LEXINGTON, Ky. --- 1-3.
Losses to outmanned opponents.
Nobody knows what North Carolina is feeling right now better than Kentucky. When the Wildcats and Tar Heels meet at 4 p.m. Saturday in Rupp Arena it will be a near complete reversal of the scenario facing them last season.
The result last December: an unranked Kentucky squad struggling to find its identity gelled and stunned North Carolina by handing the Heels their second most lopsided defeat (93-76) in the Smith Center.
Now the 11th-ranked Cats (4-1) find themselves in the role of favorite and the unranked Heels --- losers at home to Hampton and Davidson in their first two games of the season --- in serious need of a morale-boosting upset. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith says he thinks he can use last year's example as a warning sign and a means of getting his players focused.
"They're kind of going through the growing pains we were last year," he said. "...(But) You've got to prepare the best you can and realize you're up against a very capable team. We'll probably play it up in our talks and our scouting reports, but the motivation we have to have is that we want to improve and we've not even come close to our potential, individually or collectively. Until you can get to the point where you want to improve and see how much better you can be, all the motivation of talking about exterior things is not going to help you."
Smith said he'd be disappointed if his players thought last year's 17-point win in Chapel Hill and the Heels' early struggles this season equated to an easy game Saturday.
"If we do have players thinking like that, we've got a problem," he said. "The way we've played... (pausing to scoff)... I doubt they'll be thinking that way."
"They're going to have some energy and enthusiasm to give it back to us," senior forward Tayshaun Prince (16.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) said. "And it gives us a lot of energy, too. We're ready for a type of game like this."
"We're not overlooking North Carolina," said junior center Marvin Stone, who is coming off perhaps his best game of the season with 13 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes against VMI. "They're going to be one of the better teams we've played so far. We know we have to step it up.
"It's early in the season, and a lot of teams lose early in the season. They got the win the other day (over Georgia Tech) and they're looking to build on it."
In addition to the reversed storyline from last season's matchup, Saturday's game will pit the two winningest teams in college basketball history. Kentucky will attempt to be the first team ever to reach the 1,800-win plateau. Carolina is not far behind at 1,782. The teams have combined for 10 national championships and 28 Final Four appearances.
"It's what college basketball is all about," Smith said.
"I think everyone in the country wants to see two teams like this go face-to-face," junior guard Keith Bogans (17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) added. "That Carolina uniform means a lot. Coming from a program like that, they've got a lot of pride and they're not going to roll over for anybody. They're going to come out and fight. I'm sure they'll have the same attitude we had last year."
North Carolina is led by seniors Kris Lang and Jason Capel. Lang, a 6-foot-11 center, is averaging a team-high 16 points per game, shooting 50 percent from the field and 78 percent at the line. He also pulls down 8.8 rebounds per game, second to the 6-8 Capel, who's averaging 10 to go along with his 15-point scoring average.
"They're pretty physical with their size inside," Smith said.
"He's a big, strong guy with nice touch," Stone said of Lang. "...With myself guarding him and Marquis (Estill), we're going to have to keep the ball out of his hands."
Capel, however, has struggled royally from the field, hitting just 33 percent from the field and 11 percent (3 of 26) from beyond the arc.
Team shooting has been a problem for the Heels in each of their losses. They shot 39 percent in a 77-69 loss to Hampton, 30 percent in a 58-54 loss to Davidson and 37 percent in a 79-66 setback to Indiana.
The figure improved considerably on Sunday in an 83-77 triumph over ACC rival Georgia Tech as UNC hit for 51 percent. Reserve guard Brian Morrison was the star of the game, draining six of eight treys en route to a team-high 21 points. Capel and Lang added 18 and 13, respectively, in the victory.
"They know that North Carolina's North Carolina," Smith said of his players. "And they know that they're a very good team, and that they've improved a lot since those losses, much like we had last year. You really couldn't see it until you got some wins under your belt, but I think they're at that point right now. They're a very dangerous team."
If North Carolina has one glaring weakness in addition to its inconsistent shooting, it's starting two freshmen in the backcourt. Melvin Scott (7.2 ppg, 2 apg) and Jackie Manuel (7 ppg, 4 apg) figure to be tested early.
"We hope to take advantage of whatever we can there," said Smith said with a coy tone.
The Heels also feature a number of talented reserve players. Freshman forward Jawad Williams (4.8 ppg) was one of the most highly-recruited players in the nation last year. Coupled with Morrison and Adam Boone, he gives UNC a chance to match at least some of UK's touted depth.
"Their bench is pretty capable," Smith said. "There's not much of a drop-off there."
Kentucky counters with its 1-2 punch of Prince and Bogans, as well as Estill, who came off the bench with a game-high 19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots last year at North Carolina. The Cats are also getting improved play from Cliff Hawkins (6.2 ppg, 3.2 apg) at the point, and saw freshman sharpshooter Rashaad Carruth make his debut with seven points Wednesday against VMI.
"Rashaad can shoot the ball. Enough said there," Smith said. "The way we've struggled at times, that's what we need. He also brings us an aggressiveness and toughness."
Kentucky's entering a five-game stretch featuring North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Louisville.
"It starts tomorrow," Smith said when suggested he's entering "Murder's Row." "It's a portion of the schedule that will toughen us in a lot of ways. I think it will help us grow and know our potential going up against these type of teams."