UNC’s starting backcourt of Nate Britt and Marcus Paige average 6-foot tall and 170 pounds. Kentucky’s guard tandem – Aaron and Andrew Harrison – check in at a combined average of 6-foot-6 and 217 pounds.
If that height and size discrepancy is surprising to you, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
“I never knew that they had an average size of 6-6,” Britt, who stands 5-foot-11, said on Friday. “That’s crazy to me. I’ve never even heard that before.”
UNC has faced a significantly bigger backcourt already once this season at UAB. Chad Frazier (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) and Jordan Swing (6-foot-6, 200 pounds) were effective defensively against the Tar Heel backcourt. Paige and Britt combined for 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting, including an 0-of-7 effort from 3-point range.
Following UNC’s 63-59 loss in Birmingham, however, Roy Williams indicated that UAB’s aggressive play with Paige was the primary reason for his stat line, while the sophomore guard cited his team’s sluggishness in moving the ball.
Regardless, it’s hard to imagine added defensive length not factoring into UNC’s 1-of-12 shooting from 3-point range against the Blazers.
UNC is shooting 29.9 percent from 3-point range on the season. Paige has attempted 51 of UNC’s 77 3-point attempts, making 20 of them.
When asked about his backcourt’s play to date on Thursday, Williams replied: “It’s been okay.”
“We still have to have more distribution of guys making three point shots,” he continued. “You’ve heard me talk so many times about balance… I’d like Marcus to keep shooting at a high percentage but yet the last three games the defenses have been really aimed at him. That’s when it’s really difficult to do. Nate needs to not turn it over as much, to have a better assist ratio, make some drives and those kind of things.”
Paige is averaging 18.8 points on 45.3 percent shooting, while Britt has primarily served the facilitator role, averaging 5.6 points and 2.5 assists per game.
“Their guard play is solid; I mean, they don’t shoot it well but neither do we,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said on Friday.
The Wildcats are shooting 32.5 percent from beyond the arc with wing James Young (24-of-70) doing the bulk of the work.
Kentucky, like UNC, is built from the inside out. The Wildcats rank 10th nationally in field goal percentage defense (36.3) and 100th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (31.1).
Paige and Britt have been at their best this season when attacking the rim via penetration, which helps create scoring opportunities on the interior that ultimately lead to open looks on the perimeter.
Williams told reporters on Thursday that Britt continues to improve with each passing game, especially on the defensive side of the ball. His assist-turnover ratio (20:19) and shooting percentage (36.4) are areas of needed growth.
Paige, who has transitioned quite well into his off guard spot, remains the focal point in the backcourt for opposing defenses.
“[Paige] can get to the rim; he’s good in pick-and-rolls,” Calipari said. “He makes shots when they need one. They set doubles and do different things for him. He gets them in transition. He flies. He’s a terrific, terrific player.”
As good as Kentucky has been in the halfcourt, Baylor and Michigan State combined for 35 fast break points in their victories over the Wildcats. UNC, on the other hand, prevailed over Louisville and Michigan State in part because of those teams’ willingness to run with the Tar Heels.
Britt sees his size and quickness as an asset and not a concern against the taller Wildcats, especially in the transition game.
“I think speed helps me out,” Britt said. “I think it gives me an advantage against taller and bigger players. I know I don’t like guarding players that are shorter than I am because they’re so much quicker and so much faster. It’s hard to try to keep them in front of you so I feel like that’s going to be to my advantage.”
If UNC is able to overcome the size discrepancy in the backcourt, a third win over a top-15 program in as many weeks could become reality.