Defending national champion North Carolina could have used a replacement for Ty Lawson at point guard. A player from just down the road from Chapel Hill seemed like a perfect fit - John Wall.
Wall’s recruitment by Roy Williams went south, however, and the point guard chose to play for John Calipari and No. 5 Kentucky, which will host the 10th-ranked Tar Heels on Saturday in a matchup of the winningest programs in NCAA history.
A Raleigh native considered the nation’s top recruit, Wall wanted to play for Williams and North Carolina (7-1). The Tar Heels coach never doubted Wall’s ability, calling him the best high school point guard prospect since Jason Kidd.
Williams, though, abruptly ended the recruitment and never offered an explanation.
“I thought he would’ve been a great player for us, but things just didn’t fit,” Williams said. “Some shoes don’t fit.”
Wall has tried hard not to take Williams’ decision personally, but he hasn’t succeeded.
“I kind of took it both ways,” Wall said. “I feel like they didn’t think I was good enough to play there or took it in a way that they’re just moving on forward and they’re happy with what they’ve got and the players they have.”
Kentucky (7-0) is certainly happy with what Wall has done so far. He’s averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists, and has seamlessly fit into Calipari’s “dribble drive” offense while winning over teammates with his selfless play.
“I think John in the end is a pleaser,” Calipari said.
Wall has shown a flair for both the dramatic and the spectacular. He made a game-winning jumper against Miami of Ohio two weeks ago and set a school freshman record with 14 assists in a 94-57 rout of UNC Asheville on Monday.
Playing against this team from North Carolina should motivate Wall even more.
“I think I might have a little bit of an edge, but I can’t let it overwhelm me and try to go out of control and do stuff I’m not supposed to do,” he said. “If I get out of control, it’s going to mess us up.”
While Wall will be the focus of this matchup, it has far greater historic implications. Both programs are trying to become the first to reach 2,000 wins, with Kentucky five shy and North Carolina nine.
“It’s a big deal for the Commonwealth,” said Calipari of reaching the plateau first.
North Carolina has the edge in recent matchups with five straight victories, including a 77-58 win last season. Kentucky won four straight in the series before that.
The Tar Heels have replaced Lawson with sophomore Larry Drew II instead of Wall, and Drew turned in his best game Tuesday, totaling 18 points and six assists in an 89-82 victory over No. 9 Michigan State.
Ed Davis scored 22 points and Deon Thompson added 14 for the Tar Heels. Those two are part of a muscular Tar Heels frontcourt that will match up with Kentucky big men DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.
Numerous NBA scouts are expected in attendance with plenty of stars on both sides in one of college basketball’s best rivalries.
“People do talk about Kentucky and North Carolina in any conversation about college basketball,” Williams told the Tar Heels’ official Web site. “If they don’t talk about them at the start, it doesn’t take long to get there.”