Carolina and Kentucky haven't played a game against each other in which at least one team wasn't ranked in over 50 years.
That's the kind of pedigree that defines one of the marquee nonconference series in all of college basketball. The two schools played for 12 straight years at the start of the 2000s, but took a one-year break last season as conference expansion caused some havoc with nonconference scheduling issues. Now the series is back on, with a game at the Smith Center on Saturday and the return game at Rupp Arena next season.
"I think it's a great series for both schools and our fans as well as college basketball fans period," Roy Williams said when the series was renewed a year ago. "North Carolina and Kentucky have great traditions and, regardless of who you pull for, fans mark this as a must-see game on the schedule."
He's been proven correct this week, as ESPN started promoting the game over a week before tipoff.
The teams first met in 1924, as Carolina--then known as the White Phantoms--took a 41-20 win in the Southern Conference tournament in Atlanta in what would eventually be a Helms Foundation title season. That particular event--which played to sellout crowds of 5,000 per session--was notable because it ran concurrently with a Bible conference for Baptist ministers. A handful of ministers snuck over to the Atlanta Auditorium for the four-day event. Spotted by the ever-watchful Atlanta press crew, the next day's paper noted, "We have decided to withhold their names and not give them away to their flocks back home."
The two programs played just sporadically for the next nearly 40 years. Dean Smith took control of the Tar Heels before the 1961-62 season. His first year was marked by scheduling restrictions, as Carolina was only allowed to play two nonconference games. The next year, with those limitations relaxed, Smith fielded a call from Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp, who was eager to "help" the second-year head coach by setting up a series. Rupp, who by that point had won four national championships at UK, explained to Smith that he would be delighted to play a ten-game series, but that of course, given the relative profile of the programs, six games would be played in Lexington.
The first matchup would be in December of 1962 and would, of course, take place in Kentucky. It was expected to be little more than a formality. The Wildcats were coming off a regional final appearance and 23-3 record, and featured consensus All-America Cotton Nash.
It was the first glimmer of what Smith was building at Carolina. The Tar Heels used a box-and-one defense on Nash, with Yogi Poteet harassing the star man-to-man all over the floor.
"When Coach Smith designed that gameplan with the box-in-one against Cotton Nash, you could see he had the capability to be a great coach," said Peppy Callahan. "You knew that when he started bringing in players, it could be special."
The strategy limited Nash to 3-of-12 from the field and just 12 points. Poteet actually outscored the superstar, tallying 17 points, while Larry Brown added 19 and Billy Cunningham 13. Carolina escaped with a 68-66 victory at Memorial Coliseum, a place where the Wildcats won nearly 90 percent of their games from 1950-1976.
"Coach looked at Yogi Poteet and said, 'Keep Nash from getting the ball,'" said Bill Brown. "Sure enough, that's what he did. After about five minutes Nash couldn't get the ball, and he basically took himself out of the game. We beat them on their home court, and when it was over, we looked at each other like, 'This guy knows what he is doing.' We got more and more confident."
Smith, assistant coach Ken Rosemond and trainer John Lacey were so excited after the victory they walked all the way from Memorial Coliseum to the team hotel. The team spent the night in Lexington, where Brown, Cunningham and Charlie Shaffer spent some quality time on the phone describing the game to friends and family back home.
The more recent Carolina-Kentucky series hasn't featured any walks back to the hotel, but it has included similarly close games. Three of the last four meetings have been decided by two points or less, and the one lone exception was a 76-69 decision won by Kentucky in the 2011 NCAA Tournament in a content that was a one-point game with 90 seconds left.
That's indicative of how close the series has been overall. The previous 12-game set ended with each side winning six games. Carolina took five in a row from 2004-08, but has beaten the Wildcats just once (a 75-73 win at the Smith Center in December of 2010) since then.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.