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Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook has ranked Kentucky No. 2 behind Michigan State in its preseason poll.
Kentucky plays the Spartans in the Champions Classic in Chicago Nov. 12. Louisville (3), Florida (7) and North Carolina (10) give UK four opponents in Blue Ribbons’ preseason top 10.
1. Michigan State
10. North Carolina
11. Ohio State
12. Oklahoma State
13. Wichita State
19. Notre Dame
25. New Mexico
By LARRY VAUGHT
Chris Dortch, the editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, isn’t sure how recruits Julius Randle or Andrew Wiggins will be impacted by Dakari Johnson’s decision to join Kentucky’s elite recruiting class.
“But it has to be intriguing to either one of them to consider joining that great class. Should that happen, and I’m no recruiting analyst, wouldn’t that have to be the best class of all time?” Dortch said.
And how good could Kentucky be next year even if Wiggins and/or Randle aren’t Wildcats?
“I’ll reserve judgment to see how many freshman stay around. But even if they don’t, this class is shaping up to be epic, and Kentucky will have a chance to do great things despite being so young,” Dortch said. “It’s an overlooked fact that Kentucky doesn’t just recruit five-star players. It recruits five-star players that, for the most part, want to work, want to be coached and want to get better.”
Dortch says if freshmen Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin are projected as NBA draft lottery picks, it would be “hard to turn that down” to stay at Kentucky another year.
“Having said that, maybe one of them may be intrigued about the possibility of returning to a team that will be so loaded,” he said.
Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy still thought Kentucky had a chance to win the national championship going into this week.
“I wasn’t ready to give up on this team as a possible factor in the (NCAA) tournament. I thought they were coming along. I thought they would lose at Florida, but I just wanted to see a better performance. Even if that didn’t happen, it would not have thrown me off because I still thought they had a lot of time to get where they wanted to be and there is no better person to get them there than John Calipari,” said DeCourcy. “Now what they might achieve is now what I thought possible 48 hours ago.”
That’s because freshman center Nerlens Noel, the nation’s top shot blocker and potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a second half collision and is out for the season.
“Now they have to completely change who they are. Maybe not technical changes, but who they are as a basketball team,” DeCourcy said. “They were largely reliant on Nerlens as a defensive weapon and somewhat on offense. He was really the personality that drove the team. On the one hand, you have a lack of confidence in the point guard and shooting guard, but he has been extremely confident with his play from the first game.
“Alex Poythress has great talent, but does not always play with great energy. Nerlens is nothing but energetic. They have to find a way to find a new team personality in addition to making technical adjustments without him.”
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch, who regularly covers Southeastern Conference games, knows UK will miss Noel’s defensive presence starting with Saturday’s game at Tennessee.
“But sometimes in these situations, when a team loses a star player, it rallies to make up for the loss. In Kentucky’s case, perhaps if some players were unconsciously letting up on defense, secure in the knowledge Noel was back there to clean up their mistakes, they will now be more focused not to let their opponent past them,” Dortch said.
He knows it will take some players dramatically improving their play for UK to make the NCAA Tournament now.
“The Cats were not a lock with Noel, and now they will be hard pressed to pad their resume without him. But talent wise, 95 percent of coaches in the country would take a four- and five-man combination of Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein in a heartbeat,” Dortch said. “There’s plenty of talent, but not much depth. Every player on the roster will have to dig deep and come up with effort previously unseen. If that happens, the NCAA is still in play.”
DeCourcy wouldn’t say it would be impossible for UK to make the NCAA, but says it will be a “terrific challenge” for Calipari’s team without Noel.
“They were a borderline team playing their way into a solid NCAA team. What they have accomplished to date lacks in number in terms of quality wins, but they were building a nice resume like Memphis has been doing by winning regularly,” DeCourcy said. “You couldn’t pretend they were not one of the best at-large teams. But you go from that to what you are now without Noel. You don’t have numbers on the one hand to be assured of a berth and now you don’t have Noel. Your job as a Wildcat now is to establish you can still be a great team. Maybe not as great as you were, but still great. But that is really going to be quite a leap for this group without Nerlens.”
Kentucky was ranked as high as No. 3 in some preseason polls, a ranking Calipari said was way too high at the time. DeCourcy says there was some “overestimation” of UK’s talent as well as some not wanting to accept the flaws this team would have.
“I got yelled at a lot for thinking Ryan Harrow would be what he is as a point guard. A lot of Kentucky fans got mad at me for saying this group was not elite and would not match up to what Calipari had before at Kentucky,” DeCourcy said. “I did think with Alex, Archie (Goodwin) and Nerlens would be good and I thought Kyle would be a lot farther along.
“But I did think Kentucky had enough ability to be special and with what I thought would be an ordinary field of college basketball teams, I thought this team could be top five. If you look at what is achieving a top five ranking one day and squandering it the next, it is still not inconceivable to think this could have been a top five team. But they just have not had the right chemistry or right good fortune for that to happen. This is not the first injury. They had Harrow out, had Willie Cauley-Stein our and now this. They just have not had any good luck.
“But for Kentucky fans, you still have last year’s national championship to warm your nights and a talent haul on the way that could be the greatest recruiting class ever, and some argue it is already there.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Before his season-ending injury at Florida Tuesday night, Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel was considered a certain top five pick in the June NBA draft and maybe even the top pick.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said on his weekly radio show Wednesday that he still expected Noel to be a high choice if he decided to put his name into the draft or he could decide to come back to UK to complete his rehab and “be the best big man in college basketball again” next season.
Draft analyst Ed Isaacson of nbadraftblog.com doesn’t think the injury will have a “major effect” on Noel’s draft spot.
“He is far from a polished prospect, so a few months of rehab time isn’t going to set back his development much. This is assuming that his surgery/rehab are on track for the 6-8 month window,” Isaacson said. “For where he is picked, a lot will depend on what teams end up with the top three or five picks, and their needs, comfort level with the knee, etc.
“His potential as a prospect should be right where it was, but what can’t be accounted for is the human element of the general manager who has to make the pick and how he feels. This is just one possible added thing to teams that may have been leaning towards another player with their pick. Bottom line, too soon to tell, but I would not be stunned if he is still a top five pick.”
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch doesn’t look for Noel to be the No. 1 pick now.
“But long term, I think he’ll make a good recovery and eventually be an every day NBA contributor. The hope is that the great quick-jumping ability he had won’t be diminished. Perhaps he’ll decide to stay in school another year. Kentucky will be loaded in 2013-14,” Dortch said.
DeCourcy expects Noel’s surgery to go well and that he will “check out solid” with NBA teams.
“His future really depends on him. I would never ask what he’s going to do during a season and if you did you would never expect to get an accurate answer because kids don’t always know,” the Sporting News columnist said. “But if you presume he would have gone as a healthy player, then you can presume he will still go as an injured played and still be a very, very high pick given his ability and limitations of those around him in the draft.
“Go back to 2000 and think Kenyon Martin and his injury. It was classified as a broken leg, but was more complicated. But he was still the first overall pick and it was a good pick.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Blue Ribbon College Basketbal Yearbook Editor Chris Dortch offered these insights on what could lie ahead for Kentucky basketball.
Queston: Now that Calipari has added Dakari Johnson to his 2013 recruiting haul, just how good would you think UK could be next year?
Dortch: “I’ll reserve judgment to see how many freshman stay around. But even if they don’t, this class is shaping up to be epic, and Kentucky will have a chance to do great things despite being so young. It’s an overlooked fact that Kentucky doesn’t just recruit five-star players. It recruits five-star players that, for the most part, want to work, want to be coached and want to get better.
Question: Do you see any way Wiggins and/or Randle could join the class as well?
Dortch: “I don’t pretend to know what they’re thinking, but it has to be intriguing to either one of them to consider joining that great class. Should that happen, and I’m no recruiting analyst, wouldn’t that have to be the best class of all time?”
Question: With such a strong recruiting class coming in next year, do you think any of the current freshmen would or should come back to UK?
Dortch: “Noel, Poythress and Goodwin are all projected as lottery picks. It’s hard to turn that down. Having said that, maybe one of them may be intrigued about the possibility of returning to a team that will be so loaded.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Nerlens Noel was never touted as being the offensive player that Anthony Davis was for Kentucky last year when he swept the national player of the year awards and even won an Olympic gold medal after helping UK win a national championship.
However, Noel is having an extremely productive freshman season for the Wildcats. Noel is averaging 10.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.7 blocks, 2.6 steals and 1.7 assists per game and shooting 57.1 percent from the field. Those numbers have had some like ESPN NBA draft analyst Chad Ford projecting Noel as the top pick in the June draft just as Davis was last year.
“Noel has been very good, especially on the defensive end,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “He is coming along nicely, and has shown terrific athletic ability and instincts. His productivity has been very good, and he keeps making progress. I think he has been among the best freshmen in the country.
“His activity level and high work rate impress me. Noel plays really hard, and is very active on the defensive end and on the glass. He is averaging close to 10 rebounds per game, he blocks shots and gets steals and deflections. He has the ability to protect the rim, not quite in the same way as Anthony Davis did, but still in a very valuable manner.”
Chris Dortch of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook thinks Noels has “played as well as can be expected” trying to follow what Davis did last year.
“I think he does a lot of things well and could eventually be a solid offensive player. He would help his cause if he could make more free throws,” Dortch said.
Noel had 15 points, 11 rebounds, a career-high six assists, career-high seven blocks and four steals Saturday in UK’s Southeastern Conference loss to Texas A&M. He’s now had at least six rebounds in every game and has had two or more blocks in eight straight games. He’s also 32-for-44 (72.7 percent) from the field in the last eight games.
How much could Noel improve offensively by March? Last year Davis expanded his offensive game dramatically in February and March.
“Noel is not polished as an offensive player, and doesn’t yet have reliable post moves to where he can get and hold position on the low block, be thrown the ball and make the right move to score, get fouled or both,” Bilas said. “Right now, he is playing off of penetration, offensive stickbacks and only occasionally gets the ball in a position to do something with it.
“I like how he has a positive assist-turnover ratio, too. There aren’t many big men that have more assists than turnovers. I do think he will continue to get better, and his game will continue to improve. However, I would not expect him to be (Akeem) Olajuwon by March. That wouldn’t be fair to him. Noel is a very good young player that is getting better and better, but he still needs to be allowed to develop at his own pace.”
Can he carry a team in March in postseason play?
“Not in the way that question usually means it, no. I don’t see Noel as a Carmelo Anthony-type or Danny Manning-type player. He is a valuable piece of a greater whole,” Bilas said. “For Kentucky to have great success in March and advance to the second weekend (of the NCAA Tournament), the point guard position has to be solidified.
“No team wins without good interior play, but no team wins without steady guard play, either. The best teams, championship teams, have both.”
Dortch says Noel simply has to keep making “daily improvement” like he has been doing until March.
“It’s nothing more complex than that. Daily improvement seems to be the norm at Kentucky under John Calipari. His players seem to peak as the season progresses and I would expect the same from him,” Dortch said.
Calipari could see Noel emerging as UK’s team leader based on the way he’s played in games providing he makes one change.
“Got to practice that way. Can’t just do it in games. Have to practice every day and have everybody know that you’re preparing yourself to be great. And as he does that, yeah, he could be one of those guys (to lead the team),” Calipari said.
Both Bilas and Dortch can see Noel potentially be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“First, he has a lot to offer as a prospect, especially on the defensive end. He does not yet have the body for the NBA, but he has tools, and he plays really hard, which not all young big men do,” Bilas said. “Second, the draft is unusually weak this year. One has to ask, if not Noel, then whom? Clearly, this is not 2003 when LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh and Wade were among the first five selections.”
“He’s in the mix. Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA has started to play at a high level and will be under consideration, too,” Dortch said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s not hard for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch to identify his most intriguing player on John Calipari’s new team.
“Willie Cauley-Stein. Can you imagine that dude, at 7 feet, coming at your if you’re a 5-9 cornerback? He played wide receiver for his high school, so you know he’s a great athlete. I’ve been told he’s ahead of Nerlens Noel (who of course missed 16 days of summer practice), and that he’s more advanced offensively than the coaches thought. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Cauley-Stein and Noel together on the floor,” said Dortch, who has UK No. 3 in his preseason poll.
“I think Cauley-Stein may be significantly better than people thought and can help Noel lock down the inside while also getting his share of points around the basket.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
HOOVER, Ala. — It’s not hard for Chris Dortch, editor of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, to identify what he sees as the biggest problem for Kentucky going into this football season.
“Defense against the run has been a problem and will have to be shored up. There is experience returning, but the veteran players will have to prove they can do better than 87th in the nation in rushing defense (183.2 yards per game in 2011),” said Dortch.
“We have Kentucky at number six in the SEC Eastern Division. This league just keeps getting tougher and tougher. When you consider that Missouri is one of just six programs from BCS automatic qualifying conferences to have won at least eight games the last six seasons, what does that mean for the teams that were already traditionally finishing fifth or sixth in the East?”
Missouri and Texas A&M are Southeastern Conference newcomers and Kentucky will play at Missouri in October. That adds another difficult game for Kentucky.
Dortch was at the SEC Football Media Days listening to coaches and players talk this week.
What did he come away with as perhaps the strength of Kentucky’s team as coach Joker Phillips tries to have his first winning season in three years as UK’s head coach?
“There’s good depth at quarterback. I don’t think we’ll see a converted wide receiver taking snaps this year,” Dortch said.
True. Kentucky has senior Morgan Newton, sophomore Maxwell Smith and freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow at quarterback. But don’t forget that a converted receiver, Matt Roark, did lead UK to a win over Tennessee, one of only five wins the Cats got last year.
Dortch calls this a “pivotal year” for Phillips, who is 11-14 in two seasons at UK but does have wins over South Carolina (Steve Spurrier) and Tennessee — something other UK coaches had failed to do.
“Winning at Louisville in the season opener would be huge and give the Cats a chance to get out to a 3-0 record before SEC play kicks in at Florida. If Kentucky can beat the Tennessee schools and Samford in its last three games of the season, there’s bowl eligibility if it doesn’t win another game,” Dortch said.
Optimistic? Probably because the Cats are going to be a decided underdog at Louisville and Vanderbilt spanked UK last year.
“There was a resurgence under (former UK coach) Rich Brooks and I think people around the league began realizing what people in Kentucky already know, that UK isn’t just a basketball school,” Dortch said. “Coach Phillips has to get a bowl streak going again to regain that momentum. It’s just such a tough league to compete year in, year out, and clearly the schools in states that produce large quantities of FBS-level high school players are the ones that are the most consistent.”
Dortch is also editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and will be starting on that publication soon and talking to coaching like Kentucky’s John Calipari about the upcoming season.
Any chance Calipari’s success is bad for UK football?
I think success breeds success. Winning a national title isn’t going to overshadow football any more than it might have been already. And as I said, people in Kentucky support the football program more than people outside the state may realize,” Dortch said.
Dortch was one of the first to predict that Calipari would be a “perfect fit” at Kentucky and has not been surprised by the coach’s success at UK, including last year’s national title. The Cats lost their top six players off that team, but Dortch said it would not be wise to “discount” this year’s Kentucky team.
“Calipari is become adept at getting young teams to play hard and play together. I expect he’ll do the same thing again this year. I find it hard to believe this team could be as good as last year’s, but it’s certainly one of the top five teams in the country, talent wise,” Dortch said.
“I think Nerlens Noel will be as impactful as Anthony Davis on the defense end, or close to it. I think Alex Poythress will be the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of 2012-13. UK will be more experienced at guard than it’s been because of Ryan Harrow having played for a year and then practicing for a year in the system, and (transfer) Julius Mays has played three seasons already. Kyle Wiltjer will no doubt assume a larger role, too. They’ll be very good again.”
* * *
Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook can be ordered online at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or by calling 877-807-4857 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. There is also an iPad version this year.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Chris Dortch of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook (www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com) enjoys college basketball as much as anyone Iâ€ˆknow. He has done work for Sports Illustrated and now also writes for NBA.com and SEC.com. After watching Kentucky play recently, he shared a few insights on Kentucjyâ€™s two star freshmen, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Question: After watching Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis play in person , did your impressions of either one change?
Dortch: â€œMy impressions of each of them didnâ€™t change. What changed is my perception of the role they have at Kentucky. It now seems like they are the acknowledged leaders of this team, even ahead of guys who have been in the program.â€
Question: Is there a collegiate player who impacts a game more defensively thanÂ Davis and how do you rate his offensive game?
Dortch: â€œNo. I havenâ€™t seen a player impact the game defensively the way he does. Whatâ€™s amazing is that he doesnâ€™t just block shots in the paint, or get a bunch of his blocks from the weak side. He can go out past the 3-point line and block shots.
â€œRegarding his offensive game, my guess is that we havenâ€™t seen all heâ€™s capable of yet because heâ€™s needed to do other things. Cal needs a post player, but Iâ€™m sure Davis has face-up skills. He could easily play the three spot, not just from an offensive standpoint but defensively as well.
Question: How many players can impact a game in a variety of ways that Kidd-Gilchrist can and does he remind you of any previous player you have seen?
Dortch: â€œThis is going to sound kind of strange, but when I saw him on Saturday, he reminded me of a young Michael Jordan. Certainly he has those kind of hops, but the way he jumped up there and stuck that 3-pointer late in the game, which I thought was the turning point, the separator that Kentucky needed, really impressed me. That was Jordanesque. He just kind of has that look about him.â€
Question: Do you sense that Kentucky’s older players now defer to Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist?
Dortch: â€œGoing back to my earlier answer, yes, I do. It seems as though itâ€™s their program now.â€
Question: Is there a more potent one-two combo in the SEC than Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist?
Dortch: â€œOffensively, Iâ€™m sure you could come up with a couple of teammates who are as impactful. But the whole package â€” defense, competitive fire, etc., Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™d take another pair off any other team in the league.â€
Question: If you had to pick one attribute you like best about each player, what would it be?
Dortch: â€œI like Davisâ€™ ability to basically be a one-man zone. If you take the number of shots he blocks, plus the number he alters, Iâ€™ll be itâ€™s around 10-12 per game. Not all of those shots would have been made, but if you add the number of points he saves with his defense to the number he scores, there arenâ€™t many players in the country providing that kind of production to his team.
â€œI like Kidd-Gilchristâ€™s presence. You just donâ€™t see that in a guy so young. The word â€˜warriorâ€™ is overused in sports, but that kid is a warrior. I love the way he plays.â€