Cats enter a critical scheduling stretch

Don't write off the season just yet. Through all the early performance problems and criticisms, the Wildcats are not in a horrible position in at this stage of the season.

The Kentucky Wildcats limped back home this weekend after its third consecutive loss to a ranked team, dropping a game to North Carolina that wasn't a blow out, but also wasn't all that close. In addition to the angst caused by losing to a rival like the Tar Heels, Tubby Smith and his team have been the subject of intense criticism that has grown and festered from media and fans that are impatient with the squad's lack of success in the early going.

In addition, after Saturday's game, comments from North Carolina players that had been recruited in high school by Kentucky suggested that the Wildcats' deliberate style of play factored into their decisions to pick the Heels over the Cats. Essentially, fans have interpreted those comments from UNC players as "Kentucky plays slow, boring basketball and why would I go there?" Those revelations served to fuel dissent from fans who are convinced that the coaching staff has slipped significantly in its recruiting efforts in recent years.

But don't write off the season just yet. Through all the early performance problems and criticisms, the Wildcats are not in a horrible position in at this stage of the season. This year parity in college basketball has created conditions where all of the projected nation's elite have been susceptible to defeat from teams ranked outside the top 25. Ranking the best teams in the nation may be as difficult now as it has been in many years. Consider the following:

1. Defending national champions Florida, consensus pick to repeat as champions, has not beaten a ranked team yet, dropping its only meeting with a top 25 team to Kansas. The Gators also just dropped a game to unranked Florida State.
2. #3 ranked Ohio State lost its only game with a ranked opponent, dropping a 9-point decision to the Heels on the same floor where the Cats lost by 12.
3. The #5 ranked Kansas Jayhawks have lost two games so far, one of those to a DePaul team that UK beat in Maui.
4. Among other teams in the top 15 that have already taken one on the chin this season include North Carolina, Marquette, Duke, Memphis, Wisconsin and Syracuse.

The Wildcats have a scheduling opportunity that could easily get them placed back into the national rankings if they run the tables or come very close to it. The Wildcats do not face a ranked opponent again until February 10 in Rupp Arena, when they face a Florida team that itself has struggled this early season. That's 16 straight games, all of which are winnable games for the Cats.

In that 16-game stretch, the toughest games for the Cats may be home games against Indiana, currently 4-2, and Tennessee, now 6-2 with a pair of double-digit losses.

Should the Wildcats run the tables or go 15-1 or 14-2 during that stretch, Kentucky could find itself ranked once again among the nation's elite heading into the more difficult stretch of their schedule.

However, should the Cats lose more than two or three games in that stretch, they could find themselves with six or more losses heading into the latter part of the SEC schedule where they would face four ranked teams and an away game at Tennessee.

Tuesday's game against Chattanooga tips off a critical series of games for Kentucky. Should they win the next several games, they can build some momentum and gain some respect among the SEC's elite teams – respect that has been lost over the last year. If they stumble several times in December and January, however, they will have essentially painted a giant target on their backs for the important games down the stretch. And if that happens, Kentucky fans are looking at a repeat of the poor overall performance from last season.

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