Heading into December, there were three games that Kentucky Wildcats fans all had circled on their calendar: vs. UCLA, vs. North Carolina, at Louisville. These were the games that would give us a true gauge of where this team was and where they were headed.
We thought that the Michigan State Spartans were going to provide this type of challenge, but Sparty has thus far proven to be an average team. There is talent on Tom Izzo’s roster that could improve as the year goes on, but it isn’t easy to say that they are good at this juncture.
They didn’t pass their first test against the Bruins, falling 97-92 in Rupp Arena, a rare loss at home for John Calipari. While the ‘Cats’ offense was clicking on all cylinders, Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, and TJ Leaf torched them on defense.
So now we are left with UNC and UofL as the last two tests before SEC play begins. North Carolina is currently ranked #7 and the ‘Cats will face the Heels on a neutral floor in Las Vegas. There will be a tournament like atmosphere as the top ten blue bloods meet for the first time since 2014 when UK defeated the Heels at Rupp Arena by 14 points.
Historically, Calipari teams that end up being elite in the tournament have at least one elite win in the non-conference schedule.
2009: #10 North Carolina, #14 UConn (Elite Eight)
2010: #13 Washington, #23 Notre Dame, #22 Louisville (Final Four)
2011: #10 Kansas, #5 North Carolina, #4 Louisville (National Champions)
2012: No wins over ranked non-conference opponents (NIT)
2013: #6 Louisville (National Champion Runner-Up)
2014: #5 Kansas, #6 Texas, #4 Louisville (Final Four)
2015: #5 Duke, #16 Louisville (Second Round)
One can see that the quality of opponent often dictates success in the tournament. So far, these ‘Cats are 1-1 against big name ranked opponents and the one they beat is no longer ranked.
The one outlier season was 2013/2014 when the ‘Cats were an eight seed and went on an improbable run to the national title game. They had a good home win against a very good Louisville team, but lost to their other ranked foes. The rest of the seasons played out how we thought they would based on the non-conference wins before SEC play started.
North Carolina is another “Show Me” game that can give us a glimpse into the future of this team. I expected the ‘Cats to be 2-1 after this three game stretch but I expected them to lose to Carolina, not to UCLA. 1-2 would not be optimal and 0-3 would be downright disappointing.