The Kentucky Wildcats may not be the third-best team in the nation at this point, but let's all hold off on slamming our fists repeatedly against the panic button.
ESPN's 24-hour marathon of college basketball concluded Tuesday night with the Wildcats' contest against the No. 9 Duke Blue Devils at the Georgia Dome. Expected to be one of the best early-season games on the 2012-13 college basketball schedule, it turned out to be a relative disappointment.
While the game certainly had its moments of intrigue, the Blue Devils came away with a 75-68 victory and the margin felt like far more.
Duke took control of the contest midway through the first half and ceded its lead only once in the final 27 minutes. Led by great performances from Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and, yes, some flopping, the Blue Devils took advantage of almost every opportunity afforded by their young counterparts.
Kentucky deriders will say Tuesday night's loss is proof positive that the Wildcats were overrated by the preseason rankings. To a certain extent, that's true. But Tuesday's loss to Duke does not prove anything other than the Blue Devils were better in November—a fact that will mean absolutely nothing come March.
Let's remember that this Wildcats team is not only young, but is also far less talented than last year's bunch.
Despite the comparisons, Nerlens Noel is not Anthony Davis. Where Davis was one of the best college basketball players of the last quarter century, Noel is simply an elite college prospect. Noel is an uber-talented stalwart that will oftentimes frustrate just as often as he comes up with a show-stopping play.
Fellow freshmen Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin aren't consistent enough yet to get their varied comparisons, either.
What's more, team's oldest starter, Julius Mays, is brand new to the program after playing for NC State and Wright State previously. Even if he is a "veteran" college basketball player, his lack of experience under John Calipari gives him just a sliver more clout than the freshmen.
In fact, anyone who does a modicum of reading should have expected this. Calipari essentially said as much when told some were making the Wildcats a championship favorite during the SEC's media days in October.
"Whoever did that needs to be drug-tested," Calipari said (per ESPN). "We're not very good right now. I think we'll be a good team eventually, hopefully, but right now we're just average."
The Kentucky coach isn't someone who will just say things like that to say them. He's not Phil Jackson, a "Zen Master" who enjoys playing Jedi mind tricks on his players. If Calipari says his team is "average," he means it—especially when comparing it to the 2011-12 national championship standard.
Last season's Kentucky team was a juggernaut, filled with players who probably should have never even made a trip to Lexington. Even at peak performance, this season's squad will never get to the 2011-12 apex. It has far more similarities to the 2010-11 team that peaked in the NCAA Tournament than a year-long juggernaut.
And considering the Wildcats' long-term goal, that's not exactly a bad thing. It's not necessary whatsoever that Kentucky wins relatively meaningless early-season contests against Duke.
Instead, it's critical that Calipari and the Wildcats use these games as learning experiences to progress forward. The Kentucky coach did perhaps his best coaching job with that 2010-11 team and has an opportunity to do the same with this wet-behind-the-ears bunch.
As long as the fingers stay off the panic button in Lexington and fans stick through a guaranteed early-season rough patch, this Kentucky team has an opportunity to repeat as national champions.
Just don't expect it to come as easy this time around.
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