By: Conner Handel, KCOU Sports
The Kentucky Wildcats are No. 1 in the nation. In the words of Paul Finebaum, split the roster into two teams and they become No. 1 and No. 2. That may be an overstatement, but there is no denying how good this young team has looked through five games. They have outscored opponents by an average of 34 points per game, including a 72-40 embarrassment of Kansas.
The last time Kentucky started 5-0 they won the 2012 National Championship. Wooden Award winner Anthony Davis led the way for the Wildcats that year as they lost just two games all season. Although the team started three freshmen, its veteran presence in senior Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb helped the Wildcats become a more complete team.
The veteran presence is more prevalent this season than it was in 2012. Kentucky returns three starters this season in sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison and junior Willy Cauley-Stein. With junior Alex Poythress reentering the starting lineup, as he spent most of 2013 as a starter, it is the first time in four years the Wildcats start at least two upperclassmen.
Even though they already look to be miles ahead of the pack, the Wildcats face four tests to determine how complete this team truly is.
The first is the battle of the bigs. On Dec. 5, arguably the two best frontcourts in the nation will go at it. Kentucky will host the Texas Longhorns, a team whose frontcourt averages 6’10, 256 pounds. Texas is also undefeated and has outrebounded its opponents by 49 through four games. Kentucky had outrebounded its opponents by 60 in that same period. This matchup will go a long way in determining how well Kentucky fairs against teams that can match its size.
Next, is the battle of the backcourt. On Dec. 13, the Wildcats host the best point guard in the nation in Marcus Paige and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Paige has jumped out to a slow start this year, but has only played three games. Last year, the only player who meant more to his team was the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Shabazz Napier. Paige scored 20 or more points in 11 games last year, averaging 17 points per game on the season. Paige will exploit any deficiencies in Kentucky’s backcourt.
The battle for Kentucky will test their ability to handle pressure. Louisville, one of the most active defensive teams in the nation, hosts Kentucky on Dec. 27. No Peyton Siva, no Russ Smith, no problem. Chris Jones is the guy this year. He averages 3.3 steals per game and, more often than not, is the quickest guy on the court. Jones has the lethal ability to turn steals into points. With 5.3 steals per game between Jones and Terry Rozier, the duo averages more steals per game than almost 120 NCAA teams. This game can be used as a benchmark for how well Kentucky handles disruptive teams.
The last test is not something we can see in one game, focus. Kentucky is easily the best team in the SEC and should probably go undefeated in conference. Throughout conference play we will get a good idea of whether Kentucky can stay focused on the matchup at hand, no matter how poor the opposition.
Kentucky looks unstoppable now and will have to continue to prove its dominance throughout the season. But if the Wildcats pass all four tests, opponents will wish Kentucky were split into two teams.