John Clay

Next three games will tell us how much Kentucky basketball has improved

After stumbling out of the SEC starting gate, Kentucky basketball has found its rhythm. Thank lead runner Ashton Hagans. Up went the freshman point guard and down went Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Georgia.

Now the real fun begins. A trio of tough tests awaits, each against a ranked team, that should tell us a lot about the condition of John Calipari’s club. After a road trip to 14th-ranked Auburn on Saturday, Kentucky returns to Rupp Arena to face No. 24 Mississippi State, followed by No. 7 Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

As for Auburn, UK has lost its last two visits to the crackerbox palace that is home to Bruce Pearl’s Tigers. The 2015-16 UK version fell 75-70, last year’s team dropped a 76-66 decision in front of another packed house. This year’s Tigers were 12-3 overall and 1-1 in the SEC heading into Wednesday night’s game at Texas A&M.

Per usual, Pearl’s team loves to shoot three-pointers on the offensive end while being pests on defense. Auburn leads the nation in turnover percentage, forcing turnovers on 28.3 percent of the opponents’ possessions. The matchup between UK’s Hagans, the young master thief, and Auburn point guard Jared Harper is tantalizing.

Then you have the whole Pearl vs. Calipari thing. Their feud has softened somewhat since the turf war days when Pearl coached Tennessee and Calipari coached Memphis. And Cal said just this week that when he makes a game personal, he’s not at his best. Still, it’s always fun to watch two master promoters go toe-to-toe.

Mississippi State’s Ben Howland is a different personality who has plenty of history with Calipari dating back to his days at UCLA. Now in his fourth season at Starkville, these Bulldogs are Howland’s best Bulldogs. MSU suffered a couple of early league stumbles of its own, falling to South Carolina and Ole Miss, before holding off Florida on Tuesday night.

Senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon reminds me of former South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell during the Gamecocks’ 2017 Final Four run. It was Weatherspoon’s three-point play with 3.4 seconds left that proved to be the winning margin over Florida. He just makes winning plays.

Kansas was definitely among those capable of winning the national title before star center Udoka Azubuike tore a ligament in his hand and was lost for the season. (It was the second time Azubuike had suffered a torn ligament in his hand, though this time it was the left hand.) With no clear replacement, Bill Self has had to adjust his rotation while the school petitions the NCAA to have sophomore forward Silvio DeSousa reinstated.

The Jayhawks are 3-1 minus Azubuike. A loss at Iowa State has been followed by wins over TCU (77-68), at Baylor (73-68) and at home against Texas (80-78). Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson has picked up the slack. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 19.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, Kentucky has lost three straight to Kansas — 90-84 in a thrilling overtime affair in Lawrence in 2015-16; 79-73 at Rupp in the return SEC/Big 12 Challenge game of 2016-17; and 65-61 in the Champions Classic last season in Chicago.

Truth be told, a month ago you might not have liked Kentucky’s chances against any of the next three opponents. But starting with the win over North Carolina in the Champions Classic, the Cats have gone 5-1, the only loss being that 77-75 slip-up against Alabama in the conference opener.

Hagans is the difference-maker. Much like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did a year ago, Hagans’ assumption of point guard duties has caused the Cats to click. The Georgia native thrived on the negative noise of his Georgia homecoming to score a career-high 23 points in Tuesday night’s 69-49 victory.

“We’re a good team,” Calipari said after the win.

The next three games will help tell us how good.

UK’s next three games

Saturday, Jan. 19

4 p.m.: at No. 14 Auburn (ESPN)

Tuesday, Jan. 22

7 p.m.: vs. No. 24 Mississippi State (ESPN)

Saturday, Jan. 26

6 p.m.: vs. No. 7 Kansas (ESPN or ESPN2)

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