Vaught’s note: With UK Media Day set for today and Kentucky, UK at the SEC Media Day Wednesday and Big Blue Madness Friday, it’s not to early to let Richard “Professor” Cheeks unveil his preseason forecast.
By RICHARD CHEEKS
The 2012-13 Kentucky basketball season ended just as this fearless forecaster suggested it would, with Kentucky’s eighth national championship, with only two losses (not the forecast three) scattered along the path to glory. Coach Calipari’s first three teams fell one win short of a final four in 2010, one win shy of the Championship game in 2012, and carried the big prize back to Lexington in 2012. Coach Calipari is spreading the word, wide and far, of the shared sacrifice that the 2011-12 Wildcats displayed on their way to the immortal recognition of the Big Blue Nation.
However, the wheels came off the Big Blue Express in 2012-13
When the most dependable returning player from the Championship team turns out to be a former walk on, Jarrod Polson;
When the recruiting efforts failed to catch a prize point guard to replace Teague;
When the highly touted freshman class did not grow into men in the course of 2 to 4 weeks as previous groups had done; and
When the team’s marquee freshman player ended his college career laying on the court at the base of a goal standard in the team’s loss at Florida.
These factors kept the defending NCAA Tournament Champions from even a cameo appearance in the 2013 big dance and denied them an opportunity to defend their title. The NIT shipped the team off to Pennsylvania where their season ended with a loss to Robert Morris.
Clearly, neither Coach Calipari nor the Big Blue Nation want a repeat of 2012-13, and both hunger for a return to the dominance they enjoyed in 2011-2012. That team’s freshman class included the eventual #1 and #2 draft picks in the 2012 NBA draft. That team included two sophomores who held over from the year before, each of whom earned NBA draft spots in June of 2012. That team included one senior who had paid his dues, learned to play the game the way Coach Calipari taught him, and led the youngsters by filling the role of a leader, with maturity as his ally.
So, how does Coach Calipari recapture the magic of 2012 while leaving the bitterness of 2013 in the rear view mirror? He will try by repeating the 2012 formula of success. This team’s freshman class is very talented, and very deep. Rick Pitino has said this is the strongest UK freshman class in the last 20 year (which spans the classes that propelled his UK teams to 3 final fours, a runner up, and a championship in the mid 90s. Other have ventured to say that this freshman class is the strongest ever in college basketball. This team has two sophomores who have held over from the year before, each of whom will earn NBA draft spots in June of 2014. This team includes two seniors who had paid their dues, learned to play the game the way Coach Calipari taught them, and can provide the senior leadership that includes one NCAA Championship ring on each of their fingers.
Coach has spoken of his emerging teams with a candor that has defied the skeptics. In 2009-10, he spoke of a team that had so much to learn, that would loses some games in the process, and even though that team managed to capture victory from the jaws of defeat, Coach Calipari’s public face always counted them as losses when he spoke. In 2010-11, despite the bevy of 1 and 2 point road losses, Coach Calipari spoke of championships, and a team that would be ready at season’s end. In 2011-12, Coach Calipari saw their rare and special character early, and spoke of his team as the team to beat, and they were. Last year, Coach was cautious in his words about the season’s prospects. He knew he had a point guard that was not from the mold that would produce greatness, and he saw his yearlings having more trouble making the transition to the college game. That is why he joked so frequently about the Big Blue Expectations, e.g. “We expect you to win another Championship,” of course.
Listen to Coach Calipari as he approached the 2013-14 season. He speaks of chasing greatness. He speaks the unspeakable, of an undefeated championship season. He speaks of pressure as a positive, not a negative that many want it to be. He speaks of alpha males and the leadership that will bring to the floor. Odds are that one year ago, Coach Calipari knew he was working to establish the foundation for 2013-14 to make another run at a title, and if delivered, UK’s ninth.
As always, my blue tinted view ahead for the 2013-14 basketball season is standard operating procedure. I make no apologies for my unabashed optimism for Coach John Calipari’s fifth UK team. I have listened to Coach’s words during this off-season, and I believe it is fair to conclude that Coach Calipari is also very optimistic about this team.
Three Octobers ago, I projected a 31-7 record, with the season ending with an Elite 8 loss. As Calipari’s second season turned out, the final record was 29-9 with the season ending with a disappointing Final Four loss. Coach Calipari has been clear that in his opinion, that team was playing better basketball at the end than anyone else on the scene. Two Octobers ago, I projected a 37-3 record, and a National Championship. Many who read that projection said that the team may be able to win it all, but three losses were too few. The team did win it all, and only sustained two losses (38-2) along the way. Last October, the giddiness of top 5 pre-season rankings, the back drop that 2010, 2011, and 2012 had created, and the lofty praise given to another #1 recruiting class, led to a 35-5 projected record. However, the 2013 team lost 5 of their last 9 games after Noel’s injury after a 17-7 record to that point.
In 2013-14, Coach Calipari will again demonstrate that he is among the best in the game at molding his teams into national contenders and final four participants. Coach Calipar is further motivated today by the sting of disappointment that marked the 2012-13 season.
Some of Coach’s critics even look for reasons for his recruiting success. All that this Coach has done since arriving in Lexington is produce the #1 recruiting classes in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013. Many view the 2012 recruiting class as only the second best in the land.
Just as it has after each of Coach Calipari’s first three years, UK again suffered deep roster loses from last year’s team. Gone are seniors Twany Beckham and Julius Mays. However, the Big Blue Nation also bid farewell and best wishes to Sophomores Kyle Wiltjer (transfer to Gonzaga) and Ryan Harrow (transfer to Georgia State). The Cats also felt the pride of the Nation when Freshmen Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel both earn first round draft selections in the NBA draft this past June. These post 2012-13 losses represents 6 of the 10 scholarship players, and of the returning four, Jarrod Polson, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Alex Poythress logged significant minutes. Jon Hood only played 143 minutes in an injury-plagued season. Therefore, this team starts from a “nucleus” of two seasoned sophomores and two seniors.
Coach Calipari has again transformed the roster over the course of the last 7 months. This transformation has again placed the Wildcats at the head of the class with respect to discussions about another national championship, with pre-season polls ranking the Cats in the top 3, with Michigan State, Duke, and Kansas also getting great ink in the pre-season opinion polls. The four scholarship players that return are accompanied by 3 returning walk on players, Sam Malone, Brian Long, and Tod Lanter. Coach Calipari has filled the rest of the roster with 9 freshmen, one of whom is a walk on, E. J. Floreal. The headliners in the incoming freshman class are Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, and Andrew Harrison. However, freshmen Marcus Lee, James Young, and Dakari Johnson are not chopped liver. Furthermore, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins are a pair of Kentuckians who will contribute over the course of their careers at UK, which most believe will span multiple years.
The prediction and projection of 2013-14 season reflect the continuing excitement that still swirls through the Big Blue Nation. Many critics will undoubtedly comment that these predictions are overly exuberant, and I plead guilty to this exuberance! If this team fails to “measure up” to these expectations, the world will not end, and I will acknowledge that errors of my way, but until then, this is my story, and I am sticking to it.
The University of Kentucky Basketball Schedule for the 2013-13 season includes 13 non-conference and 18 SEC games for the regular season. The Cats open at Rupp Arena for a pair of tune-up games against UNC Ashville and Northern Kentucky before their trip to Chicago for one of the most significant November matchups of this coming season against Michigan State. The Cats return to Rupp for four (4) home games against Robert Morris, Texas-Arlington, Cleveland State, and Eastern Michigan before hitting the road again for a pair of neutral court games against Providence and Baylor. The non-conference portion of the schedule continues with a home game against Boise State before the only non-conference road game, this year at North Carolina. The Cats close the non-conference schedule with home games against Belmont and arch rival Louisville.
The SEC schedule begins at Rupp against Mississippi State before a two game road swing through Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The remainder of the UK road schedule includes stops at LSU, Missouri, Mississippi State, Auburn, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Florida in what should be the toughest SEC match up of this season in the last game of the regular season. The 2014 SEC schedule has the Cats playing home-away series against Mississippi State, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi, and Florida.
This team will get perhaps its most difficult tests of the non-conference season when it ventures out of Rupp to take on Michigan State and Baylor on neutral courts, and North Carolina in the Dean Dome. The only home game during the non-conference season that will not see UK as solid favorites will be when Louisville (defending champions) come to Rupp on December 28, 2013. In the SEC, the road trips to Missouri, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, LSU, and Florida will be the most likely games to hand the Cats conference losses. If the Cats hold serve at Rupp and win the “winnable” SEC road games, the Cats should approach the season ending road game at Florida with a record of 16-1 in the conference and the conference championship and #1 tournament seed locked up.
Calipari’s Cats will enter the SEC Tournament as the team to beat, but the Cats will fend off all challenges and win another SEC regular season and SEC Post Season Tournament championships in 2014. In the NCAA Tournament, the Cats should secure a #1 seed, and advance to the Championship Game, and given the Cats’ record in Championship games, I believe the UK Wildcats will bring home the hardware for the 9th time.
PREDICTED 2013-14 RECORD:
SEC Tournament: 3-0 [SEC Tournament Champions]
NCAA Tournament: 6-0 (NCAA Tournament Champions)
Final Record: 37-3