If Saturday's game proved anything, it was that unranked North Carolina is not as inexperienced and depleted as their ranking would suggest and that 10th-ranked Kentucky is not as ready for prime time as its ranking would lead the causal observer to believe. The Tar Heels beat the Cats 83-79 but the final margin was the closest that Cats made the game since the 8:20 mark of the first half.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he wrote down two things on his white board before the game for his team to read, "poise and focus." He also told his team to pretend that the loud Rupp Arena crowd was rooting them on rather than rooting against them.
Williams then added that he didn't know whether any of that helped or not. Well, I am here to tell you Roy....
To the casual sports fan, flipping through the channels on a lazy Saturday in, say, Cheyenne, Wyoming, that did not know Harrodsburg Road from Tobacco Road, it might have appeared that the team in the lighter shade of blue was the home team with two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore in its lineup.
The poise and focus of the Tar Heels kept the Rupp Arena crowd out of the game altogether. Even famous alumni Ashley Judd could not get the crowd into the action for very long.
The Cats had a myriad of problems. There were some critical turnovers, some missed shots and some communication problems. But among all the issues, none seemed to stand out more than poor rebounding.
After weathering what could be called a mild thundershower rather than a storm that put the Wildcats out in front 16-10 early in the action, UNC's Reshawn Terry and David Noel took over and exploited the Wildcats' front line, spearheading a 34-16 run that would leave the Wildcats limping into the locker room, stunned and down by 12 at the half. Terry and Noel had 21 of those 34 points. The Heels also had 9, yes 9, offensive rebounds in that same stretch. That's more than Kentucky would get all game. The Wildcats would never recover.
We really got pounded there," Tubby Smith said, "They had 15 offensive rebounds with about nine in the first half. We did a really poor job of boxing out and we take that pretty seriously. We work pretty hard at offensive rebounding. I thought that we really didnt get the play out of some of our inside people as far as putting some bodies on the court. That really hurt us in the game and when we only get eight [offensive rebounds], thats critical.
If there was ever any question as to where the heart of the Wildcats' difficulties lie, all doubt was removed on Saturday as the North Carolina front line players took the Wildcats' big men to the woodshed, particularly on the offensive glass, where the Heels outboarded the Cats by a margin of 15-8. The fact is, a Tubby Smith team almost never loses a game when the Cats shoot over 50%. They shot 50.9% Saturday and lost - and rebounding was a big part of the reason.
UK's five biggest men, Jared Carter, Lukasz Obrzut, Shagari Alleyne, Sheray Thomas and Rekalin Sims, combined for a total of five rebounds. FIVE! And in a combined 63 minutes. And all five of those were from Sims and Thomas. In fairness, the three seven footers only played a combined eight minutes. But as Tubby explained, "Obzut picked up two quick fouls. He ran the floor well, but that's all he did. You have to do more than that. That's why he wasn't in there. Shagari was not in long - we put him in and in the first play, a North Carolina player pushed him under the basket out of the play. I just could not stand to look at that any more."
Sims and Sheray Thomas manned the power forward and center positions for much of the game and combined for a whopping five rebounds. Clearly, having Sims man the center spot against a premier program like North Carolina is not an ideal answer to the front line woes of the Wildcats, "We were just unable to match their intensity on the boards," Sims said, "coach has told us a number of times that rebounding and blocking out was really important, but we just weren't getting the job done."
Bobby Perry, the 6-foot-6 junior and the one front line bright spot, pulled down a career high 11 boards but seemed to understand how mission critical the Cats' front line problems are, "We just didn't do a good job boxing out," Perry said, "it's all about who wants the ball more. North Carolina brought it to the glass every time."
Coach Tubby Smith said in his press conference before the North Carolina game that he had a dilemna, whether to go big or to go small. He went small. Even though the Cats lost, the decision was probably the best one given the players he had and the level of play he had been getting from his 7-footers. The dilemna is probably bigger than the North Carolina game. Sims is a forward and playing center probably limits his offensive capabilities. When 24 of your team's 30 rebounds come from your point guard and wing players, as happened on Saturday, one really has to wonder if the Wildcats can continue to play at a top 20 level.
With Randolph Morris' return uncertain, one answer may be to invest the time into developing Jared Carter, the 7-foot-2 youngster that has shown flashes of promise, and bench Obrzut and Alleyene. There may be some pain in that strategy, especially against the likes of Indiana and Louisville. But maybe, just maybe, Carter might be developed enough to provide a strong presence in the paint by the time Kentucky opens it SEC schedule against Vanderbilt on January 10.