North Carolina has the second-most wins in the history of Division I men’s basketball with 1,920 victories in its 97 storied years.
The No. 1 Tar Heels get their crack at the nation’s all-time winningest program on Saturday when they visit Kentucky, where they’ll be looking for their fourth win in as many years against the Wildcats.
Kentucky has 1,952 wins in its history, 32 more than North Carolina, but the Tar Heels (6-0) have dominated the head-to-head series. They’ve gone 19-10 against the Wildcats (4-1), including wins in the past three matchups by an average of 9.7 points. The teams have met every season since 2000-01.
In last season’s meeting, North Carolina shot just 37.3 percent from the field, but forced 22 Kentucky turnovers in a 75-63 win in Chapel Hill. Tar Heels forward and leading scorer Tyler Hansbrough had seven points on 2 of 10 shooting, and has been held under double figures in both career games against Kentucky—the only team he’s faced at least twice without scoring in double figures.
“I may not have played my best games but we still have won those games,” Hansbrough said. “That was important to me, but if I play bad and we still win, I’m still happy with that.”
Though they remain the nation’s top-ranked team after starting the season as No. 1, the Tar Heels haven’t gone untested their first two weeks. North Carolina had to sweat out a 72-68 win in its opener against Davidson, and trailed BYU in the second half of the Las Vegas Invitational championship game before winning by 10.
The latest scare came Wednesday in a trip to Columbus to face Ohio State as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Playing without point guard Ty Lawson, who injured his right ankle against BYU, the Tar Heels faced their first halftime deficit. But North Carolina held the Buckeyes without a field goal for 11 minutes in the second half on its way to a 66-55 victory.
“Neither team made shots early. We got better shots in the second half,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “(Wayne) Ellington made some big 3s and played a great game, and Ohio State missed some shots that they normally won’t.”
Lawson hasn’t been able to practice fully all week and might not play against Kentucky.
“If you can win while somebody’s out, it does give the other guys more confidence,” said Williams, who may start Bobby Frasor in Lawson’s place. “There’s no question there. And hopefully it makes the injured person more hungry to get back out and get well quicker.”
Ellington, the team’s second-leading scorer at 18.0 points per game, came up big against Ohio State when Hansbrough (21.3 ppg), was struggling. The sophomore guard was 8-for-15, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range and finished with 23 points. Hansbrough shot just 6-of-19 for a season-low 13 points.
North Carolina’s trip to Kentucky is its fourth consecutive game away from Chapel Hill, and the second of four straight road games.
While North Carolina has faced somewhat stiff competition early, Kentucky has faced five opponents from smaller conferences with a combined 15-20 record.
But a stunning 84-68 defeat to Gardner-Webb at Rupp Arena on Nov. 7, quickly dropped the Wildcats from their preseason No. 20 ranking and out of the poll. Kentucky won most recently on Tuesday, knocking off Stony Brook 62-52 despite committing 23 turnovers. Freshman Patrick Patterson had 19 points and matched his season high with 12 rebounds.
“It was not a very pretty game at all,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. “When you start out the game, you can either get one win or one loss, and we got a win.”
The Wildcats leading scorer, guard Joe Crawford (17.8 ppg), knows his team will have to play better if they’re to have a chance against North Carolina.
“We will definitely have to raise our game up,” Crawford said. “We need to pass the ball better, and we can’t have 20 turnovers. That is only hurting ourselves when we turn the ball over.”
North Carolina is 5-5 all-time against Kentucky in Lexington.