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Next 18 Days Provide Tough Tests, Great Lessons for Cats

February 7, 2012

Kentucky has played at a different level since Anthony Davis was mauled by Malcolm White at LSU.

After spending the last 10 days watching the Wildcats kick around what appeared to be wildly overmatched opponents, tonight we finally start to get a good sense of exactly how far “Young Team 3.0” has come.

When we looked at the schedule at the start of the season on Sunday Morning Sports Talk, we identified two crucial stretches for this third installment of Cal’s freshman-laden Wildcats. The first was the nine-days in December that matched UK against St. John’s, #5 North Carolina and an unranked, yet unbeaten Indiana at Indiana. By all accounts Kentucky did as well as expected in that December run. Yes, you ‘d like to have the last play at Indiana back, but by now does anybody still sting from that loss? Ok, maybe just a little.

Since that game in Bloomington, we’ve seen the Cats roll over the tail end of the non-conference schedule, knock off Louisville on New Year’s Eve, and then dominate what will mostly end up being the bottom half of the SEC standings at the end of the year. Yes, there was a road game at Tennessee and one at home against what is looking like an increasingly disappointing Alabama team for a little TV spice, but both were preceded and followed by SEC have-littles.

Tonight starts an 18-day stretch where UK will play Florida, Vanderbilt twice and at Mississippi State – all of whom opened the season as popular picks to be able to knock off the Cats.

Let’s be honest, maybe it was dumb luck, maybe it was TV or maybe Kevin Stallings is right and there is a massive pro-UK conspiracy in the SEC office, but the schedule-makers were more than kind to Kentucky this year. Forget the Thursday-Saturday turnaround issue; the fact that the best opponents on the docket are backloaded like this is nothing but a positive for a team like Kentucky that (for the foreseeable future) opens the season with so many primary players who’ve never played together before. They’ve had ample time to work out a lot of kinks against teams far better than Chattanooga.

Over the course of the next 18 days we’ll see how well UK has learned to defend the three – a killer at Indiana, and say what you want about the South Carolina game, but the Gamecocks shot 45% from the arc. Allow that against Florida or Vandy and you take an L. We see how well they can continue to deal with the physicality of players like Patric Young, Steve Tchiengang, Festus Ezeli, Arnett Moultrie and what’s left of Renardo Sidney. Finally, for the first time we’ll get a look at this UK team in truly hostile environments at Vanderbilt and at Mississippi State. Just for fun we get to see how they handle a trap game against Ole Miss.

I’m not sure that the Kentucky team we’ve seen the last three games has any problem answering any of these tests. Truthfully, if the Cats play the rest of the season the way they have since Anthony Davis was mauled at LSU, you can probably start stitching the national championship banner now.

Finally, in addition to testing how far these Wildcats have come, the next three weeks also provide a good primer for the sort of focus Kentucky will have to have over a three-week stretch in March and April to be able to hang that banner.

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