CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s freshmen don’t view Saturday's game against Kentucky’s super class of freshman recruits as a clash with adversaries. They’ve played against each other so much through the years, they’re more like super friends.
UNC freshman guard Nate Britt said that familiarity will enhance the game’s intensity when the No. 18 Tar Heels (6-2) face the No. 11 Wildcats (8-2) at 5:15 p.m. ET in the Dean Smith Center.
“I know that we’re going to have conversations after this game, so I’m definitely trying to beat you,” Britt said. “I need one up on you now. I feel like having a relationship that you build up during AAU makes college more competitive once you play against each other.”
It’s not just the freshman class. Sophomore guard Marcus Paige played alongside UK guard James Young at a LeBron James skills camp, has been at many of the same events as UK forward Julius Randle and has faced UK guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison several times in summer basketball.
“It adds something to it, just because you know the guy,” Paige said. “You’re maybe buddies with them at an event, but you went to different schools and you kind of want to show each other who made the better choice, who’s the better team, and you try to one-up each other.”
Since arriving in Lexington, Kentucky coach John Calipari has one-upped North Carolina’s Roy Williams. The Wildcats are 3-1 in those meetings, including the 2011 NCAA tournament East Regional final that earned them a Final Four berth.
Williams said “a lot of guys on that list that I tried to recruit” ended up at Kentucky, including Randle this season. Williams called the Wildcats’ class “big time” but added he doesn’t get into ranking classes.
“You guys [media] read that stuff; I read it and keep right on going,” Williams said. “I don’t waste one second trying to compare it to any class. We had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country four or five years ago and it didn’t end up being that way.”
Paige was impressed by Kentucky’s class and even more by Calipari’s track record for molding a bunch of youth together.
"But at the same time, we feel that our model is effective too, having talent and experience," Paige said. "We want to test it out and see who is better.”
The Wildcats’ lack of experience has shown plenty this season. They’ve made plays where individual talent has stood out, but they have yet to show they’ve blended as a team for an entire game.
The Wildcats have 129 assists this season and 132 turnovers. In Tuesday night’s win over Boise State, they had only seven assists on 27 made baskets. Williams said those numbers would change as the season continued, but by all indications, they’re still figuring out how to play with each other.
Carolina’s trio has had growing pains too. Forward Isaiah Hicks has been brought along slowly, playing about nine minutes per game. Center Kennedy Meeks could be a starter when he figures things out defensively. But the Heels’ rookies have had the luxury of operating under far less pressure.
Based on their collective potential, media voters and coaches alike crowned the Wildcats No. 1 in the preseason. Offseason talk in the commonwealth fixated on the possibility of a 40-0 run after Calipari openly pondered the pursuit of perfection.
“I would say that that kind of plays to our advantage,” Britt said. “I can’t speak for Isaiah and Kennedy, but for me, I’ve always been kind of like an underdog. I always felt like I had stuff to prove.”
Meeks said he wasn’t surprised at how Randle proved himself early on the college level. Randle leads the Cats in scoring and rebounding, averaging 17.8 points and 12.0 boards per game.
“It’s encouraging. I think I can speak for everybody -- all the other freshmen around the country -- it just makes us work harder,” Meeks said. “It makes us want to be the person on the team that helps win games like he does.”
Kentucky’s freshmen are still looking for a watershed win. Carolina received a confidence boost with wins over Louisville and Michigan State. Meeks and Britt had arguably their best two games of the season in those games. But Paige said it wouldn’t make them overconfident against Kentucky.
“We understand that we’ve had some humbling losses as well this year,” Paige said. “When we do the things Coach preaches every day in practice and we bring that effort, we can beat anybody. So I think that’s more the mindset than, ‘Oh, we’ve already won two games against top-five teams; we’re going to beat Kentucky.’”