A Six-Pack Of Thoughts On Saturday’s North Carolina-Kentucky Game

One of the biggest complaints about my college basketball coverage here at Aaron Torres Sports goes a little something like this: Geez Aaron, all you ever do is talk about Kentucky!! You love them. You’re a closet fan. Why don’t you and John Calipari just go get married or something!

Ok, so maybe no one has actually called me out on that last one. But the first three are definitely in play.

But with that, let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a Kentucky fan, I’m a UConn fan. A big one actually. As a matter of fact, when UConn and Kentucky get on the court together (which has happened a lot recently), I root for UConn. Every…single…time. Promise.

Of course with that said, it doesn’t mean that I can’t have respect for Kentucky, because frankly, I do. The truth is, I find the program and the fans fascinating, and most importantly, I actually like John Calipari a lot. I know that sounds blasphemous, but to quote every 16-year-old girl in America, “Whatever, I don’t care what you think!” I like Cal a lot, and give him credit for doing things his way, and not listening to the outsiders. I give him credit for taking already skilled players, and milking every last ounce of talent out of them (who saw Eric Bledsoe as a Top 20 pick after one year?). And really, doesn’t that NCAA Tournament resume speak for itself at this point? Those six straight Sweet 16’s don’t lie. Neither do five Elite Eight’s in six years. Basically, I have respect for Calipari in the same way I’ve got respect for Nick Saban or Les Miles. Just because they’re not my coach (like Jim Calhoun is), doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate them. Ya know?

Ok, so now that I’ve gotten my little John Calipari soliloquy out of the way, let’s talk some hoops. As you may have heard, there was a pretty game this weekend, and to anyone who knows me, knows that I’ve got plenty of thoughts on it.

Here are a six-pack of takeaways on one of the most impressive early season college hoops games I’ve seen in years, Carolina and Kentucky.

1. The Most Impressive Thing For Kentucky, Was The Way They Made Carolina Play Their Game Down The Stretch: Truth be told, early in the game I thought Carolina did a better job of exerting themselves, and forcing Kentucky to play their style.  Kendall Marshall was able to get into the lane and find his shooters in the corners, the bigs were able to get position down low for easy buckets, you know, little stuff like that (And as we all know, the little stuff goes a long way towards winning in basketball).

It’s also what made Kentucky’s comeback in the second half all the more impressive; for the last seven or eight minutes of the game, the Wildcats, fought back, and exerted their will on North Carolina.

That’s impressive for a few different reasons. First of all, forget the name on the front of Kentucky’s jersey for a second, and realize that the idea that anyone in college basketball was able to fundamentally change the way that Carolina plays is stunning. The Tar Heels are a veteran team that above all, is more comfortable in their own skin than any team in college hoops. To Carolina’s credit, they know their own strengths and weaknesses, know their teammates strengths and weaknesses, and know their opponents strengths and weaknesses too. Then again, that’s what happens when you’ve played upwards of 25 or 30 games together as a group, and countless more scrimmages. It also helps that Carolina has any much basketball talent as anyone in college basketball.

So again, the idea that Kentucky was able to put the clamps down on defense, and fundamentally change the way they played isn’t just inconceivable, it’s straight mind-boggling.

Seriously, think about it for a second: Can you name any real offensive highlights for North Carolina over the final few minutes of play? Marshall wasn’t able to get into the lane and find open men like he was able to earlier. The bigs weren’t productive. And Harrison Barnes turned into a ghost. Again, North Carolina is one of the top offensive teams we’ll see in college basketball all year (or any year, really), and they couldn’t do anything against Kentucky. Nothing! As a matter of fact, I just looked it up, and apparently, Carolina didn’t have a two-point field goal in the final six minutes. That folks, is some solid defense.

And really, that’s a credit to both team and coach. Yes this is a young team, and they absolutely have plenty of work to do to get better. At the same time, it’s a lot easier to get young guys to play hard on offense, but not nearly the same on defense. Defense is about effort. Defense is about helping your teammates. Defense isn’t about glory. Yet right now, no one in the country is playing better defense in the second half of games like Kentucky is.

What’s even scarier, is that defense is only going to get better.

2. I Love, Love, Love Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: Ok, so maybe I already talked about Kidd-Gilchrist ad nauseum after I saw him play in person at the Mohegan Sun Arena a few weeks ago. And maybe I don’t technically have a ton to add here.

Well guess what? I’m going to talk about him anyway. This is my column, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

In all seriousness though, this kid is quickly turning into maybe my favorite non-UConn player in all of college basketball. Every intangible that a fan could want from one of their players, Kidd-Gilchrist has it. He plays hard on every single possession, on both ends of the floor. He isn’t afraid to mix up down low. And he wants the ball in the biggest moments. Although Doron Lamb had a bunch of big shots on Saturday afternoon, Kentucky wouldn’t have been in the position for Lamb to make those shots if Kidd-Gilchrist hadn’t carried them to that point with his earlier play.

What I really like about the guy though, is that he really doesn’t seem to have an ego. It was fascinating for me to watch Kentucky’s preseason play out, and for Kidd-Gilchrist to get lost in the shuffle. Early on, it seemed like every storyline entering the season focused on everything but him. The storylines focused on the emergence of Anthony Davis at center; the development of Terrence Jones; and how Marquis Teague would handle playing point guard. Meanwhile, Kidd-Gilchrist- a kid who was generally considered the No. 1 player in his class for most of his high school career- was nowhere to be heard from. Instead of moping though, he just went to work and got things done.

Above all though, what I enjoyed the most about Saturday, was listening to college basketball’s best writers (most of whom were seeing Kidd-Gilchrist in person for the first time this year) gush over him. Many were saying the same things that I had been for two weeks about his toughness and heart, and things like that.

Needless to say, it looks like I’m not the only one impressed.

3. I Still Have Faith In Harrison Barnes: Over the course of his career, it’s safe to say that I’ve flip-flopped on Barnes more than a teenage girl picking out shoes for a big first date. Early last year I thought he was overrated. Then he played well and thought he was probably a bit underrated. Then this season started and everyone was talking about him as a shoe-in for National Player of the Year, which made me jump off the bandwagon again. Then I saw him play a few times, and I’m back in.

As for Saturday in specific, it truly wasn’t his best game. Some of that was his fault, some of it was Kidd-Gilchrist’s defense, and really, some of it was Roy Williams’s fault too. Does anyone have an explanation as to why Barnes was in the game with two fouls in the first half, when North Carolina had control of the game and was ahead by seven? It was unspeakably poor coaching, and cost Barnes a quick, cheap, game-changing foul.

And while it didn’t cost Carolina at the time, it did cost them a bit late. For as good as he was early, Barnes wasn’t nearly as confident in the second half, settling for too many jump shots, and seeming to be a bit passive defensively as well. And I find it hard to believe that at least some of it didn’t have to do with concern over fouls. It was as if he was playing at about 70 percent the entire second half.

Still, I’m buying Barnes going forward. From what I’ve seen in games other than the one Saturday, his offensive game seems much more refined this year, and he seems much more comfortable taking people off the dribble, and going to the hoop. He showed the whole package last week against Wisconsin, scoring 20 points in just about every way imaginable. I suspect that game will be much more indicative of the real Harrison Barnes going forward, than what we saw Saturday.

4. As Much As I Hate To Admit It, John Henson Is Improved Too: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m just going to throw this out there: Nobody has made more bad John Henson jokes over the years than I have. Nobody. It’s not even close. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said something not funny while using the words “John Henson” and “needs to eat a cheeseburger” in the same sentence, I could be retired by now. Or at the very least, probably have my student loans paid off.

With that said though, I’ve got to admit that of just about everyone on the court Saturday, Henson was the guy who impressed me the most. Like Barnes, his game is way more refined than a year ago. While he was always a talented rebounder and shot blocker, up through last season, Henson was also a player who truly lacked any kind of real, tangible offensive game. Other than a few tip-ins and put backs, there really just wasn’t much there to work with.

But this year? His offensive game is roughly- oh, I don’t know- like 2,000 times better than it was a season ago. He’s added a nice little jump hook (which Tyler Zeller is also excellent at, by the way) and also showed a soft touch on a 10-foot jumper. Maybe most impressive though were his moves around the basket. There was one play in specific that stood out, when he had two or three nice pump fakes, still kept his pivot, spun around, and laid it in on the ball in on an unsuspecting defender. It might not sound like much on paper, but to see it in real life was a thing of beauty.

5. I’m Starting To Wonder If Terrence Jones Is The Key To Kentucky’s Season: Now before you call me crazy Kentucky fans, just hear me out.

I’m not saying that Terrence Jones needs to be transcendently great, or even good in every single game. He doesn’t. Quite frankly, UK should be able to roll about 90 percent of teams in college basketball regardless of how he plays on any given night. The problem Terrence_Jonesis the other 10 percent of teams, and it’s where I think Jones could be the difference.

To explain, let’s take a look at the rest of the guys on this team.

Offensively, I’m just not sure what you’re going to get night-in and night-out from Anthony Davis. Davis is an incredible story, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m truly impressed with how well he has been able to acclimate himself down low in the paint after spending so much of his career on the perimeter. At the same time, an offensive post game is something that takes time- years even- to develop. Davis will get there, but as many people besides me have already said, Davis’ best basketball won’t be played at Kentucky. It’ll be played when he’s getting paid as a pro.

As for everyone else, well, I think you know what you’ll be getting from them. Kidd-Gilchrist will be good for anywhere from 14-20 points a night. You can probably expect about the same from Doron Lamb. And Marquis Teague? Well, I’m actually thinking the team might be better if he’s scoring less. Like any good point guard, he’s still trying to figure out how to get everyone else involved, and really, that’s where his true value lies. And against 90 percent of college basketball, getting those contributions from those three will be enough.

But Jones? The guy is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a question mark…or however that old phrase goes. When he wants to be, Jones can simply be unstoppable. Early on Saturday, he did it all. He was aggressive taking the ball to the basket, confident in the post, and as we know, he’s always been able to hit a mid-range jumper, and even the occasional three. As I said on Saturday, if Jones played every game like he did the first five against North Carolina, he could be the No. 1 overall pick in the next NBA Draft. The problem of course is that he doesn’t always play like that, something that UK fans don’t need me to tell them.

And really, that was my biggest concern about Jones coming into the season. I read all the reports, heard about how he gained 20 lbs., and was dominating preseason scrimmages. The problem last year though never was his weight or skill level, but instead the intensity he brought every single night to the table. It’s no secret that Jones was basically a non-factor over the last few weeks of the season last year, and I guess I just wondered if he could maintain it over 35+ games this year.

So far, the jury is still out. We’ve seen him maintain a high level of play for five and 10 minute spurts, and at times, even for entire games. The problem is that we haven’t seen it for 35 minutes a game, every game, like we need to. And while that might not matter now, or even for a few months, it will eventually.

And I’ll be curious if Jones is up for the challenge.

6. Finally, My Biggest Takeaway Is That Both Teams Were Both Mentally And Physically Tougher Than I’d Expected: And really, that was is the most important thing to come out of Saturday’s game.

For North Carolina, their toughness was undoubtedly my biggest question coming into the season. We knew they had talent. We knew they had skill and depth. Roy Williams obviously knows a thing or two about coaching. But for all the talk about them being a unanimous, undisputed No. 1 entering the year, I just wasn’t sold. The truth is that as a group, this Carolina team had really only played about six good weeks of basketball together, starting when Larry Drew transferred last winter, through the end of the NCAA Tournament. And while it was great to watch Carolina put it together late last year, it was going to be something quite different this winter. After all, it’s just a different ball-game when you’ve got a target on your back every night, which Carolina now does.

Well, whatever doubts I had were mostly put to rest on Saturday. Carolina went into one of the toughest road venues in college basketball, against a team just as talented as they are, played without their best player for most of the game (Barnes), and still nearly pulled out the win. Yes they didn’t end up with that victory, but that isn’t necessarily the worst thing. Truth be told, Kentucky went out and “won” that game, much more than Carolina “lost” it. If you catch my drift.

And while Barnes hardly was at his best, what was most impressive to me is how well everyone stepped up around him. I’ve already mentioned Henson. Tyler Zeller played tough in the paint, and earned every one of his 14 points. P.J. Hairston hit some big shots. Kendall Marshall is always fantastic. Simply put, if the Tar Heels play like that the rest of the season, there isn’t a single game they can’t win.

Then there’s Kentucky. Truthfully, I wasn’t so much concerned about the physical toughness with them, since most of their guys (Jones, Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb, Davis) have already proven to be tough. More concerning was the mental aspect of things. How would a team so young, with such little experience together handle an adverse situation? It’s one thing when you’re playing Radford or even St. John’s. It’s quite another when you’re playing someone as talented as Carolina.

Yeah, well, apparently it’s not nearly the issue I expected it to be. You know, since Kentucky passed their biggest test of the early season with flying colors.

Maybe most impressively, is that they passed the test on both ends of the court. I already mentioned their defense in the first bullet point, but the offensive execution was even more impressive. Again, it’s one thing to play tough defense. Defense is about mind-set and will after all. But offense? Well, that’s actually about executing, making plays and being a great teammate. It’s supposed to take weeks, maybe even months to be as good as Kentucky is right now.

In the end, I guess I’ll share the same sentiment that most other writers have already agreed upon: Saturday’s Kentucky-Carolina clash proved to be one of the most fun and exciting early season college hoops games in a long, long time.

And unlike college football, I don’t think anyone will object to a rematch.

(Love the article? Hate it? Disagree with something Aaron said? Have a few reasons why you’re excited? Comment below, or e-mail Aaron at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.