Kentucky basketball finally has its center of attention. Up next is a classic foe.

Aaron Bradshaw filled the doughnut hole. Did he ever. With Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley cheering him on from the front row of the Wells Fargo Center, Kentucky’s 7-foot-1 freshman scored 17 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked three shots as the Wildcats defeated Penn 81-66 on Saturday.

This, it should be noted, was just what Kentucky needed. This, it should be noted, occurred in Bradshaw’s second collegiate game following a seven-month layoff caused by a broken foot. (“I was hoping for a little more rust,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said.) This, it should be noted, occurred not far from his hometown of Camden, New Jersey.

Postgame, Bradshaw was asked: What was your favorite moment?

“All of them,” replied the 19-year-old, smiling through his braces.

OK, Mr. Bradshaw, you’ve provided UK the center it needed. Now it’s time to meet Mr. Bacot, as in 23-year-old man Armando Bacot, who is in his fifth year — or is it 50th? — of college hoops. Bacot is the center for the North Carolina Tar Heels, up next on the Kentucky datebook. Setting: the CBS Sports Classic at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Saturday.

There are few things more “classic” than a Kentucky vs. North Carolina college basketball game. Kentucky blue vs. North Carolina blue. The history. The titles. Two schools and states where basketball is oh so important. Appointment viewing. No different this year.

After stepping on a rake against UNC Wilmington, Kentucky recovered nicely Saturday against the pesky Quakers in what was called the “Malone’s Classic.” Is there a Malone’s restaurant in Philadelphia? Uh, no. That’s why Kentucky was the home team on the scoreboard. “They stepped up to sponsor this,” UK coach John Calipari said afterward of the Bluegrass Hospitality Group.

Kentucky stepped up, as well. The Cats got 17 points and several hold-your-breath moments off the bench from Rob Dillingham. Antonio Reeves added 16 points. Tre Mitchell grabbed nine rebounds. D.J. Wagner returned after missing the UNCW game with an injury. And made a difference.

Bradshaw was the lead story, however. After easing into a 13-minute debut the week before, his serious skills were on wider display. Bradshaw’s 29 minutes helped the Cats outrebound the Quakers by 10. His unavoidable length helped the UK defense keep Penn from easy access to the hoop.

“I thought Wilmington was able to get to the rim and do some things,” Donahue said. “I just thought his presence made a big difference.”

Kentucky’s Justin Edwards (1) and Aaron Bradshaw (2) celebrate a defensive play against Penn during Saturday’s game in Philadelphia.
Kentucky’s Justin Edwards (1) and Aaron Bradshaw (2) celebrate a defensive play against Penn during Saturday’s game in Philadelphia.

Bradshaw doesn’t cure all of this young team’s ills, of course. Kentucky’s 3-point defense needs work. Penn took advantage, draining four 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the second half to cut a 39-29 UK halftime lead to 47-46 before UK regained control.

Asked what he thought of his team’s defense, Calipari laughed, then said, “I think you can answer that.”

Meanwhile, North Carolina can put the ball in the basket. The hurrying Heels were 12-for-28 from 3 in their 100-92 win over Tennessee in the ACC/SEC Challenge. (UNC scored an astounding 61 points in the first half.) Alas, Carolina was just 7-for-20 from beyond the arc in an 87-76 loss to UConn in New York last Tuesday.

But back to Bacot. He scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the win over Tennessee, contributed 13 and 13 vs UConn. And he has help. Senior guard RJ Davis is averaging 21.0 points per game. Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram is averaging 15.0. Crafty freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau is averaging 4.1 assists per game.

And it’s North Carolina. Remember two years ago when Kentucky embarrassed first-year coach Hubert Davis and his Heels 98-69 in Las Vegas. As a No. 2 seed, that Kentucky team lost to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As a No. 8 seed, that North Carolina team made it all the way to the championship game before falling to Kansas. You never know.

This we do know, this Kentucky team is better with Aaron Bradshaw on the floor. Saturday we get not just UK vs. UNC but Bradshaw vs. Bacot. Happy Holidays, indeed.

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over the Penn Quakers

Aaron Bradshaw’s star turn comes in game two. ‘It takes their program to another level.’

Kentucky got an important piece of the puzzle back in win over Penn. ‘He leads our team.’

College basketball final: Kentucky Wildcats 81, Penn Quakers 66