The 2014-2015 version of the Kentucky Wildcats continues to look scary and almost perfect, beating North Carolina 84-70 behind a very strong game from Willie Cauley-Stein, once again proving their depth and versatility, raising their game according to the quality of their rival.
With yet another double digit win (lowest margin this season was 10 points in the win against Columbia), Kentucky improve to 11-0 as they approach their big rivalry game with Louisville. They’re without Alex Poythress, but this team is so deep and talented his absence wasn’t actually noticed, building up a 15-point lead in the first half thanks to a defense some are describing as the best in the history of college basketball, while cruising towards the finish line in the final 20 minutes.
The frightening thing about the Wildcats is that they seem to be showing something new in each game. They hit 7-of-15 from beyond the arc, their best 3-point shooting percentage this season. They were making only 14.3% of their long range shots in the previous three games combined. Aaron Harrison was 3-for-7 with 14 points from beyond the arc and Devin Booker was perfect off the bench, scoring 15 points off of 3 tres.
The ability to run, create turnovers and score? That’s not new. Kentucky scored 24 points off of North Carolina’s 19 turnovers in the entire game. North Carolina were one of the best teams in the nation entering this game in avoiding giving up easy points: Just 8.5 points per game off turnovers, and never more than 15 in one game. This was their third loss in only nine games this season, but it was something different, something they’ve never seen before.
Kentucky shot 56.3% from the field but rebounding defensively continues to be a huge problem for the Tar Heels despite four players of 6’6 or taller in their lineup. Kentucky grabbed 11 of 24 rebounds on the offensive glass. The Tar Heels missed a lot and did grab 18 offensive rebounds. Surprisingly, Kentucky does tend to give up these kind of numbers, maybe at times a bit too hasty to run out and score in transition. Still, their defense made it very difficult for the Tar Heels, led by Brice Johnson with 15 points, to do something with those second chance situations.
Cauley-Stein had one of his best games this season, scoring 15 points to go with six rebounds, four steals and two blocks. Andrew Harrison finished with five assists, Dakari Johnson off the bench had three steals and Tyler Ulis finished with a game high 8 assists, as Kentucky enjoyed favorable, home-court refereeing, going to the line 19 more times than North Carolina. When there’s such a disparity, it didn’t matter that the Tar Heels were shooting at 83.3% while Kentucky hit only 74.2% of theirs.
Kentucky’s next game will be in Chicago against UCLA before their Louisville game and then the beginning of the SEC season. With that kind of defense and depth, and now with a surprising shooting surge that could be here to last, there’s really not a single thing for them to be worried about. North Carolina can probably rebound against North Carolina-Greensboro, but considering they’re about to be dropped from the rankings following a third loss (the most expected of the trio), they can’t take any game or rival for granted.