If you’ve read my coverage of Kentucky basketball through the years, you know that I always try to be fair and balanced in my coverage. I try to take the good with the bad, and add perspective when needed. And that’s made this season so specifically interesting. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous articles, I understand both sides of the Kentucky fan-base right now. The side that says “I’m tired of being lousy in November and December, even if it means we’ll turn things around by March.” And the other side that says “We’ll be fine come March – and that’s all that matters.”
Still, even though history does tell us that Calipari will in fact figure things out by March, I am ready to admit one simple thing: This weekend’s matchup with North Carolina might just be the single most important game Kentucky plays until the start of the NCAA Tournament. That’s because the Tar Heels are the perfect opponent, at the perfect time, to gauge exactly where Kentucky is in the season right now. The Tar Heels are good, but not elite, and a club that plays the kind of style that the Wildcats are capable of winning against.
That’s also why the stakes feel so important in this game. If Kentucky wins, all will be right in Lexington heading into the Christmas holiday. If they don’t, it won’t be pretty. And if Kentucky gets blown out let’s be honest: It could be a sign of a long, cold, dark winter for the Wildcats.
Now I already know what some of you are thinking: “Aaron, how can you possibly think that Kentucky is ready to compete with Carolina? Carolina is coming off a home win against Gonzaga. Kentucky has played a grand total of three games against Power 6 competition and lost to two of them. Their best win is against Utah, which is bad… even by the terrible standards of the Pac-12. How, can North Carolina possibly be the perfect opponent for the Wildcats? Heck, how are they going to beat them period?”
Well, let’s start with Kentucky. Because while I understand any Wildcat fan who doesn’t want to get too excited about a win over lowly Utah, I do think there were positives to take out of that game, and even to a smaller degree from the loss two weeks ago against Seton Hall (yes, I’m being serious).
What positives are those?
In no particular order: Ashton Hagans is slowly establishing himself as the “prototypical Calipari point guard” this team needs to have success. P.J. Washington and Keldon Johnson have been the best player on the floor at moments in each of those two games – and looking at the rest of Kentucky’s schedule, there’s no reason to think they can’t be the best player on the floor against just about any opponent left on Kentucky’s schedule. Reid Travis is doing Grown Man Reid Travis things. Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery are slowly finding roles off the bench. Jemarl Baker might just be the greatest shooter of all-time (thanks to Drew Franklin for crunching the numbers here). Meaning that man, if Tyler Herro can start hitting shots… look out. This team could be lethal.
To put things a different way: While Kentucky hasn’t come close to reaching its potential yet, you can start to see signs that they might get there. And what that potential might actually look like.
Of course, that’s if all these guys develop the way they’re capable of. And if some of Kentucky’s weaknesses start to get cleaned up. You know, like allowing opponents to shoot 42 percent from the field, which ranks 159th nationally entering this game. Or, the fact that – in case you haven’t heard – Kentucky’s perimeter defense has been abysmal. The Wildcats currently rank 359th in that category nationally, just behind Eastern Illinois and Maine, and slightly ahead of Lafayette and Northern Colorado. Just a hunch, but I’m guessing none of those four teams have eight former Top 50 recruits on their roster.
Anyway, that’s also why North Carolina is a fantastic litmus test for where this team is: As I said, the Tar Heels are a good but not elite team. And more importantly, North Carolina doesn’t play a style that should have Kentucky out of sorts. They play a more “traditional” two big-man lineup, and don’t shoot a ton of three’s. As a team they’re shooting just 37 percent from beyond the arc, and if you take out their best three-point threat Cam Johnson, they’re shooting just 33 percent as a team.
But wait, there’s more.
Defensively, they – like Kentucky – are a work in progress (which really is kind of a nice way of saying “They stink”). The Tar Heels currently rank just a few spots ahead of Kentucky in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 42.2 percent from the field. They’ve given up 92 and 84 points in their two losses and even in last week’s win over Gonzaga, allowed the Zags to put up 92. As an opposing coach told me earlier this week they can be exposed defensively on the perimeter, which should allow for potential big games from P.J. Washington, E.J. Montgomery and Keldon Johnson. And as the coach also told me, the way to slow down the Tar Heels is to slow down their point guard Coby White. Luckily for Kentucky, their best defensive player will be the guy tasked with picking up White, Ashton Hagans.
Therefore, even though North Carolina is a good team, and even though they’ve got a couple wins that should make UK fans nervous (specifically Gonzaga over the weekend), this is a game the Wildcats, even as they currently stand, are capable of winning. While it feels like some teams would give UK fits at this point in the year (Michigan, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Duke, maybe Virginia), North Carolina isn’t one of them.
That’s also why this game is so important.
Look, we know that Kentucky is far from a finished product. And we know that they will pick things up at some point because, again, with Calipari they always do. But at a certain point it can’t just be about “getting better” and “developing good habits” and “tweaks.” It’s got to be about getting good wins. Not only to give this team confidence heading into the Louisville game and SEC play. But because they need to start building a resume to hopefully get a good seed come March.
Kentucky still has a long way to go.
But we’re going to find out just how long that road is this weekend.