Kentucky Basketball: 5 Games That Will Define Wildcats' Season in 2014-15
On paper, Kentucky basketball has every reason to expect another national championship in 2014-15, but those expectations don’t always materialize.
For John Calipari’s team to make good on its incalculable potential, the Wildcats will need to prove that they can beat the best teams in the country, many of which made it onto Coach Cal’s schedule this year.
One such powerhouse is the North Carolina Tar Heels, who knocked off last year’s Kentucky squad in Chapel Hill. UK gets to host the return bout at Rupp Arena, but that doesn’t mean Aaron Harrison and company can afford to take the Heels lightly.
Herein, a closer look at Big Blue’s rematch with UNC, along with four more regular-season games that will make the difference between Kentucky living up to its championship expectations or limping into March thinking about what might have been.
Vs. Kansas (Nov. 18)
Of all the potential Final Four previews on UK’s schedule—and there’s an argument that every game on this list could fit that description—the early-season showdown with Kansas is the one that will tell us the least.
Both teams are heavily freshman-dependent, and they’ll have played a combined total of just three non-exhibition games when they meet in Indianapolis.
However, a win against the Jayhawks and their wealth of NBA-bound talent—which includes junior Perry Ellis and sophomore Wayne Selden Jr. along with first-year stars Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander—would keep the ‘Cats on track to justify their preseason hype.
Conversely, a Kentucky team that built enormous confidence during the postseason (especially for the Harrison twins) would almost inevitably start doubting itself if it started 2-1 while other elite programs climbed to 12-0 or 22-0.
Vs. Texas (Dec. 5)
Kentucky’s latest haul of uber-freshmen isn't scheduled to face off with the consensus top player in the recruiting class—Duke’s Jahlil Okafor—but Myles Turner isn’t a bad consolation prize.
ESPN’s No. 2 freshman is a 6’11” center who combines a terrific low-post game with shooting range to the three-point arc. He’s also got quite a team around him.
The Longhorns return every major contributor from last year’s 24-11 squad, including 285-pound center Cameron Ridley and a wealth of other post options.
Point guard Isaiah Taylor, who led a win over Kansas as a freshman, isn’t about to be daunted by Kentucky’s mystique, either.
Vs. North Carolina (Dec. 13)
If Andrew Harrison and his mates really have improved their defense as much as UK fans hope, this is the game to prove it.
UNC’s Marcus Paige shredded the Wildcats (especially their then-freshman point guard) for 21 second-half points in a win in Chapel Hill last year. North Carolina's floor leader is only going to be more dangerous as a junior and Wooden Award favorite.
Up front, Roy Williams’ boys will answer Kentucky’s length with their own bulk: Centers Kennedy Meeks and Joel James tip the scales at a combined 560 pounds.
The Heels have the athletes to run with UK in the open floor, so if Paige—the best shot-maker on either team—gets hot, this one will come right down to the wire.
At Louisville (Dec. 27)
With Russ Smith gone, Louisville is short on recognizable names for 2014-15, but that’s about all the Cardinals are lacking.
One of the few teams in the country that can compete with Kentucky for depth, Rick Pitino’s squad has more than enough firepower to pose a threat on its home floor.
Sophomore shot-blocker Mangok Mathiang, backed up by a pair of big-bodied freshmen, will keep Kentucky’s size from overrunning the home team.
With offensive standouts built for the half court (Montrezl Harrell) or the transition game (Chris Jones, who scored 18 points at Rupp Arena last year), the Cards aren’t going down without a fight.
At Florida (Feb. 7)
If any SEC opponent is going to beat Kentucky, it will be the Gators on their home floor. Florida isn’t nearly as deep as it was a season ago, but the talent in Billy Donovan’s starting five is enough to make even Kentucky sit up and take notice.
Sophomore power forward Chris Walker is a leading contender for SEC Player of the Year, and his classmate Kasey Hill will be one of the league’s most explosive point guards.
Andrew Harrison (who shot 3-of-14 from the field in Gainesville last season) will need a strong game on both ends of the floor to avoid an upset here.