Kentucky basketball is on the rise. Two straight road wins have put the Wildcats in a position to break back into the Top 25. But it hasn't been a rosy season for the Wildcats.
Facing absurd expectations heading into the 2012-13 season, John Calipari's squad lost four games in the first half of the season.
Inexperience was prevalent. Scoring was a struggle. Kentucky did not have the look of a tournament team, let alone a Top 25 team.
But things have changed. Kentucky has won five of its last six, with a 3-1 record on the road. It hasn't always been pretty, but Kentucky has progressed.
It has been an up-and-down season for Kentucky. Here's my midseason report card for the Wildcats.
The final score doesn't always tell the entire story for the Kentucky offense.
The Wildcats, as of this writing, are 29th in the nation in points per game (76.2).
That statistic, however, has been buoyed by non-conference cupcakes like Lafayette, Long Island and Eastern Michigan.
Granted, the Kentucky offense has been impressive at times. At Ole Miss, the Kentucky offense was fluid and efficient. Kyle Wiltjer played his best game of the year, scoring 26 points.
Moving forward, the Wildcats need to continue to run the offense through Wiltjer. That wouldn't have been said earlier in the year, but Wiltjer is the Wildcats' best offense.
Inconsistent guard play, namely from Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin, has occasionally ruined the Kentucky offense.
Turnovers and poor shot selection have been hit-or-miss this year. Free throws have been terrible. All three are cause for concern moving forward.
Nerlens Noel has carried the Kentucky Wildcats on defense.
Just ask Ole Miss.
Noel might be a project offensively, but his defense is as good (if not better) than Anthony Davis' defense at this time last year.
Aside from Noel (and Willie Cauley-Stein), no Kentucky players have showed a passion for defensive tenacity. The 2012 national champions prided themselves on being able to stop the opposing team.
Kyle Wiltjer, with all his offensive competence, is a major liability on defense. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress have the skills to be shut-down defenders, but don't always have that passion.
Defense has kept Kentucky in games (at Notre Dame and vs. Baylor), even if they have ended in losses. In those games, the Kentucky offense was deplorable, but the defense held tough.
My position on John Calipari's job this season has wavered.
On paper, Kentucky has the talent of a top-10 team. Four potential first-round picks in the 2013 NBA draft are currently on the Kentucky roster.
Throw in a pair of sharpshooters, a point guard with a year of tutelage under Calipari and you can understand why Kentucky was ranked so high at the beginning of the year.
But watching these Wildcats play, one thing is clear: Road experience matters. Maturity matters. In-game experience matters.
These young Wildcats are learning as they go, and although the potential is there to be great, cohesion is needed.
The unity and trust that is built in championship teams cannot be instilled by a coach, nor can it be guaranteed each season.
Calipari has done what he can with this team, and they have progressed. Sure, he could ask for Archie Goodwin to be a bit less assertive. He could require the ball to go through Kyle Wiltjer on every possession.
He knows his team. He knows what is necessary to win games.
The road doesn't get any easier for Kentucky. Six of their last 10 regular season games are at home, but even home games aren't guarantees this season.
It has been a down year, by Calipari-at-Kentucky standards.
Two games against Florida and one game against Missouri will go far in determining just how prepared this team is for the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
Imagine if Kentucky won all three of those games. All of a sudden, we're talking about a top-10 team with a coach of the year-like performance from John Calipari.
Unlikely, but possible.
Now imagine if Kentucky loses all four road games and finishes the year with a 19-12 (10-8) record. Big Blue Nation would be satisfied with an NCAA tournament bid.
Another unlikely scenario, but also plausible.
That is the spectrum of possibilities for this Kentucky team, and we have seen it all this season in big wins (at Ole Miss, vs. Maryland) and ugly losses (vs. Texas A&M, at Alabama).