UK got up-close look at national contenders throughout season

Kansas Jayhawks guard Frank Mason III goes up for a layup against the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday January 28, 2017 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Michael Reaves | Staff

Anthony Crawford

While this young UK men’s basketball team is starting to hit its stride, the Cats still don’t find themselves on the short-list for favorites to make the Final Four in Phoenix. UK did, however, get a good amount of experience playing against contender-caliber teams, facing off against North Carolina, UCLA, Louisville and Kansas.

UK did not fare well in those contests going 1-3, with two of the losses occurring in Rupp Arena (UCLA and Kansas). The sole win was over UNC, which helps UK because the Tar Heels, along with the Jayhawks, are projected to be one seeds in the NCAA tournament. The lone road loss was to Louisville, who is a projected two seed. 

When the games took place it was clear that they would have NCAA Tournament implications and it’s clearer now with all these teams looking like the top contenders heading into March Madness. While UK didn’t have the record they wanted in these games, the Cats still had things they could take away from each contest. 

The first matchup was the UCLA’s return trip to Lexington. The Bruins had bested UK in Pauley Pavilion last season and denied UK revenge in the game at Rupp Arena this year. Both these teams looked like the fastest teams in the nation and now that can only be said about UCLA. While opponents have figured out how to slow down UK, UCLA is still able to get out and run and boasts the top scoring offense in the nation.

The win over UK was the first game UCLA looked good against respectable competition. From there on the Bruins really hit their stride in PAC 12 play, only dropping three games in conference play. 

Next up for UK was the game that turned into a thriller in Las Vegas against UNC. The game will be remembered for the 47 points that freshman Malik Monk put up to down the Tar Heels, but a lot of credit should go to North Carolina for still being in control of the game up until the end when Monk won it for UK.

Following the loss to UK, the Tar Heels set themselves apart as one of the top teams in the country in conference play. UNC lost two questionable games to Georgia Tech and Miami, but ended up winning the ACC regular season title outright thanks to a big home win over Duke to end the season.

The next contender UK faced off with was rival Louisville on the road. The Cardinals rallied behind a great performance from hometown kid Quentin Snider to get only Louisville’s second win over UK since John Calipari became head coach. Louisville’s struggle all season was getting consistent offensive production, which was the difference in the win over UK.

Louisville looked to be on pace to win the ACC but a late loss to Wake Forest took them out of the running. Still, the Cardinals finished fourth in the ACC and have one of the best defenses in the country.

The last major contender UK faced was Kansas in a game where UK would once again lose in Rupp Arena. The experience of the Kansas backcourt proved to be too much for the young Cats, and it also helped that Jayhawk freshman Josh Jackson was a guy UK had no answer for on the wing.

Kansas then went on to win the Big 12 regular season title for the 13th consecutive season. The Jayhawks will likely be the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and should be with wins over UK and Duke to go along with their 16-2 conference record.

Whether the teams won or lost against UK, all of them went on to establish themselves as some of the nations top teams. UK is on the cusp of that conversation still, but they have already faced enough contenders in to know what it looks like once in the tournament.