By LARRY VAUGHT
When Kentucky lost at North Carolina early in the 2010-11 season, it was possible to project that Kentucky would be a better team if the two teams met again later in the season because of the dependence the Wildcats had on freshmen.
Kentucky did come back and beat North Carolina in March, too, in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
But what if the two teams play again in the NCAA Tournament this season? Which team figures to have improved more from the time of UKâ€™s one-point win last week until March Madness rolls around?
â€œI like UK’s upside more as they are younger and still learning, plus with the season they will gain valuable experience. Not to mention the talent level is pretty good,â€ said former UK All-American point guard Kyle Macy, who now works as a TV color analyst and is also a Lexington radio sports talk show host.
Both teams are good. Really good.
And donâ€™t forget that even with North Carolinaâ€™s older roster, the Tar Heels also have some talented newcomers and the team will likely improve as players become more accustomed to playing together.
Kentucky has a senior â€” Darius Miller â€” playing in coach John Calipariâ€™s system for the third season. Two others, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, are in year two. For Calipari, that could be as much experience as heâ€™ll have among his top seven players while heâ€™s coaching at Kentucky.
â€œIf I am doing my job, players are leaving here,â€ said Calipari. â€œIf I coach them right, they will be ready to move on (to the NBA).â€
With the high level talent he recruits, heâ€™s right.
Still,â€ˆMacy sees a big upside for Kentucky. The Wildcats have four freshmen â€” Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer â€” among the top seven players and itâ€™s impossible to believe all will not be better in March than they are now even though they have already been good enough to help beat Kansas and North Carolina.
â€œBut I also think a guy like (senior Eloy) Vargas is going to keep getting better,â€â€ˆMacy said. â€œThe whole bench is doing what it is asked to do. Just come in and be solid. Thatâ€™s what they need from Vargas, and heâ€™s doing it. Block shots. Rebound. Play defense. Be physical.â€ˆIf he can do that for eight to 10 minutes, thatâ€™s huge for Kentucky.â€
If Vargas can do that, and it seems Calipari is starting to believe he can, it makes it easier to give Davis and/or Jones a needed break.
â€œKentucky is so young, you know it will develop and improve,â€â€ˆMacy said. â€œI think with North Carolina, you may already know what you are going to get.
â€œThe talent level, from top to bottom, is better at Kentucky. Calipari may not play as many players and the last guy may not be as talented as North Carolinaâ€™s guy, but at the top Kentucky is more talented.â€
Heâ€™s right because last weekâ€™s game showed that Kidd-Gilchrist can more than hold his own with North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes, a preseason All-American like Jones. It showed that Davis can hold up inside against Carolinaâ€™s Tyler Zeller and John Henson if he becomes more physical like he did the second half.
â€œThen donâ€™t forget that Wiltjer is going to improve. There are questions about his strength and quickness, but he can bang and rebound,â€â€ˆMacy said. â€œHeâ€™s also such a threat on the perimeter to score, but he can also go inside and do damage like he did against North Carolina. To me, he is maybe the wild card for Kentucky. You can put him in a game and see how he is doing. If he can maintain his own on defense, then you can keep him in and let his offense really cause problems. Teams donâ€™t usually have a guy like that to bring in off the bench.â€
North Carolina coach Roy Williams says Kentucky has one thing most teams donâ€™t have â€” scoring versatility.
â€œThey have the ability to score at every position,â€ Williams said. â€œI think they are trying to get one of their good players an advantage and then be a basketball player. The lateral screen underneath is tough to handle, the flat screen out front,â€ Williams said. â€œWe were pretty good defensively, they made some big time shots and itâ€™s hard for a coach to say we were good defensively when they shot 56 percent in the second half. But theyâ€™re willing to run some clock also.
â€œItâ€™s not just throw up the first bad shot. So for me, Iâ€™d like it a lot better if John would let them take bad shots but I donâ€™t think they did that. I think what he was doing offensively is what they work on every day. If they take some bad shots it usually helps us and I didnâ€™t see many.â€
Thatâ€™s because Kentucky did maintain its poise against the more experienced Tar Heels and won a December game that no one would have been shocked to see the Cats lose. But the good news for UK is that the players seem to understand they not only can get better, but they must get better.
â€œWe felt like this was a test to see where we are at, playing against one of the best teams in the country, and we come out with a W,â€ Miller said after the North Carolina game. â€œI think we are pretty happy and proud about it, but we know we aren’t exactly where we want to be.â€
And thatâ€™s why if the two teams do play again, one has to believe UKâ€ˆwill be an even better team.