Kentucky's biggest fear became a frightening reality in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday.
Forget the final score. Yes, Kentucky lost 75-73 in a class in the Dean Dome, but it wasn't the loss that hurt so much as it was the exposure UK may have suffered on the national stage.
Without much size and much depth in the paint, Kentucky has one very large weakness. No matter how talented and hard this team plays - and make no mistake about it, UK played valiantly in nearly winning Saturday - the interior shortcomings make this Kentucky team vulnerable to bigger teams.
North Carolina's bigs bullied the Cats' post players Saturday, outscoring UK 34-14 in the paint. Kentucky held its own on the boards, but when North Carolina wanted to go inside and score, it could at will.
Junior center Tyler Zeller finished with a career-high 27 points for the Tar Heels on 8-of-13 shooting while fellow forwards John Henson and Harrison Barnes combined for 25 points.
"Obviously, Tyler had a great game," said UK assistant coach Orland Antigua, who answered questions for head coach John Calipari as he took off early to catch a flight for his mother's memorial service. "We allowed him to get the ball too close to the rim. He got too easy shots. We tried to make it as difficult as possible with some schemes, some trapping and making those guys make some passes, which isn't their strong suit."
The reality of the situation is North Carolina really didn't utilize its frontcourt enough. Despite extreme UK foul trouble and a superior size advantage, Zeller didn't get as many touches as he should have. When he did, a player who has been associated more with potential than production suddenly looked like a future NBA lottery pick.
Down the stretch, all the Cats could do to stop him was foul, and Zeller made them pay by hitting 11-of-12 from the stripe. That's a potentially frightening notion moving forward when one considers some of the premier post players UK could face down the road.
"I'm stunned we were in the game at the end," Calipari said in a brief statement after the game. "For us to have a chance to win the game, I was happy. We were not fouling 44 (Zeller). 'Do not touch him.' We kind of broke down there a bit."
As long as Enes Kanter's eligibility status remains up in the air, Kentucky's lineup is what it is: talented, heavy with scoring guards, capable shooters and versatile, but light on low post scorers and depth.
The trio of Terrence Jones, Josh Harrellson and Eloy Vargas had been adequate and sometimes even formidable in the season's first six games, but there always existed the potential for foul trouble, injuries and an off night.
Two of the three weaknesses reared their ugly head against North Carolina. Jones, Kentucky's leading scorer, had his first subpar game, scoring a season-low nine points on a dismal 3-of-17 shooting effort. Against the length of UNC, Jones struggled to find any rhythm as he hesitated on shots, roamed on the perimeter and took the air out of the ball.
"I think Terrence initially came out a little timid," Antigua said. "I think the length might have surprised him but he got going a little bit. Today just wasn't one of his best. I think you can go back and use this as a teaching point for him and the rest of the guys on the team."
Jones didn't have much help, though. Harrellson, who has played extremely well of late, had trouble finding the floor Saturday. The senior forward picked up two quick fouls and never got out of foul trouble; neither did backup Vargas and neither did Jones.
All three fouled out. Imagine had the game gone into overtime. Who would UK have used on the frontline? Darius Miller? DeAndre Liggins? Stacey Poole? Kentucky doesn't have answers at the moment for its lack of depth.
"Getting into foul trouble hurt us a lot and handcuffed us," Antigua said. "Guys then become passive and not as aggressive as you'd like. We've got to learn how to play with fouls and get better at that."
Even when they were in, the trio of Jones, Harrellson and Vargas combined for 13 points on 4-of-21 shooting. North Carolina also blocked nine of Kentucky's shots.
It isn't that those players aren't capable or talented enough to get the job done for Kentucky; they just have the unenviable - and unfair - task of bringing their A game every night. If they don't, UK is going to lose a lot of games. Without much depth, there's no way to cover up for a number of things that could go wrong inside.
Jay Wright's Villanova teams have found success over the years using four-guard lineups and it could be a possibility for Calipari with UK's guard-heavy team, but that lack of size inside will always be a liability against marquee teams.
If Kentucky was to go small at some point, can Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Miller and Liggins score enough on the perimeter to offset the disadvantage inside? That's a question that may have to be answered sooner than some may think.
Lamb has proven that he's deserving of more playing time and even a starting spot. A freshman that's rightfully earned the title "Instant Offense," Lamb once again provided a spark off the bench.
The crafty right-hander scored 11 of UK's first 25 points with an impressive arsenal of moves (a floater off the glass, a steal and reverse layup in transition, and a knockdown 3-point shot). Lamb finished the game with a career-high 24 points and Kentucky hit nine treys to stay in the game, but ultimately North Carolina's edge inside was just enough to pull off a classic.
One loss may be too small of a sample size to come to a conclusion, but UNC stumbled upon a pretty good theory Saturday: If you want to be Kentucky, the answer may lie inside.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Calipari said. "I've got a young team. We didn't have leadership on the court. There were a lot of things that were happening, but we had a chance to win on the road at North Carolina in this environment, so that made me feel good."