If the Kentucky Wildcats are looking for a barometer of their NCAA tournament viability, then they need to look no further than Saturday's matchup against the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals.
Heading into the contest, the Wildcats have won four straight games after their 4-3 start vaulted the team out of the rankings and left many wondering whether this would be a lost season in Lexington.
Why hasn't Kentucky come back inside the Top 25 after this streak? Mainly due to the laughable competition. The Wildcats' four opponents during this time are a combined 22-29 on the season, with Marshall being the only above-.500 squad
The streak was also understandably lost in a blizzard of blusterous schadenfreude in wake of the Wildcats' struggles. After all, the only thing more exciting than the rise of a dynasty is watching it helplessly tumble to the earth.
But as it stands, Kentucky is likely even better the rankings want to give the team credit for. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Wildcats rank as his No. 13 overall team in the country and are second behind Virginia Commonwealth among three-loss teams. Pomeroy tracks them as being the 26th-best team in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency and eighth in the same defensive measurement.
In other words, this is a team that is far closer to the elite conversation than anyone realizes—and the Wildcats are only going to get better. Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, the team's fearsome trio of freshman, have each excelled in their roles throughout this winning streak.
That's what makes this game against Louisville such an important barometer. The Cardinals come in ranked fourth in the country and Pomeroy's standings have them as an even more favorable second. They're a deep, experienced team and will arguably present the toughest challenge of Kentucky's season.
By the time they take the floor on Saturday, both teams will be more than well-rested. The Cardinals and Wildcats will have played a combined seven games in the past three weeks, all of which came against teams that weren't a massive challenge.
In other words, preparation isn't a factor. Rick Pitino and John Calipari will have had ample opportunity to study the weaknesses and strengths of their opposition and employ strategies designed at amplifying those deficiencies.
That means Saturday's game mostly comes down to execution and talent. If the Wildcats as currently constituted can compete with a Final Four-worthy team, we'll see it against Louisville.
And based on Kentucky's schedule down the stretch, this will be one of the last times Calipari's squad can gauge where it stands.
Outside of Florida and Missouri, the SEC isn't exactly the same juggernaut it is in football. Other than three games against the Gators and Tigers, Kentucky has 16 games where its most difficult opponent will likely be unranked Arkansas. And though the Razorbacks are a dangerous scoring team, they don't play defense and their talent is pretty top-heavy.
To put it another way, if the Wildcats lost to every ranked opponent and defeated every unranked opponent for the remainder of the regular season (which won't happen), they would finish with a 24-7 record. Considering the talent on the roster and record, Kentucky would easily make the tournament and probably be a top-six seed having not done a thing to earn it.
In other words, the conference schedule won't tell Calipari much at all about where his team stands against the nation's elite.
After losses to Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor, Louisville will be the last outside challenger before the Wildcats engorge themselves in the insular SEC world. Once we get into the interconference season, it becomes infinitely more difficult to judge teams on nationwide merits.
If Kentucky is able to pull off an upset, it will prove that this four-game winning streak is an indicator of a team-wide ascent, rather than an anomaly against a cakewalk schedule.
The result won't necessary matter once the field of 68 is set in March. Kentucky's freshmen will only continue to ascend, and this team was always more like the 2010-11 Final Four late-blossoming squad than the yearlong juggernauts of last season.
However, for the Wildcats to have any confidence heading into their conference schedule, they must show up and perform well versus Louisville. If not, there's going to be a lot of hand-wringing going on in Lexington between now and Selection Sunday.