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Weekend Homework: Kentucky, Texas A&M going in opposite directions

Are you sitting down? You should sit down.

We urge you to take every precaution -- physical, emotional and spiritual -- before proceeding. What you're about to read is shocking. It might shatter your mind. It will, at minimum, change your life forever. From now on, you will divide your life into two distinct parts: before you read this, and after.

Are you ready? Did you choose the red pill? All right, then. Down we go.

Kentucky is the best basketball team in the SEC.

Hey, are you OK? Is your psyche still intact? Do you feel like this dude right now? Are you able to process the sheer magnitude of what you've just learn-- oh all right. Forget it. The jig's up. You got us. That information isn't mind-blowing. Not even remotely.

Given John Calipari's immense run of success at UK, which is now in the back stretch of its seventh season, the Wildcats' recent ascendance to the top of the conference -- and re-emergence as a viable Final Four candidate and national title threat -- is the diametric opposite of mind-shattering. It is a reassuring signpost of reality. You can practically set your watch to it. It feels normal.

It's not the least bit surprising. What is surprising, however, is how quickly these Wildcats have ascended and how rapidly their most obvious SEC challenger -- a challenger that seemed to eclipse them in nearly every way through the first half of conference play -- has faded. Those contrasting trajectories will be on full display Saturday on ESPN when Calipari's team travels to College Station, Texas, for UK's 6:30 p.m. ET matchup with Texas A&M, in what may be the last opportunity for the Aggies to flip the script one last time.

It was just four weeks ago, on Jan. 30, that Texas A&M rebounded from its first SEC loss of the season -- Jan. 27's narrow slip-up at Arkansas -- with a 72-62 win over Iowa State. The Aggies were 18-3 overall and 7-1 in the league. Billy Kennedy's breakthrough team had been one of the pleasant surprises of the season to that point. It played relentless, pressuring mix-and-match defense, hurrying opposing scorers and gorging on points after turnovers; few teams in the country were better on that end of the floor. Meanwhile, the Aggies' offense -- which had brilliantly incorporated polished freshman center Tyler Davis and senior transfer guard Anthony Collins -- was among the nation's most balanced, unselfish and watchable (if not its most efficient).

Since then, A&M has lost four of its past five games. It was drubbed at Vanderbilt, toppled at home by South Carolina, edged out by Alabama in Tuscaloosa and unable to stop LSU in Baton Rouge. Tuesday's win over Ole Miss was the first time the Aggies had held an opponent to less than a point per trip; in the four straight losses, A&M had yielded 1.13 points per possession.

While A&M flailed, Kentucky was finally unleashing the best version of itself. Jan. 30's road loss at Kansas had been a promising overtime fight, but Feb. 2's 84-77 road loss at Tennessee (in 67 possessions) left Calipari more frustrated and disappointed with his team than at any point all year. In a season that included losses at Auburn, UCLA, LSU, and on a neutral court to Ohio State, and one press conference after another in which Calipari questioned many of his players' approaches to the game, that's no minor statement.

After three demolition blowouts against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina -- the latter of which Calipari was ejected from after just 2:26, and which Kentucky went on to win 89-62 on the road anyway -- the tone around the program couldn't be more different.

"They're becoming empowered," Calipari told the Courier-Journal this week. "They're getting there. You're seeing each guy flow into a role that suits them."

Freshman guard Jamal Murray has caught fire, scoring 35, 24 and 26 in his past three games. Tyler Ulis has morphed from already very good team backbone to potential player of the year. Kentucky's offense, once one of the worst high-majors in the country from beyond the arc, ranks second in 3-point field goal percentage in SEC play (38.2).

The Wildcats own their league's most efficient offense and its most efficient defense and a margin between the two numbers that reeks of national title contender. They are not without flaws, and freshman center Skal Labissiere still hasn't closed the gap on preseason expectations. But they are, by a fair margin, the SEC's best team.

In the context of Calipari's Kentucky, there's nothing mind-blowing about that. The only surprise is the path the Wildcats have taken to get here. On Saturday, that path will cross, literally and figuratively, with the team that just weeks ago seemed to have a stranglehold on the space the Wildcats now occupy.

Superlatives

Best rivalry rebirth

No. 17 Purdue Boilermakers at No. 22 Indiana Hoosiers

8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Since the dawn of the 20th century, the Indiana and Purdue men's basketball teams have served as the central expression of Indiana's beautifully unhealthy relationship with the sport of basketball. Many in the state wholeheartedly believe it is a better rivalry than either UNC-Duke or Louisville-Kentucky. The past decade has been unkind to that argument. While both programs have waxed and waned since the heady (and consistently heated) days of Bob Knight and Gene Keady, their periods of success have almost never aligned. These two teams will meet at the apoapsis once more, facing off as top-25 opponents for the first time since 2008, and just the second time since both Knight and Keady were in charge. Schedule your evening accordingly -- this is their only meeting of the season.


Best example of why the Big 12 is so ridiculously brutal, Vol. 438

No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners at No. 10 West Virginia Mountaineers

4 p.m. ET, ESPN

At one point early in the 2013-14 season, Bill Self was asked by reporters to gauge the strength of Big 12 basketball. Self's answer (paraphrased) was that most years, in most leagues, a coach could scan his conference schedule and immediately find the breathers -- stretches in which your opponents or lack of travel or both gave you the space for rest and recovery. This Big 12, Self said, didn't have those. He was right, of course. More than a year later, in a totally different season, the diagnosis still fits.

The latest in the league's endless stream of examples comes by way of Oklahoma, and look at how swiftly things have changed. On Feb. 2, the Sooners were the No. 1 team in the country with a 7-2 start in the league fueled by Buddy Hield's historic scoring mastery. They were, at the time, a 50-50 Big 12 title favorite against the field. (Kansas's odds were something like 10 percent.) Now look: The Sooners are 1-3 in their past four games. Their offense has cooled considerably. Hield just posted his worst performance of the season in a road loss at Texas Tech, which followed Saturday's hugely disappointing home loss to the Jayhawks, who are now alone at 10-3 in the league standings. The Sooners are 8-5.

If ever there was a time that Lon Kruger's team could use a little break on the schedule, this is it. They need a breather. Instead, they're playing at West Virginia. Which is, basically, the exact opposite.

Ouch.


Best shot at redemption

No. 11 Miami Hurricanes at No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels

1 p.m. ET, CBS

Emotionally, there is no redeeming what happened to North Carolina on Wednesday. Or, to put it more precisely, what the Tar Heels did to themselves. The final possession in the loss to Duke, and whether UNC coach Roy Williams should have called timeout, has received much of the postgame attention. Meh. It happens. Far worse: Marshall Plumlee checked into the game with 11 minutes to play in the second half. He was carrying four fouls. He immediately began guarding Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson, who already had 27 points on 16 shots. For the next five minutes, Johnson went without a field goal, post touch or possession in the paint. He had just two such opportunities in the final five minutes. And Plumlee? He finished the game on the floor. How does that happen? How?!

Marcus Paige and Joel Berry (who combined to shoot 4-of-22) have to be better. Fortunately, they have an opportunity to redeem themselves against the Miami Hurricanes' talented backcourt Saturday. There is no emotional salve for giving away a game like Wednesday's to your bitterest rival, but when you strip away the feelings, Miami is still the far better, and more challenging, opponent. This is every bit as big of a game.


Best opportunity to prove that substitutes are totally overrated

No. 20 Duke Blue Devils at No. 18 Louisville Cardinals,

12 p.m. ET, ESPN

Another crazy thing about Wednesday? Duke basically played the final 32 minutes of the game with five guys. Matt Jones' ankle sprain kept him out of the game from the first half on; once-touted freshman center Chase Jeter, who has barely cracked the rotation in Jefferson's absence, still played just five minutes. Jones will likely miss Saturday's game at Louisville. Unless Mike Krzyzewski develops a sudden and abiding trust in Jeter (or even less-used forward Sean Obi), Brandon Ingram, Grayson Allen, Derryck Thornton, Plumlee and Luke Kennard will be on the floor for pretty much all of it.


Crazy season-defining statistic that somehow keeps getting crazier ... of the week: top-five losses

On Wednesday night, UNC, Oklahoma and Iowa all took the court as top-five teams. All three lost. In doing so, they comprised the 2015-16 season's 31st, 32nd and 33rd defeats to teams ranked in the Associated Press top five. According to ESPN Stats and Info research, that's the second-most top-five losses before the end of February in the history of the AP poll. The only season with more -- 1989-90 -- featured 35 losses by top-five teams in that span. Again, that's before the end of February. It's still just the 19th.