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Weekend Preview: Who’s 2nd best in the Triangle, Kentucky/UCLA with a chance for a statement

Jan 25, 2013, 10:30 AM EST

Mark Gottfried

Someone wants to be relevant in the Triangle, right?: North Carolina heads to Raleigh to take on No. 18 NC State on Saturday (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a game that features two of the bigger disappointments in the ACC this season. And, frankly, it’s not totally unexpected. We knew that North Carolina was young heading into the season and we knew that NC State was talented but coming off of a fluky run to the Sweet 16 and still had Mark Gottfried as their head coach.

But in a season that as proven to be as wide-open as any in recent memory — particularly with the injury to Ryan Kelly at Duke — it’s still surprising that both the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack have fallen so far out of the discussion for the ACC regular season title. They’ll fall even farther with a loss Saturday night, as both teams are currently sitting two games behind undefeated Miami in the ACC standings.

Are either of these teams truly going to be competitors for the ACC crown? A loss on Saturday pretty much ends that discussion.

So what’s the deal with Kentucky?: Does anyone have a definitive answer at this point? They have plenty of talent on the roster. They have some pieces that, in a vacuum, can be really impressive. But “it” just hasn’t “clicked” yet for the Wildcats. What I mean is that John Calipari has yet to get this team to the point where they look better every single time they step on the court. With last year’s group, Kentucky would seemingly get better after each TV timeout, not just after each game. Their ascent from young-but-talented to holy-crap-they’re-awesome was fast and steep. This year’s team is still making the same mistakes and still has the same issues that we were talking about in November. That’s a problem.

On Saturday, LSU visits Kentucky (4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3) in a game that the Wildcats simply have to win. But this is one of those instances where just a win may not suffice. The Wildcats need a confidence builder. They need to come out and dominate an overmatched Tiger team from the start. They need to make a statement, because that will a) allow their fans to slowly step away from the edge of the cliff, and b) it will provide a building block on which they can grow. Hesitancy and a lack of confidence are the worst traits an athlete can have, and it’s an issue afflicting everyone on Kentucky not named Nerlens Noel.

Rotnei Clarke’s return: When Temple visits No. 9 Butler on Saturday (6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2), we’ll likely see Clarke return to the court for the first time since this terrifying injury that he suffered at Dayton two Saturday’s ago. He’s been cleared to practice and the Bulldogs are awaiting word on whether he’ll be allowed to play on Saturday. Butler beat Gonzaga in a thrilling win last Saturday night, but they lost on a last-second shot from Ramon Galloway at La Salle on Wednesday night. Clarke’s return should be a major boost for the Bulldogs.

Turn the Bruins turn a corner last night?: On Thursday, UCLA put on one of the most impressive displays we’ve seen out of Ben Howland’s program since … they made the 2008 Final Four? Seriously. UCLA went into the McKale Center and just drubbed Arizona, jumping out to a 19-3 lead and never allowing the Wildcats to get closer than four points the rest of the way. Now here comes the big test. UCLA visits a good Arizona State team on Saturday (4:00 p.m. ET, FSN). It’s a game they probably can’t afford to lose if they want to keep within striking distance of Oregon at the top of the Pac-12.

Good teams win on the road. The really good teams, the teams that can compete for conference championships and Final Fours, don’t have letdowns after winning a big game on the road. Saturday should tell us a lot about UCLA.

Big Sky showdown: Weber State had to go and lose to Montana State on the road on Thursday night, taking some of the luster off of the big matchup in the Big Sky on Saturday night (9:05 p.m. ET). As was the case last season, Weber State and Montana are the class of the conference. The Grizzlies are now sitting at 9-0 in the league while the Wildcats 8-1. It will be a good way to cap what should be another great Saturday of hoops.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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