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Joe Boozell | | December 22, 2018

Kentucky vs. UNC prediction: 3 stats tell us who will win this matchup

Andy Katz previews North Carolina vs. Kentucky

North Carolina and Kentucky last faced one another in the 2017 Elite Eight, a game that made Luke Maye a national folk hero.

The Tar Heels won the national championship that season. Fast-forward to December 2018, and these two teams will meet today at the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday in Chicago.

You can watch the game at 5:15 p.m. ET on CBS. Here are three key points that will inform our prediction for this matchup.

The strength of Kentucky's offense is the strength of North Carolina's defense

Kentucky's respectable No. 11 offense is propped up by its astounding 43 percent offensive rebounding rate, which ranks third in the country. Reid Travis, P.J. Washington, E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are all dangerous on the offensive glass.

MORE: Things Kentucky can do to regain its form

This is insurance for any offensive possession. What look like bad shots for some teams aren't bad shots for Kentucky, because there's almost a 50 percent chance it'll retrieve its own miss and be in scoring position.

But North Carolina is a great defensive rebounding team, and the Wildcats won't have a clear physical advantage over the Tar Heels like they do most squads. North Carolina ranks 17th in defensive rebounding rate, allowing second chances on just 23.1 percent of misses. Maye is averaging 10 rebounds per game and center Garrison Brooks has progressed as a sophomore, averaging 6.1.

Rob Kinnan | USA TODAY Sports Images north-carolina-basketball

It's tempting to suggest that North Carolina should go small and use Maye at center to space the offense. But this could be a matchup where Roy Williams should stay big and use a true five next to him at all times. If North Carolina can mitigate Kentucky's typical rebounding advantage, it will take away what the Wildcats do best.

The Tar Heels foul a lot and the Wildcats are excellent at drawing fouls

This is another area where Kentucky excels offensively. It gets to the free-throw line with the eighth-most frequency in the land, and makes 75.4 percent of its attempts once there. This has some correlation to the offensive rebounding rate, but Kentucky guards and wings also do a great job of attacking the basket and absorbing contact.

MORE: College basketball rankings

The Tar Heels are vulnerable here. The rank in the bottom half of the country in sending opponents to the line, and it's part of the reason they aren't ranked higher on defense (UNC currently sits at No. 30). The Coby White, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson perimeter trio is lethal on offense, but there's no defensive stopper in that group. Nassir Little is North Carolina's most talented defender, but his technique is spotty.

Kentucky should use this to its advantage and attack frequently. Something to keep an eye on at the beginning of both halves: if the Wildcats can get into the bonus quickly, they'll have a built-in advantage.

Kentucky has yet to beat a top-90 KenPom team this season

Kentucky's 8-2 record seems fine at first glance. But when you look at its game log, you can see why it's slipped from No. 2 in the preseason to No. 19 now.

The Wildcats have one top-100 KenPom win, which came against UNC Greensboro on Dec. 1. They got blown out by Duke and lost to Seton Hall in overtime, which ranks 60th.

MORE: Bol Bol vs. Brandon Clarke film study

North Carolina is currently fifth at KenPom and has three top-100 wins (Wofford, UCLA and Gonzaga). Kentucky has also yet to win outside of Rupp Arena. It's hard to really trust the Wildcats given their lack of track record away from home and against quality opponents.


And for that reason, along with the fact that North Carolina is fresh off a decisive win over Gonzaga, we'll go with the Tar Heels. North Carolina just has more offensive firepower, and the Kentucky defense hasn't looked as good as expected all season. Prediction: North Carolina 86, Kentucky 78

How we're doing with these predictions

We're 3-2 and are on a two-game winning streak. Here are our predictions so far this season:

Gonzaga vs. North Carolina (Dec. 15)

  • Our pick: North Carolina
  • Result: Win

Kansas vs. Villanova (Dec. 15)

  • Our pick: Kansas
  • Result: Win

Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (Dec. 9)

  • Our pick: Gonzaga
  • Result: Loss

North Carolina vs. Michigan (Nov. 28)

  • Our pick: North Carolina
  • Result: Loss

Duke vs. Auburn (Nov. 20)

  • Our pick: Duke
  • Result: Win

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