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Kentucky basketball: "Are we really this good?"

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Coach Calipari asked the question in the lede Saturday after the Kentucky Wildcats' 101-70 beatdown of the Arkansas Razorbacks in Rupp Arena.

It's a question that I have been pondering.  Are we really that good?

In a given game, any team can look awesome and the opponent lousy.  Teams can look like world-beaters one day and "How did we ever think they were that good?" the next.  So I think it's fair for both Coach Cal and the Big Blue Nation to ask, as we stand on the cusp of our first #1 national ranking since 2003 -- Are we really this good?

Of course, the answer you get always depends on who you ask.  Kentucky's critics (which are a dwindling list after Saturday's game) will point to the fact that the Wildcats have played a much softer schedule than other aspirants to the top spot, and they would be correct.  Out of the RPI top 50, Kentucky has played the 46th toughest schedule so far.  Compare that to Duke, who is #4 among that same list, Syracuse at #8, Kansas at #12, etc.

There is an argument to be made that UK's level of competition has not been good enough for them to be ranked at the top, and that argument has merit.  Looking at Ken Pomeroy's statistics-based rankings, we will find that Kentucky is not ranked #1, but only #9 on that list., another statistics-based ranking, also has Kentucky at #9.  Jeff Sagarin has Kentucky at #6.

More after the jump.

But in the end, the rankings that truly "matter" to the masses of college basketball fans are the AP and Coach's poll, and these polls are very likely (in fact, certain to four decimal places) to rank UK as the #1 team in college basketball later today.  At the end of working hours this evening, Kentucky fans will be able to claim, "We're #1," in college basketball and be objectively right for the first time in a long time, at least by some measures.

As far as how good this basketball team is, I think that the Wildcats are are able, and in fact likely, to beat most teams in college basketball on a neutral floor right now -- and by "most teams," I mean 343 of the 347 Division I basketball teams in the country.  I think there are four teams that, as of this moment, are a toss-up, odds-wise, for Kentucky:

  • The Duke Blue Devils -- I know, I know.  I hate to give these guys credit, but Duke is a great 3-point shooting team that plays some of the best defense in college basketball.  I'm just glad we don't have to play them today, because give Kentucky another healthy month, and I'll be looking forward to it.  More on that later.
  • The Syracuse Orange -- This is a dangerous, talented team that has been the surprise of the season.
  • The Kansas Jayhawks -- Despite having a few bad games recently, Kansas remains arguably as talented as Kentucky.
  • The Texas Longhorns -- The only team in college basketball that has a similar combination of size, talent and depth to Kentucky, and the only team that is as truly big and strong in the middle as the 'Cats are.

There are as many as 10 or 15 other teams that could beat UK on a given night, but these four are the only ones against which I would not rank UK as the favorite.  I wouldn't have UK as an underdog, either -- these teams are toss-ups for UK right now in my opinion.

But there is one thing that UK has that these teams have less of -- upside.  Kentucky's ceiling is higher, I think, than any college basketball team since the 1996 UK national championship team.  The only real question, barring injury, is if this team can get close to that ceiling by tournament time.

Judging by the progress we have seen so far, I think there is a reasonable chance that Calipari & Co. can get UK close to their potential.  If that happens, and these young Wildcats can somehow avoid letting their head swell with press clippings, this Kentucky team can get to the very top of the mountain, and unseat the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers team as the last undefeated national champion.  We have a favorable schedule compared to others, and if Saturday's game is representative of where the 'Cats are now, the possibility is definitely there.

But even if that doesn't happen, or if they lose a game or two on the way to whatever end, this season has been fun so far, hasn't it?