North Carolina vs Kentucky: College Basketball Prediction (12/18/21)
The North Carolina Tar Heels will face off against the Kentucky Wildcats in a neutral site game at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNC was originally scheduled for a game against the UCLA Bruins, but that game was canceled due to Covid. Instead, they’ll face off against the 21st-ranked Wildcats in a battle of blue bloods. After losing a pair of neutral-site games to Purdue and Tennessee earlier this season, North Carolina’s won 5 consecutive games, boasting an 8-2 record. Kentucky lost their only neutral-site game to Duke, and they’re coming off of a road loss to Notre Dame. Both of these teams have the potential to make deeper runs into March, and I’ll outline my favorite bet for North Carolina vs Kentucky below.
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The North Carolina Tar Heels and Kentucky Wildcats have both been overvalued throughout the season by Vegas. UNC owns a 3-7 ATS record, failing to cover the spread by an average of 1.3 points per game. On the other side, UK enters this game with a 3-6 ATS record, failing to cover by an average of 1 point per game. Kentucky hasn’t covered since 11/26 against North Florida, while North Carolina’s quietly covered in 3 of their last 5 games.
One of the biggest keys to this game will be the level of competition and how prepared each team is for this type of game. North Carolina’s played a drastically better schedule thus far, facing off against Purdue, Tennessee, and Michigan, who all rank in the top-20 of KenPom’s efficiency rating. Kentucky started the season off with a loss to Duke before playing 7 consecutive games against teams outside of KenPom’s top-100. Their only other top-100 game was a road loss to Notre Dame.
One of the bigger keys is that 6 of Kentucky’s 9 games in 2021 have come against teams outside of KenPom’s top-275. The Wildcats have plenty of blowout wins early in the season, but they’re against bottom-of-the-barrel competition. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, own a 21 point win against Michigan and a 17 point road win against Georgia Tech.
UNC will have a massive edge in terms of shooting as well. They currently rank eighth in the country, hitting 40.9% of their three-point attempts thus far. Dawson Garcia, Caleb Love, and RJ Davis are all shooting over 40% from deep on the season. Brady Manek and Karwin Walton have found success as well. One of the keys here is that North Carolina’s bigs have the ability to stretch the floor, which is something that they haven’t been allowed to do in the past.
On the other side of this game, Kentucky is only shooting 30.2% from deep on the season. TyTy Washington and Kellan Grady have found success beyond the arc, but the rest of the team has struggled to produce from deep. Overall, they rank only 270th in the country in three-point percentage. It’s important to note that both of these teams rely more on scoring inside the arc, but the three-point shot could quickly become an equalizer for UNC if they get down early in the game.
North Carolina will also be able to limit Kentucky’s second chance opportunities at the rim. Oscar Tshiebwe leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (25.2%). Unsurprisingly, Kentucky also leads the nation with a 45% offensive rebounding percentage. North Carolina ranks second in the country in offensive rebounding percentage allowed (18.6%), though. They also have three outstanding defensive rebounders - Armando Bacot, Brady Manek, Dawson Garcia - who all boast size in the paint.
This is another spot where the competition should play a massive role in limiting what Kentucky can do. They found success with offensive rebounds against Duke before struggling against Notre Dame. Mark Williams only played 18 minutes against Kentucky, leaving Tshiwbwe without much size to compete against him in the paint. Bacot’s consistently played big minutes for the Tar Heels this season, and he should limit what Kentucky can do on the offensive glass. The ability to always have Bacot, Manek, or Garcia on the floor will be a key to slowing down Kentucky’s offense in this game.
There is one more key to this game that could play in North Carolina’s favor. The Wildcats will need Tshiebwe in the game if they want to keep this close. He isn’t a player that fouls often, but he has struggled with fouls at times. Bacot and Garcia both rank in the top-278 of the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Caleb Love also ranks right outside of that in the same category. Each of these players could attack Tshiebwe early in the game, limiting his minutes or limiting the type of game he can play in the paint.
Kentucky’s a very solid team, and I don’t believe that they can’t beat higher-end competition just because they haven’t yet. They aren’t the most versatile offense in the NCAA, though, and they need second-chance points to win their games. North Carolina’s size and shooting create a terrible matchup for the Wildcats, especially on short notice. I’m taking the points with the Tar Heels, although I do believe you can sprinkle some money on the moneyline as well.
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