Coming into the 2013-14 season, there was debate about where Kentucky’s incoming freshman class ranked on the all-time scale for recruiting classes. Many thought the Wildcats would roll through their schedule on the way to March with all that talent.
However, John Calipari and his Kentucky squad now have three early losses after falling to North Carolina, 82-77, in Chapel Hill.
The Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker supplied Calipari's thoughts on the loss:
Cal: "If you want to keep losing, keep acting that way. We’re not a good team and players aren’t looking real good."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) December 15, 2013
Cal: "This is a team we’re still trying to figure out. They took us out of stuff just by being physical."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) December 15, 2013
Cal reminds of 2010-11 UK: "We lost every road game and went to a Final Four. Will this team do it? If they change."— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) December 15, 2013
A raucous home crowd fueled the Tar Heels throughout the contest, and the team picked up its third incredibly impressive win of the year without P.J. Hairston. North Carolina has already beaten Kentucky, Michigan State and defending national champion Louisville, though strangely it lost to Belmont and UAB.
Marcus Paige led the way for North Carolina with 23 points and three steals, while James Michael McAdoo added 20 points. Aaron Harrison scored 20 points to spur Kentucky.
As so many marquee college basketball games are, this showdown was a game of runs. North Carolina went into intermission with a three-point lead and controlled play for much of the second half, but the Wildcats clawed their way back to within one possession in the final minutes before the Heels finally pulled away.
CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein points out two alarming trends for Kentucky in the season's early going that continued against North Carolina:
Fortunately for Wildcat fans, this is a young team with plenty of time to fix its issues before March. Furthermore, only Florida will really challenge Kentucky on paper in the SEC, so Calipari's squad should secure a solid seed and favorable matchups in the NCAA tournament.
Julius Randle: C
Julius Randle is Kentucky’s best player and arguably the most talented player in the nation, but he was nowhere to be found for extended stretches of the game, which is alarming considering how close this game was throughout.
Some of the blame can be attributed to Wildcats guards for not getting Randle the ball enough, but he also didn't take advantage of the opportunities he received. He shot 3-of-9 from the field and finished with 11 points and five rebounds, and he didn't look comfortable for much of the game. He also picked up a critical intentional foul in the game’s final minute.
If Randle wants to contend for National Player of the Year, he will need better performances when Kentucky takes on the nation’s best teams.
Marcus Paige: A-
Marcus Paige should be praised for how effectively he has played in Hairston's absence.
Coming into the game with Kentucky, he was scoring nearly 19 points a night while dishing out 4.5 assists and tallying 1.5 steals a game. He didn't disappoint in front of the home fans against the Wildcats.
Paige only had two points at intermission but finished with 23. He added three steals and proved his worth as a marquee player who steps up in critical moments. Look for Paige to continue to be a leader for the Tar Heels upon Hairston's return.
James Michael McAdoo: A
James Michael McAdoo was a highly touted recruit coming into North Carolina, but he still hasn't lived up to the sky-high expectations that were placed on his shoulders in the early going.
However, if his performance against Kentucky is any indication, he appears to have turned a corner in his junior season. He posted 20 points against the Wildcats and is gradually improving every time the Tar Heels take the floor. His excellent free-throw shooting (12-of-19) was especially critical in such a hard-fought contest.
The combination of Paige and McAdoo should be praised for keeping North Carolina together during times of adversity regarding the Hairston situation. The marquee wins that are already on the Tar Heels’ resume would not be there without them.
North Carolina will once again take on a big-time name in the college sports world when it faces Texas on Dec. 18. The Tar Heels will look to put together another impressive victory to add to what is already shaping up to be a strong resume.
Things don’t get much easier for the Wildcats. Kentucky will look to recover from its latest loss against a Belmont team that already beat North Carolina and then faces archrival Louisville on Dec. 28. The Wildcats will need a much better effort if they hope to win that one.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.