Kentucky basketball will begin their 2013 SEC basketball season on Jan. 10. The Wildcats (9-4) open the conference season on the road against a struggling Vanderbilt (6-6) squad.
John Calipari's youthful Wildcats will be tested early at Vandy. Memorial Gym is always a difficult place to play, and this Kentucky team hasn't exactly awed anyone on the road.
But there are reasons for optimism. Kentucky played inspired basketball against Louisville on Dec. 29, and followed it up with their best 40-minute performance of the year against Eastern Michigan.
Granted, Eastern Michigan doesn't boast SEC talent, but the game was a step in the right direction.
In SEC play, will we see more of the same from the Wildcats? What will this team look like in March?
Here are five bold predictions for the Wildcats' SEC season.
The most surprising player of the non-conference season has to be Willie Cauley-Stein.
From an afterthought in the 2012 recruiting class to a bona fide starter, WCS has climbed into the Kentucky rotation through strong rebounding and an unmatched amount of energy.
Cauley-Stein is not a scorer, but he's effective. He has made over 50 percent of his shots in all but two games this season. If only his foul shooting was as respectable...
Moving forward, expect to see John Calipari to continue with his "Twin Tower" starting lineup, with Nerlens Noel and Cauley-Stein down low.
You can also expect SEC teams to struggle scoring on the inside with the Wildcats' length.
If you could compare the 2012-13 Wildcats to any Kentucky team in the John Calipari era, it would be the 2010-11 team.
The Brandon Knight-led Kentucky Wildcats lost six of eight road games in SEC play.
One could argue they had more leadership and skill than the current Wildcats, who will play nine road games.
If the non-conference schedule was any indication, Kentucky will struggle away from Rupp Arena this year.
Poor decision-making, rebounding and free-throw shooting have been the norm for Kentucky on the road this year. Expect that trend to continue against veteran teams in the SEC.
Who will it be?
Will it be Nerlens Noel, the unquestioned defensive backbone?
Or Archie Goodwin, the leading scorer?
Maybe it will be one with experience—Julius Mays, Ryan Harrow or Kyle Wiltjer—that steps up and speaks out.
For all we know, a leader has already emerged. Harrow appears to be over his bout with confidence issues, and has improved in each game this season.
Kentucky will be tested. Players and emotions will be worn down as the season progresses, and it will take a leader to bring the team together.
Expect that leader to emerge in the coming games.
As of this writing, the two best teams in the SEC are, without question, Florida and Missouri. They are the only SEC teams ranked in the AP Top 25.
Fortunately for Kentucky, they will not face either team until the final quarter of the year.
Both teams will visit Rupp Arena: Missouri on Feb. 23 and Florida to end the year on Mar. 9.
While Kentucky may not defeat Florida in The Swamp on Feb. 12, they do have a great shot at ending the season strong with a quality win over Florida.
Kentucky will continue to improve.
When Missouri and Florida come to Lexington, the Wildcats will be ready.
It's not too far-fetched to think that Kentucky, by March, will be a top-10 team.
You've heard it before: Teams won't want to play the Wildcats in March.
John Calipari and Kentucky have a reputation in March, one that consists of an Elite Eight, Final Four and national title.
This year, despite struggles early in the year, Kentucky will be a force in the postseason.
The challenges Kentucky has faced this season are primarily due to their youth and inexperience. At the end of the year, the young Wildcats will have matured. They will have more game experience.
In recent games, Kentucky has already shown improvements. Ryan Harrow has been a stabilizing force on offense, Willie Cauley-Stein has emerged as a starter.
Kentucky was resilient in their effort against Louisville, albeit in a loss.
But the effort was an improvement, and if the Wildcats continue to develop, they'll be a formidable team in March.