The Kentucky Wildcats are an impressive 7-0 and are the #1 team in the country. They have won every game by at least 21 points and have scored over 100 points in three consecutive games. They have looked every bit as impressive as we had all hoped and then some. With the combination of athleticism, maturity, and tenacity, John Calipari's current team has the makings of a special squad.
But it cannot be ignored that the quality of opponent has been less than stellar. Only two of those teams are above .500, and their seven opponents are a combined 22-25. The only two Power Five teams they have played, Michigan State and Arizona State, are a combined 8-7, not what we had hoped heading into the season.
Luckily the ‘Cats are about to be tested in their next five contests. They will face three ranked teams over the next three weeks; one of them at home, one of them on a neutral court, and one of them on the road. And it all starts this Saturday. Let's take a look at the gauntlet that the ‘Cats are about to face.
#11 UCLA Bruins
When and Where: December 3rd, Rupp Arena
Best Player: Lonzo Ball- 14.6 ppg; 9.6 apg
Offense: 97 ppg (3rd in the country)
Defense: 72.9 points allowed per game (207th in the country)
Best Win: 75-67 at Texas A&M
UCLA does exactly what Kentucky wants to do: run and score. The biggest difference is that the Bruins don't play any defense while the ‘Cats pride themselves on their intense, in your face guarding approach.
The game should be a high-scoring affair and the matchup between Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox should be electric.
When and Where: December 7th, Rupp Arena
Best Player: Alec Peters- 25.4 ppg; 9.1 rpg
Offense: 75.5 ppg (150th in the country)
Defense: 69.8 points allowed per game (145th in the country)
Best Win: 65-52 vs. #21 Rhode Island
Loss: 76-54 at Oregon
We all remember Valpo as the NCAA giant killers, but they have evolved into a consistently decent mid-major program. But the problem they will face is they haven't seen any team like Kentucky. The closest team that could be comparable is Oregon, and they were drummed by the Ducks in Eugene.
The Crusaders also own wins over Alabama and BYU, so they have had their fair share of stiff competition.
When and Where: December 11th, Brooklyn, New York
Best Player: Brian Bernardi- 14.9 ppg; 2.1 apg
Offense: 79.4 ppg (81st in the country)
Defense: 77.3 points allowed per game (265th in the country)
Wins: vs. Coppin State, vs. Bradley, vs. South Dakota, vs. Medaille College, at Columbia
Losses: at Sacred Heart, at Manhattan, vs. Vermont
This is the game in the middle of the schedule meant as a bit of a break. The two games preceding and the two games after are going to be difficult, so it appears as if Cal schedule Hofstra in NYC to put things back together if they need to.
When and Where: December 17th, Las Vegas, Nevada
Best Player: Justin Jackson- 16.1 ppg; 4.6 rpg
Offense: 89.6 ppg (10th in the country)
Defense: 66.9 points allowed per game (89th in the country)
Best Win: 71-56 vs. #16 Wisconsin
Loss: 76-67 at #13 Indiana
This is the marquee game of the non-conference schedule for Kentucky. It will be a tournament like atmosphere on a neutral court in Vegas as two of the winningest programs in college basketball go head to head.
Up until the loss at IU, many considered UNC as the best team in the country. And what isn't to like? They are an extremely talented team loaded with veterans. They run a high-powered offense similar to Kentucky's.
But on the road against another team similar in talent, the only player that showed up for the Heels was Jackson. Their bigs didn't do much against Thomas Bryant and point guard Joel Berry II was held in check.
Although the game will not be in Rupp, expect a pro-UK crowd in the desert. I am not as nervous about this as I once was, considering that UNC looked mortal against a good but not great IU team. Still, it will be Kentucky's biggest challenge so far.
When and Where: December 21st, Louisville Kentucky
Best Player: Donovan Mitchell- 12.3 ppg; 6.3 rpg
Offense: 74.4 ppg (177th in the country)
Defense: 57.9 points allowed per game (6th in the country)
Best Win: 71-64 vs. #15 Purdue (blew a 17 point lead)
Loss: 66-63 vs. #20 Baylor (blew a 22 point lead)
The Cardinals offense is horrific. They are prone to prolonged droughts, and they aren't a good three point shooting team. I emphasized the blown leads because it's important. Even if they do get a lead, it's only a matter of time before the ball stops going in the basket.
The defense, on the other hand, is terrific and will be the best Kentucky sees maybe all season. The perimeter players are OK, but it's the length in the middle that makes it hard on teams to score. Anas Mahmoud and Mangok Mathiang are liabilities on offense, but they can protect the rim and rebound.
The problem I see is two-fold: the Cards won't be able to score with the ‘Cats, and they have no guard depth. After Mitchell and point guard Quentin Snider, the talent at the guard spot drops dramatically. Expect Fox, Malik Monk, and Isaiah Briscoe to have a field day.
The ‘Cats will drop one game out of the three they have against ranked teams. The most likely one will be in Vegas against the Tar Heels. It will be too much to ask UCLA to beat them in Rupp and UofL doesn't have the depth or the scoring to keep up.
But, if they ‘Cats get through this stretch unscathed, then we can really start to think about a special season. I don't expect this team to go undefeated in the regular season, but that chance increases dramatically if they are 12-0 heading into Ole Miss at the end of December.
We have yet seen this team be challenged for an entire game and I truly hope we see it soon. I want to know the resolve of this team. I know what to expect from guys like Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins, and Derek Willis. I want to see De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Wenyen Gabriel and Bam Adebayo under pressure. Then we will know the true character of this team.