Since North Carolina and Kentucky began an annual series in the 2000-01 season, the team that’s been ranked lower or unranked has prevailed four times out of six.
The Wildcats are hoping it’s a trend that will continue Saturday.
They’ll visit a seventh-ranked Tar Heels team brimming with confidence when the nation’s two winningest college basketball programs renew their rivalry.
Kentucky (4-2) won the first four meetings of the series by an average of nearly 15 points, starting with a 93-76 road victory over the then-No. 6 Tar Heels on Dec. 2, 2000, when the Wildcats were unranked.
North Carolina (5-1) has taken the last two matchups and was the underdog both times, including last season’s 83-79 victory in Lexington when the Tar Heels were unranked and the Wildcats were No. 10.
The Tar Heels enter as clear favorites in this season’s matchup after an impressive 98-89 victory over No. 3 Ohio State on Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
“It was a heck of a college basketball game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Even as a coach, you sit there and marvel at the level that kids are playing at offensively.”
Kentucky, meanwhile, has lost its two games against ranked opponents, falling to then-No. 5 UCLA and then-No. 12 Memphis in the Maui Invitational. The lack of a high-profile victory has angered the demanding Wildcats fan base, which has leveled heavy criticism at Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.
“Everything we do is a test,” Smith said. “We’ve failed two tests so far this season. When you don’t win, it’s a failure.
“There is a way to measure, when you look at it and say well you did this better and you did that better. The bottom line is did you win? When you don’t win, that means you failed. It’s as simple as that.”
North Carolina’s heralded freshmen showed off their tremendous potential in the win over Ohio State. Wayne Ellington matched a season high with 19 points and point guard Ty Lawson added 13 while failing to commit a turnover for only the second time all season.
Ellington, Lawson and fellow freshman Brandan Wright start along with leading scorer Tyler Hansbrough and senior forward Reyshawn Terry, who scored a career-high 25 points to key last season’s win over Kentucky.
“All of their players are really playing well; I really like how Ty Lawson is playing,” Smith said. “The freshmen have all been really impressive, Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington to name a few.
“Tyler Hansbrough and Reyshawn Terry really lit us up last year. We are going to have to bring our best defensive effort.”
While Hansbrough is the Tar Heels’ best low-post threat, Wright has developed into the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.7 points per game and is shooting a team-high 63 percent from the field.
The North Carolina center will have a difficult assignment defending Kentucky center Randolph Morris, who is averaging team highs of 16.0 points and 8.0 rebounds. The 6-foot-11 Morris was ineligible for last year’s meeting in which the Wildcats were outrebounded 37-30.
“There are a lot of talented big men out in the country and it seems like every good team has a big man and that’s what you need on a college level,” Wright said.
Kentucky senior guard Bobby Perry, a Durham native, will be making his first career start in Chapel Hill. He was a reserve two years ago in the Wildcats’ 91-78 loss at the Smith Center.
“It’s going to be special for me,” Perry said. “I can remember watching them when I was growing up. I can also remember going to the games with my dad and brothers. It’s definitely going to be special to play there again, and hopefully we can get a win this time.”
North Carolina leads the series with Kentucky 18-10.