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ATLANTA -- With a three-point lead and just 11.9 seconds remaining, John Calipari gathered his players Saturday night near Kentucky's bench and asked how they'd like to handle things once North Carolina inbounded the ball.

"I got in the huddle and I just said, 'There's 11 seconds to go. Do you wanna foul when they get to halfcourt?'" Calipari recalled afterward. "Naturally, they said, 'Nah.'"

Yes, the man who was a main character in arguably the biggest foul-or-don't-foul decision in the history of college basketball -- i.e., Calipari's decision to not foul in the final seconds of the final game of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, when Kansas' Mario Chalmers subsequently made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime before lifting the Jayhawks to a 75-68 victory over the Memphis team Calipari was coaching at the time -- left maybe the biggest decision of this blue-blood showdown largely in the hands of a bunch of freshmen.

At least initially.

But Calipari later explained that when he saw North Carolina freshman Elliot Cadeau in the game, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach pulled UK freshman Reed Sheppard aside and told him to more or less scrap everything he'd heard seconds earlier and just foul Cadeau at halfcourt.

Problem is, Sheppard never fouled Cadeau.


"He just said, 'I decided not to,'" Calipari explained to a room of laughs before cracking a smile himself.

It was a classic case of all's well that ends well because right after Sheppard didn't do what his coach said he told him to do, Cadeau inexplicably passed the ball off of the back of his teammate, Cormac Ryan, who literally wasn't even looking Cadeau's direction. The result was a turnover. And when Aaron Bradshaw buried a free throw on the subsequent possession to increase the Wildcats' lead to four points with only 4.7 seconds remaining, it was enough to secure what would eventually go down as an 87-83 victory for Kentucky in the headlining game of the 10th annual CBS Sports Classic here inside State Farm Arena.

What. A. Game.

To get too caught up on how it ended -- with a costly mistake from a reclassified freshman -- is to miss the forest for the trees, because the first 39 minutes and change of this matchup between national powers were all kinds of fun. Kentucky led almost the entire way, but North Carolina was never out of it, evidence being that the Tar Heels had a chance to tie in the final 10 seconds.

But they didn't tie.

They lost.

So Kentucky is now 8-2 with wins over North Carolina, Miami and a better-than-most-realize Saint Joseph's team. The losses are a neutral-court defeat to Kansas and a head-scratching loss at home to UNC Wilmington that came when the Wildcats were missing projected first-round pick DJ Wagner.

That second loss isn't great, I acknowledge. But I'm willing to bet it ends up being an outlier when all is said and done, just something that happened on an early Saturday in the season that might impact UK's seed in the NCAA Tournament but will have little to no impact on what the Wildcats do in that bracket. And it really does look like these Wildcats are capable of doing something really special in that bracket.

Obviously, you never know. (Ask Purdue.) But Kentucky had three projected NBA Draft picks in its starting lineup against North Carolina -- and two more coming off the bench. And yet none of those players are UK's leading or fifth-leading scorer because UK's leading and fifth-leading scorers, Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell, are a pair of less-heralded fifth-year seniors who provide Calipari with the type of roster-balance he's often lacked but definitely had when he won his first and only national championship in 2012.

Does that mean I'm predicting Calipari's second national title is coming in April? Not necessarily. It's too early for that. But what it's not too early to suggest is that the Wildcats seem to have the talent, the roster-balance and the shooting necessary to emerge as real championship contenders.

For what it's worth, Calipari seems to think so too.

"The upside of this team is really ... up," he said. "But let's see if we can get there. Let's see."