Roy Williams' 4-3 North Carolina team, coming off a loss at Illinois this past Tuesday night, returns to action Saturday afternoon in its first CBS national broadcast of the 2010-2011 season. UNC will face off against John Calipari and his 5-1 Kentucky squad in a 12:30 pm tipoff in Chapel Hill.
The No. 10-ranked Wildcats have cruised through much of its schedule so far---blowout wins over East Tennessee, Portland, and Boston, and then a 12-point win over Oklahoma and a 74-67 win over Washington in the opening rounds of the Maui Invitational.
The only setback was a 17-point loss to Connecticut in the championship game in Maui where the Huskies exposed UK's young team and caught them on a bad shooting night.
Kentucky comes into the game fielding the youngest team in major college basketball, but a squad that is multi-talented and features multiple players who are capable of making things difficult for the Tar Heels.
One of the most noticeable of those players is freshman forward Terrence Jones, who got some attention from UNC in the summer of 2009 before eventually signing with UK.
Jones, who has four double-doubles in Kentucky's first six games, brought national attention to himself with his performance in the Maui Invitational. He averaged 23 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocked shots per game, earning All-Tournament honors.
Against Oklahoma Jones scored 29 points---tied for second-most by a freshman in Kentucky history---and then he came out the next game and got 17 rebounds against Washington.
Jones, who is shooting a quality 51.7 percent from the field, is currently averaging a double-double at 20.7 points and 10.2 rebounds an outing.
Jones had big shoes to fill this season replacing standout Demarcus Cousins, but he has proven himself early on and will be a handful for Carolina's frontcourt rotation on Saturday.
Kentucky's second-leading scorer is another freshman, point guard Brandon Knight, who has been doing a solid job replacing last year's Wildcat point John Wall.
Knight, who is averaging 17.3 points per game, has three 20-point scoring games so far, and it will be crucial for UNC points Larry Drew II and Kendall Marshall to try and keep No. 12 in dark blue in front of them.
The top-rated point guard in the Class of 2010 by Rivals.com, Knight has the potential to take over the game if Carolina can't keep him under wraps. He can get to the basket off the dribble and he can shoot from outside. He's a handful, no question.
The other key thing for UNC's defense as it relates to Knight is trying to limit his driving-and-dishing outside to perimeter players like junior Darius Miller, who is averaging 9.8 points per game and is shooting better than 52 percent from three-point land.
"I expect a hostile environment. Obviously a lot of boos, but honestly I have never played in it so I don't really know what to expect, but we will have to play together," said Knight about playing for the first time in the Smith Center.
Other key players for Kentucky include senior forward Josh Harrellson, who is second on the Wildcats with an average of 8.8 rebounds per game and is coming off a double-double in UK's most recent outing, and junior combo forward DeAndre Liggins, who is averaging over nine points a game.
The Wildcats also have a solid bench led by Doron Lamb, a 6-4 freshman who is averaging 11.5 points a game. Lamb is an excellent outside shooter who is also a solid passer, and he's a player that the Tar Heels can't afford to sleep on.
Lamb and Jones became the first pair of freshmen to each score 20 points in a season opener in Kentucky's storied basketball history.
Kentucky is shooting a healthy 41.2 percent from three-point range as a team, so Carolina has to be tough guarding on the perimeter and force Lamb, Knight, and Miller---who all have at least 11 three-pointers so far this season---to take as many hurried and off-balance shots as possible.
Carolina obviously has the home-court advantage in this game, and it might actually serve to benefit them against a Kentucky team that really only has one player, Miller, who is used to such an intimidating road environment as the Smith Center can be.
"Don't forget Darius (Miller) is really the only player for us that has gotten a start on the road in front of a crowd like this. This is one of the bigger arenas in the sport," said Kentucky assistant coach Joe Robic.
The task for Carolina is to match Kentucky's youthful energy while finding a while to keep up with them on the scoreboard.
The Wildcats, picked to finish second in the Southeastern Conference in preseason voting, are averaging better than 79 points per game.
One of Kentucky's big concerns will be figuring out how to slow down Tyler Zeller, who has been UNC's most consistent player so far this season.
"Their (UNC's) length presents a big challenge. Zeller is a seven-footer who can really run," said Coach Robic. "The biggest thing for our guys is going to be getting back on defensive transition. (North Carolina) does a good job of getting in an early post position and that is their first look."
"Everybody who has played them, forever, has focused on defensive transition. You can't allow them to have any easy baskets. You have to make their post players work, and you can't give them angles to the goal," Robic added.
Carolina leads the all-time series with Kentucky 21-11, with UNC winning five out of the last six games over the Wildcats.