Hope and despair in the state of Kentucky

Kentucky and Louisville are two programs -- at least for this year -- seemingly headed in different directions. Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

LEXINGTON, Kentucky -- Before their rivalry game Friday, John Calipari and David Padgett had similar perspectives on their inconsistent programs.

A Louisville team that, much like Rick Pitino's Cardinals squads, played supreme defense through the first six weeks of the season had stumbled against its top-tier opponents and failed to produce a reliable offensive attack.

Kentucky, coming off a loss to UCLA in New Orleans, was still this intriguing product that had fallen short of its potential.

"We had no aggressiveness," Calipari said about his team's 83-75 loss to the Bruins. "We showed them the 12 3-pointers that they made. We didn't guard them. But we weren't aggressive on the ball. .... This team, defensively, we still have a couple guys that aren't desperate enough."

By the end of the weekend, however, Kentucky had progressed with a pair of solid wins, including a 90-61 victory over Louisville at Rupp Arena on Friday afternoon. Louisville had suffered the most lopsided loss to its chief rival in nearly 20 years, leaving Padgett with a series of pressing questions about his program.

"You gotta give them a lot of credit: They were just the much better basketball team," Padgett said. "We've got 18 ACC games starting on Tuesday, so we gotta bounce back. If we don't learn from this, that's when it gets really bad."

Entering the first week of 2018, Kentucky and Louisville continue to wrestle with serious (albeit unique) concerns and realities.

State of the Program (Kentucky): Evolving yet incomplete

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the key to Kentucky's identity
The Wildcats don't have a John Wall or an Anthony Davis or a Karl Anthony-Towns or a Malik Monk. They don't have that player who just seems capable of lifting them in any situation. But they're equipped with a collection of raw talent and athleticism, a group of players who can do what they did to Louisville -- challenge every shot at the rim and dominate in transition -- throughout the SEC season.

Gilgeous-Alexander (11.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.3 SPG) competes with a hustle that has impacted the entire program. He is that two-way energizer who solidifies Kentucky's identity in 2017-18. The Wildcats (36.3 percent from beyond the arc) can't add a 3-point shooter at the all-star break like an NBA team. Perhaps their free throw shooting (69.4 percent) will improve. And we might see five-star prospect Jarred Vanderbilt later this season.

But Gilgeous-Alexander is the heart of this program. He's the one the Wildcats should follow. Six weeks into the season, we can all see Kentucky's flaws and limits. Gilgeous-Alexander can lead, however, a relentless attack that can overwhelm opponents with swarming defense and explosive plays on the other end.

Kevin Knox must decide if he wants to be the superstar this team needs
Knox is a 6-foot-9 do-it-all forward and lottery prospect. But those accolades won't save him from the criticism every leading man in a Kentucky uniform has faced under Calipari. Where you at, Kevin Knox? In the past three games, he has finished 10-for-30 amid foul trouble. And he's capable of more.

Knox can leave Kentucky as The Man for this intriguing group.

His December was marked by inconsistency, performances that could cost this team against the SEC's top tier. In SEC play, the Wildcats need the Kevin Knox who finished with 20 points (8-for-13), seven rebounds and two steals against Kansas at the Champions Classic in November, not the guy who just finished 2-for-10 in Sunday's win over Georgia.

Calipari can't be the hype man all season
During Kentucky's lopsided win over Louisville on Friday, Calipari said he tinkered with substitutions in the second half because he worried about a waning vibe that had stalled his team's rhythm in past games and he "wasn't going to let that happen again."

Prior to the win, Sacha Killeya-Jones admitted his team had struggled at times with consistent focus.

"I don't think personally or individually for anybody on this team that anybody is getting too arrogant," he said. "It's just that sense of desperation, that fight, every single game, and we have to make sure we're bringing that fight."

For now, Calipari is the leader of this young squad. But that won't suffice over the next three months. The SEC is filled with programs led by veteran assemblies who won't rely on coaches alone for that late push in difficult games.

Kentucky needs that confidence, too. And the Wildcats don't have to identify one player to fill that motivational role. But they have to be conscious of those impactful situations. They have to know when they're slipping.

It's easy to find that switch in a 29-point win over a rival. But the Wildcats didn't have it a week earlier in a loss to UCLA. They'll need more inspired performances to end the regular season atop a good SEC.

State of the Program (Louisville): Searching for a rhythm

Padgett's honeymoon is over
In September, Padgett became the captain of a massive ship with a growing hole in its hull. The aftermath of Rick Pitino's dismissal because of his alleged connection to a $100,000 pay-for-play scandal led to the removal of two other assistants and the ascension of Padgett, a 32-year-old coach backed by the squad's veterans.

He never complained about his position, and he handled the transition with class. But it's important to remember Padgett is the acting head coach still fighting to earn a long-term contract. And the fallout from Pitino's firing is now in the past.

Padgett is the head coach of a squad that entered the season tagged as a Final Four sleeper and ACC contender by many. Right now, however, the Cardinals don't have a win against a top-50 team or a convincing résumé for at-large contention. And their ACC slate commences with three of its first five outings on the road.

Padgett is in a difficult spot. But he's still the commander of a squad that features a collection of players most expected to compete for a conference title and slide into the postseason with ease. Now, it's on him to guide the Cardinals to their potential.

Quentin Snider's struggles in big games surprising and serious
After a postseason ban and an FBI scandal both affected his college career, Snider could have left without any backlash. But the veteran remained to anchor this program. The Cardinals needed him. But his unquestionable character should not absolve him from scrutiny at a critical time. Snider, a star on this squad, has no-showed in Louisville's toughest games this season.

In losses to Seton Hall, Purdue and Kentucky, Snider finished a combined 10-for-33 (2-for-13 from the 3-point line). Louisville can't contend with the top teams in the country without Snider rising in those moments. He has not done that this season. The inconsistent play of this program's offensive catalyst is a significant challenge.

Window closing for Louisville to turn things around
The gift of the ACC's slate is that it offers an abundance of opportunities to change a season. The curse is that it's filled with potholes that could rock Louisville.

It's too early to suggest Louisville will fail to reach the NCAA tournament. But it's obvious the Cardinals will need key victories in a strong conference to get there.

They'll have opportunities.

In the next month, they'll face Florida State (twice), Virginia Tech (home), Notre Dame (road), Miami (road) and Virginia (road). That stretch either could help Louisville regain a top-25 ranking or turn this season into a nightmare.