After an opening conference loss at Alabama, you could tell college basketball was starting to ask questions about this year’s group of Wildcats.
And whether they wanted to admit it or not, Big Blue Nation was starting to worry too. They had just scored good wins not long before against North Carolina and Louisville, but then go to Tuscaloosa and struggle again?
Although Alabama is a solid team, they’re not a part of this season’s upper echelon of the SEC. Heck, they had lost to Georgia State and Northeastern before beating the Cats. Kentucky cut the final score to a two-point loss, but they had struggled for a lot of the game with what they’d had issues with for most of the season, including defense, specifically from three.
If Kentucky fell flat out of the gate against a struggling Alabama program, how were they going to fair for the rest of the conference schedule? It’s safe to say that the Wildcats have answered that question since then.
After that loss, Kentucky has now won eight straight, including wins against three ranked opponents and four road wins. The questions we all had have turned into legitimate claims about Kentucky as a potential contender come March.
Two games at home following the loss to Alabama against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were what these young Cats needed to get back on track. Those games were followed by a twenty-point road win at Georgia that was full of emotion due to Ashton Hagans’ previous commitment to the Bulldogs.
It’s not that these wins weren't as important, but those three teams make up the bottom of the SEC. They had more to do with getting the car back in the lane rather than actually getting it where it needs to go. Even so, every win is a good and important win in this year’s conference slate.
The first real statement came on the road against #14 Auburn. Bruce Pearl was without Austin Wiley, but Jared Harper and Bryce Brown gave Kentucky everything they had by combining for 45 points. And for all of Auburn’s struggles, they’re still unbeaten at home if Kentucky doesn’t beat them.
The Cats, specifically freshmen Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson, stepped up when Calipari needed them most and scored 20 points apiece to help Kentucky escape with a two-point win.
Following that came a win back at home against #22 Mississippi State, where the Cats held the Bulldogs to their lowest point total of the season while whipping them by 21.
Kentucky faced another test when #9 Kansas came to Lexington for a game with huge national implications on the line for both clubs. Once again, Kentucky answered the bell with a huge second half that led them to an eight-point victory, as Reid Travis, PJ Washington and Keldon Johnson all finished with double-doubles.
At this point, the win streak hit six, and the Wildcats were beginning to be discussed on the national stage as a threat.
Finally, Kentucky has now won two more on the road against Vanderbilt and Florida to extend their streak out to eight games. Against Vanderbilt, the Wildcats knocked them out with a 30-point halftime lead and the largest road win in the Calipari era.
In Gainesville against the Gators, Kentucky looked as if they'd stumble with a four-point halftime deficit, and the Florida lead that grew to as much as eleven in the second half.
Kentucky, who always seems to struggle at Florida and couldn’t seem to buy a bucket or get a stop during stretches, finally put their foot down and finished the game on a 34-12 run to complete the comeback.
It’s normal that John Calipari’s teams usually don’t truly blossom until the postseason. Those worries have gone to bed with this team with this kind of streak. If there are two things this team has learned to do, it’s been how to respond and how to lead.
Every time they would get punched in the mouth, they would punch back in time for it to make a difference. That goes for on the offensive and defensive end.
When the season started, the only leaders seemed to be PJ Washington and Reid Travis. Now, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans all seem to share that role alongside their star front-court duo.
To have a team this connected this early on both on the floor and off is incredibly impressive and it should excite everyone in the Bluegrass for the potential this team has down the stretch.
This group isn’t done getting tested. They’ll still go on the road against Mississippi State and an Ole Miss team that may be fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid after their recent skid.
The Cats will also host Auburn, who should have Austin Wiley back. The surprise LSU Tigers also come to Rupp in what should be a great test. And of course, will play the #1 Tennessee Volunteers twice.
The only real worry now is that this team is peaking at the wrong time, but I disagree. In this SEC, this is the year that the Wildcats need to be playing this well as early as they are. That doesn't mean the play won’t translate come the postseason, but to have a good chance come tournament time, it might be safe to say that the Wildcats will be peaking at the right time.