It took six weeks for us to get here, but No. 19 Kentucky has finally done something this season that would make you believe that this was a team that could make a run to the Final Four.
Sparked by 22 points from Keldon Johnson and 20 points from Reid Travis, the Wildcats put together their most impressive performance of the season, beating No. 9 North Carolina 80-72 in a game where the Tar Heels never seemed to truly find a footing.
The final spread was just eight points, but this game never really felt that close. Kentucky opened up a double-digit lead late in the first half, took a 40-31 lead into the break and UNC never got closer than four in the second half. The Wildcats had an answer every time there was a Kentucky surge.
Here are three things that we can take away from the nightcap of the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago:
1. THIS IS THE KENTUCKY THAT WE HAVE BEEN WAITING ALL SEASON TO SEE
I don’t think that I can say it enough: This was a really, really impressive performance from Kentucky, one that should strike fear in the hearts of SEC foes and whoever sees their name in the same side of a bracket as the Wildcats.
Let’s start with Keldon Johnson, who did all the things that you would expect a star to do. He finished with 23 points, three boards and three assists, helping Ashton Hagans hold North Carolina’s backcourt in check throughout the afternoon. Reid Travis is going to get plenty of plaudits for his 20 points, six boards and three assists, but just as impressive was the performance from P.J. Washington, who finished with 11 points, nine boards and eight assists. Even Tyler Herro, who has yet to really get it going this season, knocked down three threes and hit a handful of big, momentum-changing shots.
The real difference between Saturday night and every other game that Kentucky has played this season came on the defensive end of the floor. They entered Saturday ranked 52nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They ended Saturday holding North Carolina — the nation’s second-most efficient offense, according to KenPom — to 72 points on 83 possessions. They allowed the nation’s fifth-best offensive rebounding team to get just five offensive boards. On the season, UNC’s offensive rebounding percentage is 39.8. On Saturday, it was 13.2.
Kentucky scored enough to keep UNC out of transition, and they turned their halfcourt defense up to a level that we have not yet seen this season.
That’s where this win came from, and the credit for that belongs to a 6-foot-3 freshman from Cartersville, Georgia.
2. IS ASHTON HAGANS THIS YEAR’S SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER?
Just two days after we saw Duke’s Tre Jones turn in one of the most dominant defensive performances of the year, Ashton Hagans staked his claim to the title of best on-ball defender in college basketball with a scintillating defensive performance.
While holding North Carolina point guard Coby White to eight points, two assists and three turnovers on 3-for-11 shooting, Hagans stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of seven steals and three blocks to go along with his seven points, four boards and three assists. It’s only fitting that, on the final possession of the game, Hagans just a passing lane in the backcourt, gave the ball back to UNC after being forced try and make a save and ended up behind the play before eventually getting his steal and calling a game-clinching timeout along the sideline.
We have been waiting all season for someone to emerge from the morass and takeover as Kentucky’s star point guard, and it looks like Hagans is going to be that guy.
He still has some very real question marks on the offensive side of the ball — his five turnovers on Saturday were the most of any player on the floor — but for a team that needed an answer defensively as much as anything else, Hagans is it.
3. NORTH CAROLINA GOES AS COBY WHITE GOES
White looked very much like a freshman on Saturday night. He finished with just eight points on 3-for-11 shooting, totally ineffective going up against an elite on-ball defender like Hagans. It’s the same thing that happened to White when he went up against Zavier Simpson in Ann Arbor, a game that the Tar Heels lost by 17 points despite leading by 10 midway through the first half.
With the only other point guard option on the roster being Seventh Woods and without the presence of a playmaker like Theo Pinson, this is White’s team to lead. He’s a freshman, and sometimes freshman play like freshman. The problem for North Carolina — and one of the reasons that I think Luke Maye has gotten off to a slow start this season — is that if White isn’t making plays for UNC, no one is going to be. They don’t really have a guy that makes everyone else on the court better.
The result is that much of their offense is based around players creating for themselves. White can do that well even if he is somewhat streaky. Cam Johnson can free himself up for looks from the perimeter. But that’s not exactly Maye’s forte.
The long and short of it is this: UNC is going to be a team that has a bigger gap between their ceiling and their floor, and it stems from just how reliant they are going to be their freshman.