By beating North Carolina, Kentucky's John Calipari gets Wildcat fans off his back -- at least until the next game
Big Blue Nation should breathe easier after the No. 9 Wildcats notched a solid victory vs. the No. 19 Tar Heels
CHICAGO -- The way John Calipari explains it, all of the big questions coming from Kentucky fans in recent weeks -- questions about his team, questions about his approach -- would not exist if the Wildcats had just not squandered that game against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden two weekends ago.
"We had the ball up 3 with 1:30 to go in New York and somehow gave that game away," Calipari said. "If we'd won that game, we wouldn't have all this craziness. But this is Kentucky. Good luck."
Good luck, indeed.
Which is precisely why Saturday's 80-72 win over No. 9 North Carolina in the second game of the CBS Sports Classic here at United Center was such a massive development for the 19th-ranked Wildcats. Simply put, it ended the craziness -- at least temporarily. And it's impossible to overstate how important it is to end the craziness at Kentucky even if it's always only temporary.
"We have the greatest fans in the country ... but they also want to win every game by 25," Calipari said. "And if you lose a game, you've got the outliers that try to create issues. None of us listen to them. But, you know."
Yes, Cal, I definitely know.
Everybody with a Twitter account knows.
And that's why the best way to properly understand how big of a win this was for Kentucky is to first understand what a loss would've done. So here's what a loss would've done: A loss would've dropped a team that was No. 1 in the CBS Sports Preseason Top 25 And 1 to 0-3 against top-90 KenPom opponents and 0-3 away from Rupp Arena -- with a game at Louisville on deck. Lose this one, and then that one, and the Wildcats would've entered January with zero quality wins and zero wins away from home. And, fairly or unfairly, because it really doesn't matter when it comes to Big Blue Nation, the questions surrounding Calipari, this team, his recruiting approach and anything else you can think of would've been loud and intense.
No, Calipari would not have been in some sort of hot-seat situation; don't be silly or get it twisted. But nobody likes to be criticized or questioned, and the criticism directed at Calipari, and the questions about Calipari, would've reached an all-time high with Kentucky fans if he'd lost this game and then backed it with a loss at Louisville.
Now that scenario is off the table.
So now everybody at UK can breathe a little and actually enjoy Christmas -- which is something Roy Williams suggested will be difficult for him to do. "I hope everybody has a better Christmas than I'm going to have," North Carolina's Hall of Fame coach said to the assembled media.
He was mostly joking, I think.
But, if not, blame Kentucky's Ashton Hagans because the 6-foot-3 guard was a difference-maker on the defensive end -- where he had seven steals and three blocks. His biggest sequence came after North Carolina cut Kentucky's lead to 66-60 with 6:47 remaining. UK's subsequent possession resulted in a missed jumper. But then Hagans got a steal that led to a PJ Washington 3-pointer with 6:10 left. Then, just 12 seconds later, Hagans got another steal and turned it into a layup -- meaning the score went from 66-60 to 71-60 in a 29-second span thanks to two North Carolina turnovers Hagans created.
"His defensive-presence is amazing," said UK freshman Keldon Johnson, who finished with a game-high 23 points. "He was locking up, making plays, big stops -- and you could just see it rubbing off on everybody."
It's impossible to know for sure what comes next for the Wildcats. They could lose at Louisville, then flourish in the SEC. They could beat Louisville, then struggle in the SEC. They could be consistently awesome going forward or up-and-down in a way that drives UK fans crazy. As always, time will tell.
But, if nothing else, this win over UNC buys time.
The craziness Calipari noted has subsided.
Probably not forever.
But at least until next weekend. And, trust me, that's not worth nothing.
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