Column: Kentucky is officially a National Championship contender


Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) high fives forward Jacob Toppin (0) during the UK vs. Kansas basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. UK won 80-62. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Hunter Shelton

Following an 80-62 stomping of then No. 5 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night, No. 5 Kentucky elevated its status to National Championship contenders.  

Despite Keion Brooks Jr stealing the show with a career-high 27-points, the Wildcats trouncing of the Jayhawks was an all-around team effort, displaying Kentucky’s leadership and growth as a team.  

All but one of the eight Wildcats who played notched 10 minutes on the court, with the exception of Lance Ware, who came four seconds short of the 10-minute mark.  

Each of the eight players would finish the game with a positive plus-minus, led by Kellan Grady, who checked in at plus-22. 

Kentucky had been searching for a statement victory on the road, losing its two previous chances at both LSU and Auburn. Injuries played a major role in the final score of both games, as both Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington each missed significant portions, leaving UK slim in the backcourt.  

This would not be the case on Saturday against the Jayhawks. Washington was again questionable after not playing in the previous game against Mississippi State, but would play 32 minutes against KU, totaling two points, five assists, three steals and three rebounds.  

While Washington shot just 1-9 from the field, Kentucky did not need a stellar offensive performance from the freshman. Up until the weekend in Lawrence, Big Blue Nation was convinced that the potential top-10 NBA draft pick needed to be on the top of his game for UK to take that next step.  

As it turns out, the offensive emergence of Brooks could be the final piece to the puzzle that takes John Calipari’s team to the top.  

Following Saturday’s win at Kansas, all five of Kentucky’s starters now average over 10 points per game. There is an argument to be made that when fully healthy, the Wildcats host the best starting five in the nation.  

The backcourt combination of Sahvir Wheeler and Washington has proven to be top tier on both sides of the basketball.  

Wheeler excelled against the Jayhawks, scoring seven points and dishing out eight assists, just four less than KU totaled as a team against the Wildcats.  

Oscar Tshiebwe has continued to perform beyond expectations, making a clear case for Naismith Player of the Year coming into February. Adding Brooks as a threat inside the perimeter meets defenders with a “pick your poison” situation in the frontcourt.  

Then comes resident sharpshooter Grady, and Kentucky has five significant options in the starting rotation who can put the ball in the basketball at will on any given night.  

UK’s 107-79 throttling of Tennessee inside Rupp Arena on Jan. 15 provided the most complete, dominant performance of the season for Kentucky at the time. BBN was loud and proud as the Cats overpowered the Volunteers, a sign that UK basketball was returning to its high standard.  

Little did the Kentucky faithful know that the Wildcats would one-up that victory, by knocking down a fellow blue blood from start to finish in KU’s own gym, a notoriously hard place to win.  

There are levels to the landscape of college basketball. Kentucky proved on Saturday that they currently residenear the top of the mountain.