• On the magnitude of the Kentucky series: Nowadays it’s not as important as it was five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago because those times you didn’t see these kinds of matchups. Now with the tournaments going on you see these kinds of matchups and exempt events or special one-day events or two-day events, you see a lot of those things. So to me it’s still important, but it’s not like it used to be. ... It used to be the first Saturday in December and you knew North Carolina and Kentucky were going to play. Well, now we’ve already played Louisville and Michigan State -- two of the top three teams. Kentucky has already played Michigan State and (Baylor). Kansas has played Duke, (Duke) has played Arizona. It’s so many of those matchups you didn’t used to have, so I think it’s probably lost a little bit of that because it used to be the only one that there was. Now those top 10 matchups are every week now in the preseason.
• On which lineup has been the most productive: I haven’t changed the starting lineup very much. It’s strange because Kennedy (Meeks) and Brice (Johnson) gives us a lot more offensively and a lot less defensively. Desmond (Hubert) gives you a lot defensively and a lot less offensively. When we go big sometimes with Marcus (Paige) at the 2 and James Michael (McAdoo) at the 3 it gives us more size but not nearly as much ball-handling as we have with Nate and Marcus both in the game. There’s no lineup that I’m married to every game. I was really frustrated with some of our inside play defensive a couple of games. But again, Kennedy and Brice have an ability to score and so you’ve got to balance out are they making you end up on the positive side.
• On UNC's current record: 6-2 is about, as I said the other day, probably where everybody thought we were going to be. It’s just the makeup of which games you won and which games you lost.
• On what keeps Joel James in the starting lineup: He’s consistently done some really good things defensively. He was the defensive player of the game against Michigan State. He had a good defensive grade against UNCG. He gives us again the size and the power to help control the rim area quite a bit better than we did last year. He is a project, which is OK. I love that part of him. Sometimes a project’s patience isn’t what it should be, but that’s OK, too. I keep telling him Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was worked on every day.
• On what impresses him about Kentucky: Their ability. John (Calipari's) ability, the way he’s got them playing together. Freshmen coming in with all the hoopla that they had tend to try to live up to that. I think John has proven several years, many years, that he can get highly skilled players and get them to focus on the team aspect of it. I think that, I was just looking down here (at stats), now 129 assists, 132 turnovers. You watch them during the course of the season, that stat is going to get a heck of a lot better because a lot of those turnovers are attributed to being freshmen. But they are an unselfish bunch. That part is going to get better and better and better.
After a one-year hiatus, North Carolina and Kentucky renew their rivalry in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
Ol' Roy versus coach Cal.
One embraces the past. One constantly chases the future. They do things differently, but their contrasting philosophies often end with the same results.
The Tar Heels, who lead the all-time series 22-13, have a “White Out” promotion planned. Williams is too old school to go along with the theme by wearing a white suit. But that doesn’t mean he's outdated.
Perhaps that's what provoked UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath, filling in on Williams' radio show Monday, to go on a rant reminding listeners of Williams' achievements at Carolina.
"Coach obviously has done a great job, with Twitter and this kind of stuff now, it's all about self-promotion," McGrath said. "Coach doesn’t have a Twitter account, he's not going to brag about himself."
Never mind that Calipari has his own website and Twitter account while Williams would like to retire never knowing what it's like to maintain either. Or that Williams once starred on his high school square dance team while Calipari once welcomed Jay Z into his locker room. Or even that Calipari's rosters tend to turn over from the exodus of players to the pros while Williams likes to add pieces each year to build a contender. When the teams meet at 5 p.m. ET in the Dean E. Smith Center, it's not a matchup of whose style is right and whose is wrong.
Williams and Calipari will have more in common than many realize. The Heels and Wildcats have both been a bit unpredictable this season.
Carolina players are still adapting to playing without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who are still awaiting word on their eligibility. Their highs have included wins over Louisville and Michigan State, but their lows came in losses to Belmont and UAB.
UK assembled arguably the best freshman class in history, but relying on freshmen -- no matter how talented -- comes with some inconsistency. Earlier in the week Calipari said his team was so young, he had to teach them how to huddle. The Cats' losses were to ranked teams in Michigan State and Baylor, but they've still struggled to find their groove.
The team that wins Saturday will be one step closer to finding it.
What if P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were actually playing on this team? Would the Tar Heels be undefeated? Would they be ranked No. 1 on the strength of the two best wins any team has on its resume?
I think it’s safe to say the Tar Heels would be making more perimeter shots. The duo accounted for nearly half (131) of the 272 3-pointers the team attempted last season. With Marcus Paige the principle 3-point shooter this season, the Heels’ makes from behind the arc have decreased by more than 50 percent.
UNC made 7.6 3-pointers per game last season, thanks in part to Hairston and McDonald. Without them, it’s down to just 2.9 makes per game this season, which ranks last among all 345 NCAA Division I schools.
Paige accounts for 87 percent of UNC's 3-pointers, making 20 of the team’s 23 shots, which is the highest in Division I by far. The rest of the Heels have combined to shoot 3-for-26 from 3-point range.
With fewer shooters, needless to say the Heels are making a lower percentage behind the arc compared to last season, too. Hairston and McDonald helped Carolina shoot 37.6 percent from 3-point range last year. That’s dipped to 29.9 percent this season, which would easily be the worst mark in school history if it continues. (The previous low for a season was 32.8 percent in 2010-11.)
And how’s this for historic: Being so limited from the perimeter, the Heels' percent of 3-point attempts this season mirrors the 1982-83 season when they played with an experimental arc. Just 14 percent of UNC’s shot attempts came from outside 30 years ago. This season they’ve attempted just 16 percent of their shots from 3-point range, compared to 31 percent of all field-goal attempts last season.
The overwhelming result of Hairston and McDonald’s absence has led to a renewed presence of Carolina’s post game. Forwards Brice Johnson and McAdoo are the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, both averaging slightly more than 13 points per game.
Freshman center Kennedy Meeks has established himself as a reliable post scorer off the bench, contributing 8.5 points per game.
“That’s big for our team when we have multiple players that can score inside,” Paige said. “It takes some pressure off our perimeter shooters. We don’t have to rely so much on me hitting a 3 or anything like that. So to keep getting them to produce the way they are is great for our team.”
Carolina has shot 47.8 percent from the floor, which is its highest mark since the 2009 national championship team shot 48 percent. That increase is due to the fact that the Heels have scored 45 percent of their points this season in the paint.
Their inside game will have to continue to compensate while playing the waiting game on Hairston and McDonald’s eligibility status. No "what ifs" about it.
More like setups.
It seems silly that we're still being lulled into an old way of seeing things in college basketball. Thinking a team is entitled to victory because of its long-established brand (Belmont 83, North Carolina 80), or because it happens to have a single-digit number placed in front of its name (Iowa State 77, No. 7 Michigan 70) is outdated.
That school you happen to discount because you think they play in an off-brand conference (Green Bay 75, Virginia 72)? Yeah, they have players too.
College basketball looks to be headed toward another season where no team claims the title of juggernaut. When the season first began, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he believed more than a dozen teams had legitimate NCAA title hopes. That number has probably grown since then.
How else can you explain the Tar Heels losing at UAB only to beat then-No. 1 Michigan State by 14 points in East Lansing? Thanks to that loss, we're already on our third No. 1 team in just six weeks of polls. There's no reason to think the record for most No. 1s in a season, seven set in 1982-83, won't be tested.
Once upon a time, being ranked in the top 10 brought a certain amount of fear to opponents. Now, it just enhances the court-storming (Colorado 75, No. 6 Kansas 72) afterward.
"There's so much more balance," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "People don't like to use that word, what is it? Parity. Nobody likes to use that word, but that's the truth."
Williams believes this is nothing new. He said there haven't been many dominant teams the past few years. He points back his 2009 title team at Carolina and Kentucky's net-cutting team in 2012 as the last two that ran roughshod over their tournament foes en route to the championship.
Even still, Williams added a caveat about 2012, pointing to when point guard Kendall Marshall broke his wrist in the Sweet 16.
The Tar Heels are currently holding opponents to 37.6 percent shooting from the floor, which ranks 17th nationally and second in the ACC. (Clemson leads the league and is No. 1 nationally at 35.0 percent.)
UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath, who filled in for coach Roy Williams on his radio show Monday night, said the team has had a renewed focus on stopping opponents.
“In some of the past years it’s been harder to get the guys to buy in defensively because we outscore people,” McGrath said. “No matter what we said defensively, they’d be like, 'You know what, that’s true, but I’m going to score.'”
That former mentality was evident in the Belmont loss. The Bruins shot 45 percent, which remains the season high allowed against the Heels, and made 15 3-pointers, including the game-winner that was poorly defended by J.P. Tokoto.
“Potentially J.P. Tokoto could be an unbelievable defender for us,” McGrath said. “But sometimes he gets too locked in on his man, he doesn’t get in help position enough, and he takes possessions off and isn’t consistent enough. Marcus Paige by far right now has been the most consistent.”
McGrath said Paige has graded out as the team’s defensive player of the game seven times. Joel James won the honor for the Michigan State game.
Williams has also sprinkled in more zone than he’s played in the past to stop teams from dribble penetration. But the key to Carolina’s improvement has been its on-ball pressure. Freshman Nate Britt in particular has improved defensively at stopping drives.
“We’re doing better guarding the ball,” McGrath said. “It’s so hard to guard the basketball this day and age, you just have to try and make them change their path a little bit.”
Since the Belmont loss, Richmond is the only opponent that has shot better than 40 percent against the Heels' defense. UNC held Louisville to 38.8 percent and Michigan State to a season-low 35.9 percent.
“This year we don’t necessarily have that where the mentality is, 'I’m going to score, I’m going to score,'” McGrath said. “They’re thinking about, ‘OK, I need to stop my guy and see if he will score.’ So I think the mentality has helped to where we can get better defensively.”
Arizona moved up one spot to No. 1 in The Associated Press poll on Monday, the Wildcats' first top ranking since 2003.
Arizona (9-0) was a runaway choice at No. 1, receiving 63 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel to earn the school's first No. 1 ranking without Lute Olson as coach.
Current coach Sean Miller views the ranking as validation for the direction the program has taken in his five years in the desert.
"There's tremendous satisfaction, no question," Miller said. "Embracing the fact that we're No. 1 is something I'm doing, our staff is doing and really our team is doing. It's an honor a lot of teams would love to have. It's something where no matter what happens the rest of the season, at some point we were ranked No. 1 in the country."
This is the sixth season in which the Wildcats have reached No. 1. The first time was a six-week stint in 1987-88, and the Wildcats went on to reach the Final Four for the first time. Their longest run at the top was 13 weeks in 2002-03, a season in which the Wildcats were never ranked lower than fourth and finished No. 2 in the final poll with a 28-4 record.
There’s the matter of proving they can win without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, which after the home loss to Belmont in the third game of the season, it looked like the team had too many flaws. North Carolina was thin on the wing and too limited on the perimeter and surely would struggle as long as the duo was out of the lineup.
Then Louisville happened.
“We’ve had to deal with some stuff off the court, we had to deal with people kind of giving up on us. I guess after the Belmont loss, [that was expected]. [But] we understand that we still have a chance to be special,” sophomore Marcus Paige said.
Forward Brice Johnson admitted the Heels got overconfident after the win over the Cardinals, hence the loss to UAB in the next game. But losing in Birmingham may have been the awakening they needed.
Losing to Belmont seemed fluky considering UNC's 26 missed free throws. But losing to the Blazers was squarely due to a lack of effort. But as the doubters got more vocal, the Heels got more resilient.
“We were like, we can’t keep doing that, we have to play up to our standards,” Johnson said.
Bounced from the Associated Press Top 25, the Heels again heard about their limitations. However, they never doubted their potential.
The road win at No. 1 Michigan State solidified it.
“We know how good we can be,” McAdoo said. “And if we get those guys [Hairston and McDonald] back, then we know how good we really can be. Until then, we’ll just keep working in practice, playing as hard as we can on game day and letting the chips fall.”
McAdoo is a prime example of a player with something to prove. The highly-touted talent has had the team's most glaring struggles.
Aside from freshman Nate Britt being thrown into the starting lineup, no other player has had to make quite the leap that McAdoo has been asked to make. He never had to play small forward before doing it in stretches this season, and he’s still just eight games into learning about the position.
He averaged nearly 20 points a game and nine rebounds in the first three games before hitting a four-game slump. His numbers were cut in half, as he didn’t reach double figures during that span and grabbed just 3.5 rebounds.
McAdoo had been pressing, but his performance against UNC Greensboro on Saturday (13 points, seven rebounds, three steals) might mean he’s turned the corner, just like his team.
“I feel like coach said just give in the [area of] effort and things will just start to turn around,” McAdoo said. “So that’s what I’ve been doing -- just trying to show up every day ready to work at practice.”
Let's break down the game of one of the top shooting guards in the country:
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks dropped nearly 40 pounds before the season began, yet he still knows quite well how to throw his weight around.
The 6-foot-9, 280-pounder was at it again Saturday night with 12 points, eight rebounds and two assists in just 15 minutes of play during Carolina's 81-50 win over UNC Greensboro, which is coached by former UNC guard Wes Miller.
"Down in the post, he still has that weight, so he uses it very well, spinning off guys getting other people in the air, finishing through contact and stuff like that," sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said.
Had North Carolina coach Roy Williams decided to chart center Meeks' development through the first eight games of the season, chances are the freshman from Charlotte would be ahead of schedule.
Since posting 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against Louisville, Meeks continues to give the Tar Heels reasons to be optimistic about his potential. He has scored double figures in three of their past four games, and his eight rebounds against UNCG marked the third time he has led the team in a single game.
"I'm maintaining my goals right now; I can get better," Meeks said.
But remember, Meeks also put up 15 points and seven rebounds in Wednesday's win over Michigan State. Those Spartans in East Lansing had comparable big men, and Meeks still stood tall.
"His confidence is slowly growing just because he's getting that experience, especially in some big-time games early in the year," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "He's had some success, and that's going to help him. I try to stay on him -- keep his highs not too high and manage his lows. He's a freshman; that's going to happen. He has a chance to be really good."
Last season, Carolina didn't really have a good scoring option in the post. This year, they have two. Brice Johnson added some strength and has become consistent as a sophomore. He is the team's second-leading scorer. But that was expected.
Meeks was a bit of a wild card, because no one knew how fast he would adapt to college basketball.
Williams has raved about Meeks' ability to throw outlet passes to get the Heels in transition. Against the Spartans, he showed he has good vision in the half court too. In a second-half lineup that featured all three of the UNC freshman, Meeks delivered a textbook backdoor pass to fellow freshman Nate Britt for a layup. By the way, Meeks has only three turnovers in eight games.
"Kennedy is great," Paige said. "He takes care of the ball, he makes good decisions in the post, and he can score … I know it's early in his career, but he's showing a lot of positive things."
They were virtually all on display against the Spartans, like a fadeway jump shot, or like an ability to step outside of the paint and shoot a 15-foot jumper with the soft touch of a guard.
And he's not only a scorer. His rebounding total of 53 through eight games trails Johnson for the team lead by only two, despite the fact that Johnson has played nearly 50 more minutes this season.
About the only thing Meeks doesn't have, he still can get as he sheds more weight.
"He's got to keep working on his body, because he needs to be explosive, and he's not explosive in there," Williams said. "He's tipping the ball a couple of times, and if you're more explosive, you go up and get it with two hands and follow or dunk something like that. But offensively he really helps us."
And for now, that's exactly what the Heels need.