After playing North Carolina on Saturday, Kentucky will hope that introductions will be in order. More precisely, that should be re-introductions.
The first impression this Kentucky team made came in the 118-84 loss to Duke on opening night. What impression did college basketball get of UK? “They view us like a regular team,” Ashton Hagans said Thursday.
Of course, when introduced before every home game as the greatest program in the history of college basketball, Kentucky sees itself as the antithesis of regular. After more than a month of regularity, UK can restore luster to its profile by beating No. 9 North Carolina.
“It’s a big opportunity for us, you know, to go out there and prove we’ve been working hard,” EJ Montgomery said.
UK Coach John Calipari downplayed the notion of a victory over the Tar Heels serving as a re-introduction. His win-or-learn mantra does not include a rear-view mirror.
As evidence, Calipari cited a game in the 2014-15 season and Kansas as the example to follow.
“When we beat Kansas by 50 that year, did they ever get over that game?” he asked rhetorically. “You keep playing. You keep going.”
UK outclassed and overwhelmed Kansas 72-40 on Nov. 18, 2014. It was the most lopsided defeat in Bill Self’s coaching career. Kansas went into the NCAA Tournament the following March with a 26-8 record, the Big 12 Conference regular-season champion and a two-seed in the Midwest Region.
“I think there’s some people in our orbit that have not gotten over that first game yet,” Calipari said of the loss to Duke.
Those people include former Wildcat Mike Pratt, the color analyst on radio broadcasts of UK games. He traced a hesitancy he sees in UK’s play to the Duke loss.
“I don’t think they’ve recovered from that,” Pratt said this week. “I don’t think they’ve recovered totally.”
When asked how the loss to Duke lingered, Pratt said, “Confidence. It’s all confidence. . . . They’re still struggling to get that swagger about them back that they had. . . . That was a horrible thing to open the season with, I’ll tell you.”
Early this month, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas also spoke of an ill effect created by the 34-point loss to Duke.
“They had their entire foundation shaken by their first result,” he said. “So they go in and get blown out. That was a confidence shaker. And I happen to think they’re still recovering. . . .
“Confidence is a funny thing. It’s hard to build up, and then it’s easy for it to get rocked.”
Bilas cited two factors that can cause a loss like that to linger. UK’s youthful inexperience and the high-profile nature of the game.
“When you have that kind of a result, it leaves a scar,” he said. “And they’ll be OK. If they were older and got beat like that, well, if they were older, they wouldn’t have gotten beat like that. They might have still lost, but not have it quite like that.
“And then it was so public. It was such a big game. There were so many eyeballs on that game that a lot of people are still thinking about that when they think about Kentucky. And they know that.”
Neither Hagans nor Montgomery suggested that the loss to Duke in Indianapolis was easy to shake off.
“Kind of a big blow,” Montgomery said.
Added Hagans: “Actually, when we lost, it was, like, dang! It wasn’t a good feeling going home.”
With time, Hagans offered a philosophical take on the loss to Duke.
“It was hard,” he said. “But it’s the game of basketball. A game of runs. It happens sometimes.”
The game against North Carolina can change the perception of Kentucky from being a “regular team” to a group of players who love this game of runs, Hagans said.
“Now,” he added, “it’s just we’ve just got to go on and put that whipping on the next team.”
No. 19 Kentucky vs No. 9 North Carolina
What: CBS Sports Classic
When: About 5:15 p.m. EST (UK-UNC is the second game of a doubleheader that tips off with UCLA facing Ohio State at 3 p.m. EST)
Where: United Center in Chicago
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 8-2, North Carolina 8-2
Series: North Carolina leads 24-15
Last meeting: North Carolina won 75-73 on March 26, 2017, in the NCAA Tournament South Regional finals at Memphis, Tenn.