Ken thoughtfully wrote the postmortem for me on Saturday when I was a bit indisposed, but I did want to offer some commentary about that game in the context of the season as a sort of prelude to the Florida Gators contest tomorrow night.
The first thing that comes to my mind is this: When national championship teams play struggling opponents, they don't let them in the game, they don't have long scoring droughts, they don't get into foul trouble and the don't let the crowd noise affect them. Contenders for the national championship bury weak teams under an avalanche of talent, skill and sharp execution on offense and defense.
I have waited what seems to be an eternity for this team's true identity to finally emerge, and these last three games have shown us what that identity is -- crushing defensive dominance bookended by merciless offensive efficiency. Kentucky has played good offensive and defensive games a number of times this season, but the last three have been so completely off-the-charts dominant defensively that the Wildcats scarcely needed to be efficient on offense -- if the other team cannot score, they cannot win -- but they were anyway.
JLev said something in a comment that got my attention, and the more I though about it, the more apt the comparison became. This team is like a vastly more talented version of the 2003 "Suffocats" in the way they win, and if you'll recall, it was roughly around this time of year when the Suffocat identity emerged. I trace the current team's emergence back to the LSU Tigers game on January 28th, and the Suffocats' coming-out party was at Vanderbilt on January 14th in 2003.
Now, I don't mean to compare the teams too much here, because they are vastly different in composition and execution. This 2012 team is bigger, more talented, much younger and goes about its defensive dominance in a completely different way. The Suffocats were all about ball pressure and positioning, whereas this team doesn't need ball pressure or positioning -- they have Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who create havoc defensively in a bewildering diversity of ways.
The original Suffocats were deeper, pressed a lot more, and were relentlessly efficient inside the arc. This 2012 team is slightly less efficient from 2, but is much more capable from outside the arc and overall, is a significantly better offensive team. Comparing straight-up defensive efficiency, 2003 was very slightly better defensively, but their margin in efficiency between offense and defense was significantly narrower than 2012, especially lately.
2012 is what the Suffocats would have been if they had six McDonald's All-Americans instead of only one (Keith Bogans) and three Parade AA's (Bogans, Chuck Hayes and Cliff Hawkins). Both teams really took pride in their defense, and that pride, as well as confidence, is growing game by game for 2012.
The biggest difference is the ruthless offensive efficiency that this team has shown lately. Of the last three games, two of them have been in the five best offensive performances of the year for the Wildcats (by the by, both in the other team's gym), and the blistering 1.42 points/possession against the South Carolina Gamecocks is their top performance of the year. By comparison, the best that 2003 ever managed was 1.32 p/p versus Vandy in the 104-44 beatdown that we all remember so fondly.
The bottom line: This is what a national title contender looks like. Forget the rankings, they are somewhat superficial as so many have reminded us during the year. What we are seeing now is a team that isn't just good, it is truly a superior basketball team -- but only in the present. If they can continue this kind of play, or even improve on it (scary, I know, but I firmly believe the Wildcats have yet to reach their potential), this season could become even more fun than it is now.
We'll all have a better idea about 24 hours from now when the Gators come to town. If we see a similar result to 2003, the basketball world will definitely take notice.