In light of its convincing win over Kansas, Kentucky has clearly gotten back to Final Four-caliber form
The Wildcats should now be considered national title contenders -- which is where they were at the start of the season
You remember then? It was college basketball's opening night and Wildcats coach John Calipari Duke demolished his higher-ranked Wildcats to the blaring tune of 118-84. That outcome was stunning, and while the parade of Blue Devils publicity has endlessly spooled out from that night, it's worth noting that Kentucky's loss was as surprising a defeat, circumstances considered, as Calipari's ever had.when
That loss is proving to be aberrational, though. That kind of embarrassment could have swerved Kentucky's season in the long run, but we now know it hasn't. This team isn't letting that game or its early season bumps have carryover into the second half of the schedule.
"I'd rather learn from a close win than an absolute shellacking that we took," Calipari told reporters after beating the Jayhawks. "But if it does help us, that's great, but I don't -- there's no solace in what happened up there. We got absolutely clubbed by a very good team."
The game we'd been waiting for to judge Kentucky most acutely came Saturday night, though. Top-10 KU vs. top-10 UK. These teams have played some great ones in recent seasons, the last three games decided by six points fewer. Rupp Arena was the stage for the biggest game of the day in college basketball.
No. 8 Kentucky's victory vs. No. 9 Kansas definitively recalibrated expectations -- setting them back to where they were the minute before the Duke game tipped back in the fall. Kentucky's takedown of Kansas marks its ninth win in 10 games, its third straight against an AP Top 25 team and its fifth in a 10-game stretch against five surefire or potential NCAA Tournament teams: North Carolina, Louisville, Auburn, Mississippi State, Kansas.
The outcome also ended a most ridiculous streak: until Saturday, Kansas had defeated AP top-10 teams 13 consecutive times in the regular season. It was the longest such streak in college basketball in 22 seasons. Its most recent loss? To Kentucky in November 2014.
That streak is over -- frankly, Kansas was due; beating top-10 teams 13 times in a row is an absurd run -- and Kentucky is back to where most expected it would be. If UK's road win at Auburn on Jan. 19 was, then Saturday's Kansas conquest represents the moment in which this season changes to Kentucky: back in the national title conversation.
While the Cats are far from perfect, there are no qualifiers or excuses or asides we should be including when discussing Kentucky at this point. It's going to lose a few more games, but whatever: this team is cresting toward being one of the five most dangerous in college basketball. Saturday night proved it. Kansas doesn't need to be vintage in order for UK to acquire more style points or credibility. That's a Quadrant 1 win and could ultimately help Kentucky secure a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
The rewarding thing with this team is how ahead of schedule it seems to be. There have been some teams over the past six seasons where UK's youth has needed time into February, or even March, to find its groove. I see nothing of that sort here. Almost every game Kentucky's played over the past month has given us tangible reasons to believe the ceiling is getting raised for this team ever higher by the week.
"When you have defensive confidence, that bleeds into your offense," Calipari said. "Now all of a sudden you're looking at a team that, you know, 11 turnovers, 12 turnovers, ten turnovers, that plays confident at times."
Against Kansas, yet again, Kentucky got a tremendous showing from PJ Washington and Reid Travis, doing so against Kansas' All-American candidate, Dedric Lawson. Washington and Travis combined for 38 points, 25 rebounds and shot 50 percent. UK owned the paint. Defensively, it was one of the team's best performances of the season. I'm not sure if this is impressive or worrisome, but all of Kentucky's points came from its starters.
Despite Travis, Washington, Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro logging the majority of the team's minutes, that five still kept Kansas in fits. The Jayhawks found themselves relying on Lawson way too much.
KU had only four assists with 7:30 remaining. Lagerald Vick, who needs to be a 15-points-per-game guy, minimum, to keep Kansas elite, was a non-factor in the second half. That's as much on Kansas as it is a credit to Kentucky's defense. This team is not only good, it's becoming fun to watch. There is a grind-and-release aesthetic with UK that empowers its offense.
"We are making -- we are taking that gradual climb, and I know -- I don't know if it's a people's opinion of what we were or their hope of what we were," Calipari said. "Like some people have a hope and it's not an opinion, it's their hope we stink, and that I think played into it early, but how many years have I been here? This is 10. It feels like 22, it's only 10?"
Kentucky's getting great in all the areas it needs to be. It's knocking on the door of top-10 defensive efficiency at KenPom. On the offensive boards, Kentucky ranks No. 6 in the sport. It's blocking 15 percent of opponents' shots. It's a two-way team. And when you watch, you still see how good Hagans, Herro, Johnson and EJ Montgomery can become.
It's a good thing for UK that it's proving to be this good with a lot of room left for growth. It's not on No. 1 Tennessee's level yet, so that's the next step. Go get those Vols. The teams still won't meet for the first time for three weeks, so in the meantime, we wait to see what the Wildcats do to evolve.
It's finally feeling like this could be another one of those special seasons for Calipari and his most interesting roster since the 2014-15 team that went 38-1.
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