchup between Bacot and Kentucky’s  junior center Oscar Tshiebwe will be a physical one, as both players are known for their toughness down low.

Tshiebwe, coming off a career-high 25 points against the Fighting Irish, is arguably the nation’s top big man this year. Tshiebwe leads the country in rebounds, averaging 14.4 a game. 

One of the keys for the Wildcats on Saturday will be getting star point guard Sahvir Wheeler going.

Wheeler, who got off to a hot start in his first eight games as a Wildcat, struggled against Notre Dame. Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey set up a defense to neutralize Wheeler, which worked well. ND chose to sag off of Wheeler, turning him into a shooter rather than a playmaker. Wheeler, who is not known for his perimeter shooting, struggled to drive and kick, as well as getting his shots to fall.

However, UK head coach John Calipari said Wheeler has been shooting the ball well this week during practice.

“[Wheeler] was making shots yesterday and I stopped the practice, and I look at the team and you know what they say?” Calipari said of Wheeler. “We have a comment that we make and excuse me when I, ‘Do that [stuff] in the game.’ That’s what we say. Like they do something and it’s like, ‘Woah, woah, woah. Do that in the game.’”

Wheeler is at his best when he’s able to get into the open court and make plays, something that Notre Dame was able to defend. The Irish are 258th in the country in adjusted tempo according to KenPom. North Carolina? 107th.

Both Kentucky and North Carolina are teams who want to run in transition and move the ball, which should play in Wheeler’s hands and allow him to do what he’s best at: get his teammates great looks.

Along with getting Wheeler back on track, the Wildcats must shoot better from 3-point range.

The Wildcats are shooting a collective 30.2 percent from deep, which is good for 283rd in the country. Coming off a poor 2-19 3-point shooting performance against ND, the Cats will need to make shots behind the arc in order to beat UNC.

As for North Carolina, the Tar Heels rank seventh in the country in 3-point percentage, hitting 40.9 percent of their shots from beyond the arch. The Wildcats rank 72nd in the country in defending the three, which means they must guard the perimeter hard in order to limit the damage from UNC.

It looks to be a good matchup between both frontcourts as well. Besides the battle between Tshiebwe and Bacot, UK head coach John Calipari will have a challenge defending backup big Brady Manek. 

Manek, a former All Big-12 selection for the Oklahoma Sooners, can stretch the floor as well as any forward in the country, shooting 36 percent from 3-point range this year. Will Calipari use more of a mobile forward like Bryce Hopkins or Jacob Toppin? Or will he use a traditional rim protector such as Lance Ware or Daimion Collins? There will be questions that Calipari will have to answer. 

Saturday will be a large test for both teams. UNC’s first year head coach Hubert Davis is looking for his first signature win since taking over the sideline for the Tar Heels, meanwhile Kentucky looks for their first signature win this season and to get back on track as SEC play soon approaches.

The battle between the two blue bloods can be seen on CBS this Saturday at 5:30 p.m. E.T.