Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over North Carolina

In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 80-72 win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic:

1. Kentucky can play with anyone in the country.

The Cats proved that Saturday. They beat a North Carolina team that was ranked ninth in the nation. It’s the same North Carolina that beat Gonzaga 103-90 last Saturday in Chapel Hill. That’s the same Gonzaga that beat Duke in the finals of the Maui Invitational over Thanksgiving. And that’s the same Duke that beat UK 118-84 in the Champions Classic on Nov. 6 in Indianapolis.

Because of that jaw-dropping night, it was normal to have your doubts about this Kentucky team. The overtime loss to Seton Hall in New York compounded those worries. Maybe John Calipari’s latest group of heralded freshmen were a bit overrated. Maybe the gap between good freshmen and Duke’s freshmen were just that wide. Maybe this was going to be a so-called down year for the Cats.

I wrote last Sunday that the CBS Sports Classic was Kentucky’s chance to change the narrative and the Cats did exactly that. They played harder and better than the Heels. They played disruptive defense, thanks in large part to Ashton Hagan’s eight steals. They outrebounded the nation’s No. 1 rebounding team 44-33. And they were credited with 24 assists on 28 field goals.

The talent is there. It might not be Duke or Kansas talent. I wouldn’t put North Carolina up with the Blue Devils or Jayhawks at this point. And Gonzaga has a couple of pieces out with injury. Still, by beating the Heels, the Cats proved that they have the talent to be a contender. Question answered.

2. Don’t overlook PJ Washington’s all-around game.

Yes, Keldon Johnson was UK’s leading scorer with 21 points. Yes, Reid Travis was superb on the block, scoring 20 points. Yes, Hagans was terrific, even “dominating” in the words of North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. But Washington, UK’s sophomore forward, turned in a terrific game, as well.

“He did a little bit of everything,” Calipari said afterward.

Washington finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He was particularly effective in the first half with his interior passing to Travis in the post. One example came with 3:25 left in the first half when Washington fed Travis for a bucket and a 32-27 lead.

Way back in the Bahamas, ESPN’s Dan Dakich said he thought Washington could be UK’s Draymond Green. At the time, I thought Dakich was crazy. Actuallly, most of the time I think Dakich is crazy. But maybe he was on to something. Washington’s game on Saturday was much like Green’s game at its best — a little bit of everything.

3. Kentucky-Louisville looks a little different now.

I’ll be writing more on this subject this week, what with UK-U of L coming up next Saturday at the KFC Yum Center, but this weekend might have changed the way we looked at Cats-Cards.

Before Friday, I would have picked Louisville to beat Kentucky. After all, UK was 0-2 outside of Rupp Arena. The Cats had lost to the two best teams they had played this season — losing by 34 to Duke and in overtime to Seton Hall. Meanwhile, Louisville had played surprisingly well for new coach Chris Mack.

But I was at the Yum Center on Friday night when the Cardinals struggled with a 4-7 Robert Morris before registering a 73-59 win. Mack was not happy with his team’s effort, especially over the first 15 minutes. Aberration? Perhaps.

Saturday, I was at the United Center for easily Kentucky’s best effort of the season. This was certainly not the team we saw at Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse on Nov. 6. It wasn’t even the team we saw when the Cats were winning eight of the nine games after Duke.

“We’re a much different team than we were two weeks ago,” Calipari said Saturday. “Hopefully, we’ll be a much different team two weeks from now.”

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