John Clay

John Clay: Next two games will tell us a lot about the Cats

Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Wildcats face two different challenges in the next two games against St. John's and North Carolina.
Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Wildcats face two different challenges in the next two games against St. John's and North Carolina. Lexington Herald-Leader

Dick Vitale arrives Thursday. Clark Kellogg occupies the premises Saturday. What more do you need to know?

It's showtime, people.

"These are learning opportunities," said Kentucky Coach John Calipari before his team's Wednesday practice in preparation for Thursday's game with St. John's and Saturday's showdown with North Carolina.

So five things the Cats might learn about themselves the next two games:

1. Can they handle the hype?

Being ranked No. 1 in November is like leading the presidential polls six months before the first primary. Election numbers truly matter when the 21-and-aboves, oops — sorry Rick Perry — when the 18-and-aboves visit the voting machines the first Tuesday in November.

Basketball numbers truly matter when the stretch narrows into March Madness.

Still, life as numero uno means a target draped across your back. Politicians call it opposition research. Calipari prefers the "We're everybody's Super Bowl" approach. That his band of young stars has been elevated to the stratosphere only means there are more out there who want to lasso the moon.

Example: Ask North Carolina about UNLV.

2. How will they react to facing another athletic team?

Never mind that St. John's is 4-3 or Coach Steve Lavin won't be on the bench at Rupp. The Red Storm could be just the perfect storm of youth and athleticism to be downright flammable come 7:30 p.m.

"They're athletic and they're active," Calipari said Wednesday. "You're going to see a team that is going to try to steal every ball, dives on the floor, takes charges. These guys ball. They play. It's going to be a good challenge for us."

3. Can they pinpoint their weaknesses?

Some coaches meticulously cobble together a scouting report on the opposition. That's not Cal's style. He carries the let's-worry-about-us playbook. December is a good month to begin a thorough self-evaluation.

Right now, Calipari mentioned more than once Wednesday he's not happy with his offense. His Cats are daunting defensively, he said, and he's dead-on there. They've held all six foes under 38 percent shooting. Offensively, however, they are working out the kinks.

"We're not smooth enough," said Cal.

4. Are the Cats deep enough?

In discussing Ohio State's demolition of Duke the night before, ESPN's Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo claimed Wednesday that UK goes 10-deep. Oh, really.

Calipari rightly claims six starters, including senior super sub Darius Miller. Finding those other four could be a problem, however.

Kyle Wiltjer averages 16 minutes a game, but played three when the Cats met Kansas. Senior Eloy Vargas isn't as nasty as the UK coach wants him to be, either.

In other words, it appears 2011-12 Kentucky could be much like the 2010-11 Kentucky when the regular rotation topped out at seven. That team, remember, reached the Final Four.

Still, there's the what-if scenario in which Terrence Jones or Anthony Davis gets into foul trouble? Can Michael Kidd-Gilchrist step up? Can Miller consistently play power forward? Could small ball win out?

Now's the best time to find out.

5. Can the Cats rise to the occasion?

Freshmen phenoms Marquis Teague and Anthony Davis both politely rejected the notion these two games in the next three days were any different than any two games in any three days. Marist Red Foxes or St. John's Red Storm, it's all the same.

Yada, yada, yada.

Truth be told, the next two offer distinctly different challenges. St. John's doesn't yet know what it doesn't know, which makes it dangerous. North Carolina knows more than enough to be ready for a game that has been so anxiously anticipated since the final buzzer sounded on their East Region final in New Jersey in April.

Now, just like then, everyone will be watching.

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