The flow and trajectory of this college basketball season, combined with the 1-14 balance of the SEC, presented a warning to Kentucky basketball fans: Don't expect dominance anytime soon. That might seem like a discouraging message, and to some degree, it undeniably is. Nevertheless, that message contained a kernel of hope: Though dominance is not about to emerge, merely winning games -- no matter how inartful or uneasily -- is significant. Kentucky might enter the third full week of January as one of the more unimpressive 14-3 teams in college basketball, but as long as the Wildcats are stacking together 2-0 weeks in the SEC, they are doing something very important: They are buying time.
Young players need time before the light fully goes on, before a lot of raw and untapped potential can be discovered in individual and team-oriented contexts. Kentucky is not yet ready to click, not yet prepared to put all the pieces together, but buying time increases the chances that when this team arrives at the crucible of early March, it will better understand -- and be in better position to apply -- the lessons of how to compete at the highest level.
To more fully understand the importance of merely surviving a week -- as Kentucky just did -- consider what is happening elsewhere in the SEC and college basketball.
If it feels somehow wrong or incomplete for Kentucky to not dominate, the Wildcats are merely in the same boat as everyone else, with the possible exception of Villanova. Only those Wildcats in Philadelphia offer a glimpse of supreme competence on a regular basis. The rest of college basketball offers no windows into greatness -- elite teams don't exist. The No. 1 seeds in March are very likely to carry significant flaws, whether it's the defense of Duke and Oklahoma or the third-option scoring of West Virginia. This is not a 2015 season in which the top seeds looked the part of heavyweights entering the NCAA Tournament. This will be a year in which the difference between a 1 seed and a 2 seed is that the 1 seed wins a few extra close games in conference play. Marked disparities in performance have not emerged, and the flow of the season is moving away from a clear-cut hierarchy at the top, not toward one.
This is a relief to Kentucky. The Wildcats shot over 53 percent from the field against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt but had to go into the final two minutes of regulation uncertain if they would win. Low-post defense and free throw shooting suffered, while the bench provided noticeably few contributions during a week in which Quade Green was injured. In other seasons, barely scraping by against two teams with a combined 1-9 record in the SEC would be cause for alarm, but the rest of college basketball shows that a lot of teams are failing to survive the way Kentucky is. Texas A&M -- now 0-5 in the SEC -- is a primary example within the Wildcats' own conference. Other leagues show similar examples of teams which aren't playing that much worse, but are encountering far worse results.
Arizona State could not solve Oregon at home. The Sun Devils are still looking for their first 2-0 week in Pac-12 play this season. TCU lost a pair of overtime games this past week and is 1-4 in the Big 12 with its most decisive non-OT league loss being a four-point setback to Kansas. Baylor is also 1-4 in the Big 12. Syracuse is 1-4 in the ACC. Temple is somehow 1-5 in The American. These are not bad teams, but they are not winning. Kentucky is winning, which means it is not paying a price in the standings or in the chase for NCAA Tournament seeds. As long as the Wildcats don't take too many hits in succession -- a few will inevitably come here or there -- John Calipari can guide his team through storms and thickets and gauntlets, knowing that a relatively high NCAA seed will be there at the end of the regular season. If better habits and responses can be married with a relatively manageable (not easy, but not hellacious) bracket at tournament time, Kentucky's foremost annual goals will be genuinely attainable and realistic.
The other teams being mentioned above might also improve in the coming weeks and months, but 1-4 or 1-5 starts in conference play dramatically limit either NCAA seeding or (much worse) NCAA prospects in general. Kentucky is safely and substantially on the other side of that conversation. That is the true meaning and value of a week such as this one, which is simultaneously unremarkable yet the gateway to a late-season epiphany and a run at glory.
Kentucky remains a work in progress. The SEC will get harder before it gets easier. Yet, the Wildcats have just purchased insurance against future instances in which they struggle. While other teams move down the seed list or fall into calamitous conference situations, Kentucky delivered a stabilizing week. It's not sexy, nor is it the height of this team's aspirations by any means, but in college basketball 2018, it matters.
That will have to do for now.