CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina forward John Henson still hasn’t watched last season’s NCAA East Regional loss to Kentucky.
Doesn’t want to.
Doesn’t plan to.
“It was a bad game ... particularly for me, it was a rough game,’’ said Henson, who wasn’t much of a factor because of foul trouble during the Tar Heels’ 76-69 defeat. “It just gives me motivation this year.”
Indeed, most of UNC’s returning players have had this rematch circled on their calendars (symbolically, at least) since last spring. Coach Roy Williams encouraged them to use the memory of the abrupt loss to spur their improvement -- “I told them to let your pain be fuel for you,’’ he said -- and this matchup, against the top squad in the nation, will be a test of how far the fifth-ranked Tar Heels have come.
And, perhaps, how far they still need to go.
“I don’t feel like, if we go out there tomorrow and we lose, that we’re finished and we’re not going to play the rest of the year,’’ Williams said, responding to a question about whether the game at Rupp Arena would have an NCAA tournament atmosphere. “But I’ll feel like it’s a great college basketball game Dec. 3.”
There will be plenty of individual matchups to watch, but here are another few things to keep an eye on, from UNC’s perspective:
1. The experience factor
Kentucky has three freshmen in its starting lineup, but Williams downplayed his team's potential advantage, even though the Tar Heels start a senior, two juniors and a sophomore (the same lineup as last season).
“Experience matters, but it didn’t Saturday night,’’ he noted, referring to UNC’s loss to UNLV in Las Vegas, which dropped the Tar Heels from atop the polls.
UK, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be particularly worried about its youth, especially since it is playing at home.
Asked whether the big-game atmosphere might throw off Kentucky's rookies, senior Darius Miller said no: "We've been going against each other [in practice]. We feel we're the best competition in the country."
2. The Z factor
UNC senior Tyler Zeller has made a habit of having big games against the Wildcats (perhaps as retribution for his freshman season, when he broke his left wrist on a breakaway dunk against them late).
He’s averaging 15 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games against them -- but he was particularly impactful last season, when he averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in two games.
He’s struggled so far to put up those kinds of numbers this season, making only eight of 23 shots his past three games. Foul trouble had an effect against South Carolina and UNLV, and the low-possession game against Wisconsin on Wednesday reduced the big man’s attempts.
Williams said he has been concerned about Zeller’s production, “but if that’s my biggest concern, I’ve really got a charmed life, because I’ve got that much confidence in the young man.”
3. The shooting factor
Freshman reserve P.J. Hairston, the team’s leader in 3-pointers made (14), might not play because of a sprained left wrist. Without him, the onus will be on sophomore reserve Reggie Bullock (11-for-25 from behind the arc this season) to be a spark off the bench and on leading scorer Harrison Barnes (who sprained his right ankle this past Saturday but played Wednesday) to connect from the outside.
It also probably wouldn’t hurt if point guard Kendall Marshall, who began this week ranked second in the nation in assists (10.3 per game), could show off the jumper he’s been hitting in practice.
"Yes, I’d like for some of the shots he’s shooting to go in more,’’ Williams said. “But I don’t think that it’s required.
“But if all five guys can score, it’s awfully difficult to guard you. And our best teams, whether it was at Kansas or at North Carolina, had five guys that could really score. It doesn’t mean you have to score 25, but if you could score 10, 12, 14, it makes everybody play you honest.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.