No. 1 Kentucky is cruising in the early part of this season. The Wildcats have an average margin of victory of 30 points, have not won a game by less than 20, and it's not far-fetched at all to say they are the most talented team in the country.
The only problem, perhaps, is that they're winning by too much. The only time they broke much of a sweat was against a Michigan State team that has struggled all around, and even then the Cats eventually won that game by 21.
That could change Saturday, when Kentucky welcomes Lonzo Ball and the No. 8 UCLA Bruins into Rupp Arena, where UK hasn't lost since early 2014 vs. Arkansas. Indeed, this is going to be some kind of game pitting two offensive juggernauts -- UCLA ranks third in the country at 97 points per game; Kentucky is fourth at just under 96.
You can count on a lot of scoring. A lot of threes. A lot of fireworks.
And maybe, just maybe, the exposure of a few Kentucky holes.
Not that the Cats have many holes. Hell, maybe they don't have any. For most people's money they're the best team in the country. But John Calipari has said he wants to see how his young team functions in a close game for a reason, because when you get right down to it, the Cats have played a pretty weak schedule to this point. To be exact, their strength of schedule ranks 263rd in the nation, according to KenPom.
So basically, they've been good. Really good.
Against not-so-good teams.
So here comes UCLA. Or, more specifically, here come Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford, about as lethal a backcourt as there is in the country. Either one of those guys can catch fire at any moment, and if you do a little digging, you'll see that Kentucky is giving up 18 points a game on 3-pointers, 23 points over their last three games, which ranks 76th in the country. A lot of this, maybe all of it, is the pace at which Kentucky plays. Throw in the fact that teams are constantly playing from behind and thus bombing away, and that stat might not mean much.
Then again, maybe it does. That's sort of the point. Calipari doesn't know a lot about his team right now. Blowing out lesser teams only tells you so much.
"We need close games to see -- alright, who and how do we finish a game?" he said. "Who do we finish with and how do we finish? Who can make the play? Who cannot -- absolutely not -- be in the game? But, until you're in a close game you don't know. Believe me; I don't want these kinds of scores. At times, I'd like us to shoot 32 percent and win. Like, just god awful, can't make a shot and still win the game."
It's interesting that Calipari would arbitrarily choose 32 percent to illustrate his point, because the Cats are currently shooting threes at 32.3 percent as a team, which ranks 254th in the country. Granted, it's a small sample size, but still, there's a potential hole, and if Calipari wants to see how his team responds in a game where they can't find their shot, there are probably better times than against UCLA, who has as much firepower as anyone in the nation.
Indeed, UCLA may be able to hang with, or even beat, UK in a shootout, but the Bruins, who rank 69th in defensive efficiency, probably aren't going to be the team to suddenly shut down the Cats -- who are top five in offensive efficiency and are putting up some blistering numbers to start the year, their relative struggles from deep notwithstanding.
Namely, Kentucky has only shot below 50 percent from the field twice, and the Cats are scoring almost 117 points per 100 possessions, which, relatively speaking, is more than the Golden State Warriors.
The problem is experience, or lack thereof, which is something Kentucky -- currently the sixth-youngest team in the country according to KenPom -- always faces with its annual reliance on freshmen, four of which are in a starting role again this year, with the other one being sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. If you're looking at pure talent, Kentucky probably has more NBA prospects than any team in the country, and that matters. But when Briscoe -- again, just a sophomore -- is your "veteran" starter, well, that's not exactly what you would call a proven team.
That's what this game on Saturday is all about. Both teams, on some level, are out to prove they're as good as they're being made out to be in the early going. For Kentucky, Monk draining 3-pointers in a 25-point game is one thing, but can Cal count on him in a tight, late-game situation to knock those same shots down? Are we absolutely confident that De'Aaron Fox has a jumper that can be trusted in crunch time? If the Cats actually find themselves having to play from behind, do they have the poise the stay the course and get back in the game?
There are reasons to think they absolutely can play from behind. After all, they score a lot of points, and on the other end they don't give up very many points. That's a pretty good recipe for making big runs.
But there are at least reasons to pause.
See what Calipari is really working with.
With Kentucky slated to face three top-15 teams in December, including Saturday's tilt with UCLA and later dates with Louisville and North Carolina, we should get some answers pretty quickly.
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