Kentucky Supplants UNC As Team To Beat

The first really big college basketball game of this season took place this afternoon and it was worth the hype. #1 Kentucky hung on to a 73-72 win over North Carolina on a last-second blocked shot by Anthony Davis. The narrow loss in Rupp Arena is certainly no shame for Carolina, but there’s also no doubt that the consensus preseason top-ranked team has come back to the pack, while the new #1 from Lexington is another fast-developing team of freshman put out by John Calipari.

Prior to the Kentucky loss, UNC had lost by ten to UNLV and narrowly survived Wisconsin on their home floor earlier this week. Keep in mind this is the same Wisconsin team that lost today at Marquette. In spite of having a talented and good-sized frontcourt, with John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes, Carolina was beaten on the glass by both UNLV and Kentucky, with Barnes being the primary culprit. He’s scoring, but he’s got to get more than a couple rebounds a game if his team is to be great.

Kentucky had already beaten Kansas and blown out rebuilding St. John’s coming into today. Returning players Terrence Jones at forward and Doron Lamb at guard are the leaders, but Calipari has quickly integrated rebounder Michael Kidd-Gilchrist into the lineup along with guard Marquis Teague. Every Kentucky starter is scoring in double digits and with the preponderance of underclassmen it’s only reasonable to think this team is just going to get better.

Beyond the ‘Cats and Carolina, here’s a brief look at four other key contenders from the current Top 10. Excluded are Wisconsin, Duke and Florida who all lost this week and UConn, who fell to Central Florida over Thanksgiving weekend…

*Ohio State: No one won more decisively than the Buckeyes, who handed Duke an 85-63 loss in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Tuesday. Jared Sullinger, the All-American power forward had 19 points and 10 rebounds, with solid frontcourt support from sophomore DeShaun Thomas. Sophomore guard Aaron Craft has ably stepped into a role that requires him to score more, and off-guard William Buford is shooting the ball well. When they’re on all cylinders, Ohio State is as good as anyone, and they’ll get another chance to prove it next Saturday at Kansas.

*Syracuse: The Orange beat Florida last night and are getting good backcourt play from Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, along with sophomore Dion Walters. That’s the key for this team because forward Kris Joseph will keep them competitive on the glass.

*Louisville: Rick Pitino’s team joined Syracuse in winning a Big East-SEC Challenge game last night, knocking off Vanderbilt. Swingman Kyle Kuric and point guard Peyton Siva are each playing well, but they has been the work of freshman Chase Behanan, who’s hitting the glass and grabbed 10 rebounds in Friday’s overtime win.

*I like Baylor a lot, although they haven’t played anyone yet, and the best they’ll see in non-conference play are games against current Top 25 teams in West Virginia and Mississippi State. The Bears are a big lineup, with four starters going 6’7” or bigger and all of them go the glass. The cautionary note is that when teams like this don’t get good playmaking, they grind to a halt. An example would be North Carolina early last year and all through 2010, as they played NIT-caliber basketball. Then Kendall Marshall took over and suddenly the Heels were one of the nation’s best. The same can happen for Baylor this year if Pierre Jackson runs the show effectively.

The college football regular season is literally in its closing hours as this post goes online and basketball will start to take center stage. The teams above head up the early contenders.