UNC, Kentucky meet in clash of styles, reversed roles
Posted December 13, 2013
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Fans have always used sports to represent their culture or style. Rooting for either Frazier or Ali in the 60s was supposed to say something about your politics, pulling for the Bad Boy Pistons or John Thompson’s Georgetown squad in the 80s meant you were cool and being a soccer fan in general seems to have a hand in whether or not you might be seen wearing a scarf.
With John Calipari’s arrival in 2009, Kentucky basketball has been a similar touchstone for much of the upheaval in college basketball’s One-and-Done era. If you’re not a fan of the Wildcats, you probably think the college game is going downhill fast. If you like Calipari’s squad, you probably own a Drake album — in digital form (and you probably didn’t pay for it).
Apart from the obvious narratives that are set when a Calipari-led team takes on an old-school coach like Roy Williams or Tom Izzo, there has been a bit of a role reversal from what might have been expected in the preseason.
If you had told Carolina fans six months ago that one of the teams in Saturday’s game would be dealing with lingering NCAA issues, a woefully inexperienced lineup and would come into the game with a couple top-three wins, they would have no doubt believed you — they just might not have suspected their own Tar Heels.
On the other hand, for once, it isn’t Carolina’s coach complaining to the media. Calipari sparked headlines in November for sulking about having to face veteran teams with his ultra-young players (though in his defense, he’s right, Kentucky has looked ultra-young against veteran teams). And it’s Kentucky that has been shaky against ranked opponents, while the Tar Heel’s depleted lineup has thrived in big-game situations.
For perhaps the first time in Calipari’s tenure in Lexington, the young coach seems tight, and playing not to lose. He’s been making excuses and hedging in press conferences the way old grumpy coaches like Jim Boeheim are supposed to, not sexy hot-shot coaches like himself.
For once, Calipari doesn’t seem cool.
And for once, it’s the old grumpy coach in Chapel Hill that seems loose right now. Maybe the loss of Leslie McDonald and PJ Hairston has removed the pressure of expectations, perhaps the totally random makeup of UNC’s roster has forced some adjustment, but for the first time - maybe ever - stubborn ol’ Roy seems to have relaxed his legendary hang-ups. Whether by choice or not, he’s tinkering with lineups and giving young players freedom rarely seen at Roy Williams’ UNC.
Of course, the freewheeling experiment in Chapel Hill has had its ups and downs (though one thing that isn’t new in Chapel Hill is inexplicable losses to unranked teams), but the result is clear: UNC is dangerous when they get rolling. And they know it.
As unexpected as Carolina’s wins over Louisville and Michigan State have been, it shouldn’t come as a total shock when you look at UNC’s history — the Tar Heels have beaten more No. 1 ranked teams than any other program — and the fact that both of those games were relatively high scoring. While most historical records are often nothing more than random outliers, there might be something to be said for how highly ranked teams have always approached Carolina.
The Tar Heels like to run; everyone knows this. Roy loves the up-tempo offense, and Dean Smith was no stranger to the fast break either. But the problem for opposing coaches is that their own players know it too.
Top-ranked squads with the confidence of a pedigree are going to try to run with Carolina; it’s almost inevitable. And even though they might have athletes who can get up and down the court, there simply aren’t too many programs that live and breathe the fast break to their core like UNC.
Some teams, while maybe even much more talented than a particular Carolina lineup, often find themselves in a situation they aren’t as prepared for as they thought. And in a twist, it’s the methodical mid-majors who never deviate from their game plan that seem to give Roy Williams the most trouble.
One might expect Kentucky’s swath of 5-star underclassman to fall into the same trap on Saturday, just like Louisville and Michigan State, and the Tar Heels couldn’t be happier if they did. But Calipari seems more reserved than he has been in years past, and less likely to just throw the ball out on the court for his blue-chip stars.
For both UNC and Kentucky, 2013-14 appears to be the year of the unexpected, with Carolina dominating preseason Final Four favorites and the hyper confident Calipari finally feeling some heat and showing some nerves. With the roles seemingly reversed, the only guarantee on Saturday seems to be a clash of styles, even if no one can be sure what those styles will be.