UNC will look to snap a three-game losing streak to the Wildcats in front of 23,000 hostile fans at historic Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington. The game will be televised nationally by CBS.
"We know we have a huge challenge in front of us," UNC coach Roy Williams said on Friday. "It's one of the biggest marquee match-ups that you can ever have.
"We know that we have our hands full and that we'll have to play our best game of the year in order to have a chance to win."
As will likely be the case all season, team health is at the forefront of Roy Williams' concern. The status of Sean May and Jawad Williams remains at questionable. Williams said he will evaluate both during Friday's practice and then will make a decision.
"Right now I don't have any pain walking around, but yesterday I had a little," May said. "I don't know what I can and cannot do; I'll find out more today at practice. I would say I'm 60-40-(percent) I will play."
"If we had the game yesterday, they would not have played," Williams said of the injuries to May and Jawad Williams. "We'll practice today, get there and go through shootaround and see what it looks like then."
The Wildcats and Tar Heels, both 8-1, rank No. 1-2 nationally in all-time wins and winning percentage. UK is 1,857-573-1 (.764) and UNC is 1,816-667 (.731). Only one other school – Kansas – has won at least 1,800 games. The Tar Heels hold a 16-9 edge in the series.
"I don't have to worry about motivating our kids," Williams said. "If I have to worry about that against Kentucky, then we've got some dead people playing. From that standpoint it's easy."
After splitting its two previous contests with ranked teams, UNC now faces a January schedule that could either launch it into the nation's elite or expose it as a team not yet ready for the big time. The Tar Heels defeated then-No. 11 Illinois 88-81 in Greensboro, but fell at home Dec. 20 in three overtimes to Wake Forest, 119-114.
North Carolina's next few weeks will go a long way in determining if the Tar Heels are deserving of their early season in and around the Top 10, or if they're as some have described, "the same team as last year's."
In its next four games following the match-up with Kentucky, UNC will play host in what will become an annual meeting with Miami on the following Wednesday, then four days later No. 3 Georgia Tech invades the Smith Center, next up Carolina is at Maryland on Jan. 14 and then back home against No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 17.
Four of the Tar Heels' next five opponents have either been ranked No. 1 this season or have knocked off a No. 1.
"I can't believe any team in the world – not just in the United States – is playing a more difficult schedule than we are," Williams said. "If we don't play really, really well the rest of the way, we're not going to win. We've already won some games where we didn't play that well, but we will not win another game on our schedule unless we play really well."
Last season versus Kentucky, Carolina led at the half, but ultimately fell 98-81, as the Wildcats shot 67-percent from the field in the second half, including 10-of-13 3-pointers for the game. Similarly the previous season in Lexington, Tayshaun Prince hit five three-pointers before the first television timeout, on his way to a 31-point outing. UK routed what would be the Tar Heels worst team in history, 79-59.
Prince held the Blue Nation sixth man in his pocket-less uniform, utilizing just the right amount of voltage necessary from electricity of the home crowd to spark his shooting. The game was well out of reach long before halftime.
Carolina is 4-4 against the Wildcats in Lexington, but has also lost in two NCAA Southeast Region semifinals there. In 1989, Carolina lost to Glen Rice and eventual national champion Michigan, 92-87; and in 1992, to Jim Jackson and Ohio State, 80-73.
Strictly from an architectural standpoint, Rupp Arena doesn't come close to the octagonal palace known as the Dean E. Smith Center. Neither does the interior bond so uniquely to the team that calls it home. Rupp more resembles a Cole Field House that has an upper deck.
That's right, it's a barn.
But like UNC is accustomed to when it travels to Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, the fans are raucous long before tipoff. When the house lights go completely out and the Wildcats are introduced via an Everett Case like spotlight and circus atmosphere – it may be old, but it serves its purpose raising the level of noise.
"It's great to be a part of this – the top two winningest teams in the country," May said. "Kentucky is a great team and a great school. It's going to be a dogfight. We don't need help getting up for this game."