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Why Saturday’s North Carolina Game Might be the Most Important of Kentucky’s Season

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.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

40 Comments for Why Saturday’s North Carolina Game Might be the Most Important of Kentucky’s Season

  1. Kat4Life
    11:10 am December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Don’t kid yourself….Carolina is plenty elite. May be the best team in the nation right now.

    • Jazz1124
      11:29 am December 22, 2018 Permalink

      You would put them ahead of duke, Tennessee, Virginia and Michigan? Which Michigan just recently dismantled that squad. I will have to respectfully disagree with that. But they are a solid squad. Sure, they beat the zags which is a good win, but so did tennessee on a neutral floor which is more impressive to me.

    • Jiminy Crickets
      1:57 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      So ur saying they’re likely #5 in the country, yet you don’t want to call them elite. I’m sure if UK loses they’ll be the best team ever, and UK wins they’re over rated. That’s the way this board works

    • catsarerunnin
      2:07 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Well Jenny Crickets if it’s so stressful for you why bother coming here? Go to a site for the program that wins EVERY game and a title EVERY year.

    • Jazz1124
      3:44 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Was that a reply to me?

  2. rainman
    11:21 am December 22, 2018 Permalink

    I think it’s as close to a “Must Win” as you can get! While I don’t think they must win, I do think they MUST play well!

    • BigolBlue
      12:04 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Unless you want a bubble team all year it kinda is a must win.

    • runningunnin.454
      12:04 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Conference games are more important; but, we can’t suffer another blow out.

    • henderblue
      12:24 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      We must play well and be right there in position to win at the end.

    • henderblue
      12:25 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      A win sure makes Christmas a lot better

  3. bosch8184
    11:31 am December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Over the last 3 seasons we are 8-8 against out of conference Power 5 conferences…Why? And does anyone notice that terrible record?

    I know they don’t on Kalipari Sports Radio.

    • Alex90
      12:03 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      What’s the average ranking for the teams we lost to?

    • KYjellyRoll
      12:12 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Cats by a tip in from Washington off a Johnson miss. Too little time left for Carolina to get a shot off. Go Cats

    • KYjellyRoll
      12:13 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Didn’t mean for that to be a reply. Sorry Bosch

  4. rlburd2
    11:45 am December 22, 2018 Permalink

  5. catsarerunnin
    11:50 am December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Yes definitely. A December game is a MUST win situation. Otherwise all will be lost with a loss. The Grinch will steal Christmas. The sun won’t come out tomorrow. It will be real wrath of God stuff. Human sacrifice. Dog and cats living together. Mass hysteria!!!

    • Alex90
      12:02 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      This is why fans don’t get into basketball as much as they used to. KSR builds up every big game as a must win and if they lose they focus on it for weeks and try to figure out what’s wrong.

    • BigolBlue
      12:05 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Football school anyway runnin. You have the Cal mindset. Only nba draft picks matter. You dont even care if they win titles

    • catsarerunnin
      1:03 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Oh you mean the mindset of a winner and not some cliff jumping loser?

  6. Wade
    11:51 am December 22, 2018 Permalink

    We’re gonna shoot the 3, rebound,and be big in the post. Think defense gets it going and we have to lock down maye. Go cats

    • runningunnin.454
      12:07 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      True, have to hedge on the high post double screens for Maye at the top of the key.

  7. Jimi40
    12:03 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Hate to be the “Scrooge” here, but this young team cannot hang with Carolina at this point.

    Carolina by 15

    Prove me wrong & ill happily eat crow.


    • BigolBlue
      12:05 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Same. I got them by 12

    • bigbluebanana
      12:26 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      I actually have UNC by 20. But…I’ll still root for my team and won’t think the world is over. We just aren’t ready to compete with UNC. I hope all 3 of us are wrong, we just aren’t there yet. But we will be by March.

    • catsarerunnin
      1:04 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      And if you’re wrong we won’t here from you for a week…

    • catsarerunnin
      1:05 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink


    • BigolBlue
      2:25 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Nahh if we win ill eat some crow and still be here. You are the one that runs and hides

    • catsarerunnin
      2:31 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Oh Slater son you much humor.

    • henderblue
      12:30 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      I’ll be Santa Claus. Cats by 5 biguns

    • Underdog
      1:21 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      I think because the vast majority of people think we are not going to win, I think for that reason we will put up a very good fight and actually win the ballgame. If we lose it’ll be by less than four points. You heard it here first people.

    • henderblue
      3:37 pm December 24, 2018 Permalink

      No they didn’t here it here first. They heard it right above you.

  8. Gnarly Wiggums
    1:01 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    What UNC team have you guys been watching? UNC looked awful against an average Texas squad and got their teeth kicked in by Michigan. At home against Gonzaga they just happened to shoot the ball abnormally well…which will ALWAYS make a team look better than they actually are. If UNC shoots even an average % from three we’ll be fine.

  9. kuhlkat
    1:01 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Aaron is a great writer. His podcasts are hard to listen to though. He is constntly begging about being the best in the business. His arrogance doesnt come thru when he writes

    • BluejayK
      1:17 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

      Agree kuhlkat. Love his writing, but his podcast not so much.

  10. Jimi40
    1:16 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    You WILL hear from me this evening & if we win i will happily EAT CROW!!


  11. Righteous1
    2:02 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    UNC by 20+

  12. VirginiaCat
    3:21 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Three possible scenarios: 1. We win and regain some of the prestige that we lost in the Duke game. Our seeding for the tournament improves. Our fan base gets a needed lift. The win shows that we have indeed improved and are capable of playing with good competition. 2. We lose, but in a competitive game that could have gone either way. It shows that we are getting better and gives us hope down the road. It tells the basketball world that we are not as bad as we showed against Duke. It indicates that we have indeed improved and can keep up with good competition. 3. We fail to compete and lose decidedly. In a nutshell, it’s another embarrassment on the national stage and doesn’t bode well for the season. The fan base is deflated and the program’s prestige takes a hit. Cal’s seat gets a
    bit warmer.

    We need this game more than UNC and that will hopefully translate into us playing harder. We will soon see.

  13. Jimi40
    6:35 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Its half time & i can smell the crow cooking…

    …smells delicious…..

  14. Han
    7:44 pm December 22, 2018 Permalink

    Sure were a lot of people proudly predicting UNC would beat us easily.