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By LARRY VAUGHT
Before the season started, Kentucky had three freshmen — Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin — already projected as lottery picks in the 2013 June NBA draft.
Not long after the season started, freshman Willie Cauley-Stein did enough on the court to put himself into the same type of lofty draft status even though he didn’t make his first start until Saturday after Noel was lost for the season due to a knee injury.
The expectations were nothing new for UK freshmen. Back in 2010, Kentucky had four freshmen — John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe — all picked in the first round. Last year the Cats had three freshmen — Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague — all go in round one. Back in 2011, freshman Brandon Knight was a first-round pick and so was Enes Kanter even though he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and never played a game all year.
But this season has not quite gone the way many expected. Noel was leading the nation in blocked shots when he was hurt and still seems a lock to be a top five pick at worse. However, the other three freshmen have been consistently inconsistent in UK’s 17-8 season. Kentucky has gone from a preseason top five team considered a Final Four contender to a team desperately looking for a way to just keep a first-round bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Against Tennessee Saturday, Poythress was 2-for-4 from the field and had four points, two rebounds and one turnover in 20 minutes before fouling out. Goodwin was 2-for-9 from the field and had seen points, four assists, four turnovers and two rebounds in 34 minutes. Cauley-Stein was 1-for-4 from the field and had two points, two rebounds, two blocks and four turnovers in 23 minutes. That means the trio had 13 points, six rebounds and nine turnovers in 77 minutes.
Yet go to nbadraft.net and its mock draft has Noel going fourth, Cauley-Stein 10th, Poythress 19th and Goodwin 20th in the June draft.
What gives? How do those numbers justify top 20 picks?
That’s what I asked a NBA scout who has seen UK play. He can’t comment publicly on draftable players, but he basically said not to believe all mock drafts because where teams project players can be far different. He noted that Goodwin has a “bad release on his shots” and that Poythress has a “lot of wasted motion” in his game. He questioned Cauley-Stein’s “focus and game speed” in key situations. He also didn’t think Noel’s injury would scare many teams or dramatically alter his draft status.
But I remember former UK all-American Kyle Macy telling me once that players should enter the draft when their stock is the highest. Teague did that last year. So did Doron Lamb. So did Bledsoe and even Orton two three years ago. DeAndre Liggins did the same two years ago. What if Goodwin, Poythress and Cauley-Stein sense their draft stock has dropped? Would coming back make it higher considering the recruiting class Calipari already has — and may add to — could likely dictate less playing time for all three next year?
“Some guys just don’t mature as the same rate as others,” the NBA scout said. “It happens all the time across the country. It’s just not been the norm with the one-and-done guys at Kentucky. But everybody is not one-and-done.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl thought Kentucky’s home-court win streak would end this year and said so in October. Yet the current ESPN college basketball analyst thought it would likely be Florida or Missouri, not Baylor, that gave UK coach John Calipari his first Rupp Arena loss.
“I actually thought Kentucky might even lose twice. I just didn’t think it would happen before SEC play started. Baylor was talented enough to pull it off, but I was still shocked it did.”
Pearl also projected UK to finish third behind Florida and Missouri in this year’s Southeastern Conference race. Conference play starts this week and Pearl says UK is “about where I expected them” to be and still feels Florida will win the league.
“I don’t want to sound like … because we guess all the time and don’t know it all .. but I felt some factor would make Kentucky take a step back this year,” Pearl said. “There’s no Darius Miller. No Terrence Jones. No Doron Lamb. I played (coached) against those guys. I know how tough Miller was. He killed Tennessee. He gave it to us not just with offense, but with defense and toughness. Lamb was a clutch shooter. Every time Anthony Davis went to block a shot, Terrence got the backside rebound or Calipari took him out.
“I enjoyed that Kentucky team last year as much as any team I have watched play period. They were that much fun. I enjoyed them as much as any team I have ever seen in college basketball. I knew it was a rare team and I knew there would be a lot of change with this year’s team.”
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By LARRY VAUGHT
He was the nation’s No. 1 recruit and known for his shot blocking skills. But what was either overlooked or unknown about Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel is that he’s an energy guy.
Maybe he’s not going to be this year’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the Wildcats, but he sure looks like he’s going to have to be the team’s catalyst and certainly only enhanced that belief with his play in Friday’s 101-49 victory over Lafayette.
“The thing I’m telling our guys, the energy that Nerlens plays with, if I can get all my guys playing with that kind of energy, think about what we’d become as a team. Now we’re aware of the vision I have with us,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Noel’s numbers were good. He was 6-for-8 from the field and 3-for-5 at the foul line to score 15 points. He grabbed a game-high seven rebounds and blocked one shot. But he also had four assists and a team-high four steals in 28 minutes of play.
Remember he was touted as a better high school shot blocker than Anthony Davis, the player who led UK to a national title last year while sweeping the various player of the year awards as well as going on to win an Olympic gold medal. But after three games he has more steals (8) than blocks (7).
“I have always been a relatively high-energy guy, but now since I’m at a higher level I have to bring it every night. I just always have to be active for my team, make opportunities for the fast break and getting steals on the floor. I’m just doing it for my team to get going,” Noel said.
Has he always been a guy so willing to do whatever it takes to help a team?
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve always been on the floor. It’s the only way you are going to get that ball,” he said.
Calipari pleaded with his team to follow Noel’s example.
“He was coming into every huddle. I was telling the team, give him a hand. The guy’s diving on the floor, playing with energy. Would the rest of you please look at him and try to do what he’s doing or do you think just let him do that and you’re not going to do it?” Calipari said. “I told Nerlens just keep doing it, and they’ll get it because it becomes embarrassing when he’s diving and you’re jogging or you’re standing straight up and get beat on the back door, and this kid’s diving on the floor.
“You all (in the media) start writing like why is this kid not playing? It’s not just Alex (Poythress). It’s Archie (Goodwin), Jarrod (Polson) on the back cut, and all of a sudden Nerlens is covering for everybody. The issue is then he goes to block the shot in the lane. He’s doing what we’re asking. Last year someone always picked up Anthony (Davis)’s man. This year no one’s picking up his man? Why? Because they’re running out. They’re not even attempting to rebound.
“When people say he’s going after every block shot, no he’s not. He’s playing how we want him to. What’s happening is the back line defense isn’t playing. They’re stopping and not only not helping, they’re running out. But that’s all the stuff we’ve been working on.”
This was a game Kentucky figured to win big — and that was before Lafayette’s best player (6-9 Dan Trist) and top returning scorer hurt his ankle in the pregame practice and could not play. Yet early in the second half with Kentucky comfortably ahead, Noel played with the passion of a player trying to make a name for himself instead of a player most expect will be a 2013 NBA first round draft pick.
— He got the ball inside, looked and fed Poythress for an easy score.
— On Lafayette’s ensuing possession, he tapped the ball away, dove on the floor and somehow got the ball ahead to Polson for an easy score.
— A minute later Noel knocked the ball away from a Lafayette player at the top of the key, outran a guard to get the ball and then drove the rest of the way to the basket to dunk.
Those plays all came in a two-minute stretch where his athleticism, hustle and unselfishness were all on display and Calipari hopes teammates were noticing.
“Hopefully I will be like Nerlens. He is a character out there but hopefully I can have his energy out there,” Poythress, who had 22 points and five rebounds, said.
Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon watched Noel play in high school. He was more than a bit impressed with what he saw Friday.
“I think he’s terrific. He’s getting better at his post moves around the basket. I think every week he’s going to get better,” O’Hanlon said. “Certainly he can clog up the middle. They’re going to get out and pressure us, try to force us to the basket and try to speed us up, which they did. He’s a handful back there. Our perimeter game is not going to be nearly as good because of his presence out there. I think offensively he’s just getting better and better when I watched him on film and then tonight.”
Noel doesn’t care whether he’s blocking a shot to disrupt a game or making a steal to get the ball for his team.
“Shot blocking is more difficult at this level, so if I can get a steal to get the ball, that’s great,” Noel said. “Steals are steals. They get you the ball, too. I just play with high energy to get the team going. That’s what I always try to do. Seeing others diving on the floor for balls gets me going. So if I do it, hopefully it gets my teammates going.
“I have to make sure I really get the guys going. Whether it has to go through me to get the energy level up, that’s how it can be, but I’ll do anything to help my team.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
From the day he arrived on campus in August, Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel has continued to work on basically the same things.
“Just continuing to do what I do now. Working on my skill set 15 feet in and staying in the weight room to get stronger and put on good weight.,” said Noel. “Those are the things it will take for me to help this team all I can.”
Noel was the nation’s top-ranked player in the 2012 recruiting class. He arrived on campus about two months after UK’s other freshmen — Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein — to finish necessary work to graduate after reclassifying from the 2013 recruiting year to 2012.
He says assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Orlando Antigua have not let him even think about not pushing himself.
“They really push you to get to where you want to be. They are great, and people you can look up to and talk to whenever you want to speak about something. I appreciate them,” Noel said.
Same with his teammates.
“We all had prior relationships before coming here, and I always had a good vibe since I got here that we have a close-knit group. We have all come a long way and have been our own brother’s keeper,” Noel said.
He was expecting Kentucky fans to be a bit zany, but admits he did underestimate the fans.
“A lot more (fan interest) than what I have experienced in the past. It is special to be here. It is a big opportunity, but you have to seize it and bring it every day,” Noel said. “Some fans are crazy, but mainly they just have a love for the game. Just watching us play is special for them, and you have to love that.”
Noel likes the daily competition with Cauley-Stein, who outplayed him in last week’s Blue-White Game when Noel injured his back early in the scrimmage.
“Willie has come a long way with himself, and I think that will be a great duo. Not too many shots would get up in the paint. The season should be real fun. Whatever coach Cal (Calipari) decides to do, and whoever he decides to put in, we will just go out there and try to ball,” Noel said.
Cauley-Stein is just as glad to be pushed by Noel — one reason he had no problem when Noel signed with the Cats about six months after he had picked the Cats.
“A lot of my friends from back home asked me if I was worried that I wouldn’t get as much playing time. Honestly, that didn’t go through my head,” Cauley-Stein said. “You care to some sense, but if we are winning, I don’t care. If you win, you win, and it doesn’t matter how many minutes you get. It didn’t really bother me that much. It was kind of more like a challenge. I was really low key and nobody really knew about me. Going with the number one recruit in the country and having to play against him every day builds your confidence.”
Noel doesn’t want to think or act like the top-ranked recruit. Instead, his focus is on a national title, not going pro. Sounds similar to the same things Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said last year before going one-two in the draft.
“Winning a title is something I have definitely dreamed about. Just being at the college level and growing up watching this game and having a passion for it, I really want to win a title more than anything,” Noel said. “Other than that, I am mainly focused on getting better and staying on the books. This is just a regular school where you are going to do regular things and where you come to get better every day. The NBA is not something you worry about.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
John Calipari had a long list of potential problems facing his Kentucky Wildcats early in the season — difficult opening games with Maryland and Duke, lack of experienced players, huge expectations coming off a national championship season.
Yet it wasn’t hard for him to explain Thursday during UK’s Media Day what he likes about his freshman-dominated team.
“I like what they’ll look like in March in my mind. Right now, that’s the only thing I can live with,” said Calipari. “I have a vision of what they’re going to be in March, and that’s what I try to drive them to. I know it’s there and we’re right here.
“I’m going to try to be as patient — I’m not the most patient guy, but I’m going to try to be as patient as I can to drag them along. We were patient last year with (point guard) Marquis Teague, and it paid off, didn’t it? We had people say you can’t play him at point guard. Let somebody else play the point guard, and we let it go. We just said we’re sticking to this, and we’re going to be patient with him. We were, and by the end of the year he was the best point guard in my opinion.”
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer is the only returning Wildcat with any real game experience. Senior transfer Julius Mays has played three years at North Carolina State and Wright State, though, and understands why Calipari is warning his team that an 0-2 start is possible despite UK being ranked in the top five of preseason polls after losing its top seven players from last year.
“We are a young team. We might not start the season playing as well as you want, but I think he is trying to humble us,” Mays said of Calipari. “I think it is trying to keep our minds off what last year’s team did and just know that nothing is going to be handed to us coming into the season.
“Since the team did win last year, we are going to be everybody’s national championship game and we are going to get everybody’s best game.”
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein knows this team that will also feature freshmen Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein, will be compared to the national championship team that had star freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
“It puts a target on your back. They were beating everyone so badly last year and we have a target on our back to see if we are going to be as good as them or if we are going to fall,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s the biggest challenge we have. We can’t compare ourselves to them. We just need to keep going out there and playing and doing whatever coach Cal tells us to do and being effective about it.”
Calipari hinted that veterans like Wiltjer, Ryan Harrow and Jon Hood might tell the UK freshmen that they soon will be hearing a lot more that they will be expected to do.
“The guys that came back will tell the young guys you have not seen him yet. He’s all friendly and happy go lucky. Wait till we start practicing and it gets close to a game and the pressure is on,” Calipari said. “You’re going to see a different animal. They’ve already told those guys. Right now, yeah, he’s all happy and hugging you. Wait until we start playing. You’re going to see this other guy that you don’t recognize right now. That’s what they tell them.
“Whenever whatever I ask our guys to do, they’ll do it. I just have to make sure whatever I ask them is the right thing. You talk about playing zone. If I choose to do that, I just hope it’s the right thing, or what kind of zone. We’re going to change some different offenses. Well, let’s hope it’s right. Because whatever I tell them to do, they’ll do. We’ve got a great group that understood coming here, hard deal. Tell us what you want us to do, and we’re going to do it.”
Calipari admitted he is “trying to figure out” what to do once full practice starts Saturday after Friday night’s Big Blue Madness.
“Because until I get on the court I’m not — we’ll do some things, and whatever works, we run with,” Calipari said.
But the UK coach wasn’t complaining about once again having a basically new roster, something he’s experienced every season at UK.
“If I had my choice between experience and talent, I’m going to take talent. This is a talented group. I don’t know how talented until we start playing, but we’ve got good size. We’ve got length. We’ve got some slashers, got a couple shooters,” Calipari said. “We were worried about our toughness a year ago, and I would tell you, I’m a little worried about the toughness of this team based on the fact that you have a couple of guys, but you just don’t have a — we were worried about it last year. I’m probably more worried this year.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Alex Poythress is considered one of the top freshmen in the country, but once he had trouble beating his twin sister in their middle school basketball battles.
“Yeah, she could beat me, but then I got bigger and started whipping on her. It was just a brother-sister rivalry. I think she enjoyed beating me more than I did when I beat her,” he said. “But I guess you could say that did motivate me to improve.”
His sister, who thought of playing volleyball in college, is now at Kentucky with him.
“I try to see her every day. She was trying to go somewhere to play volleyball but decided to come here,” Poythress said. “She will probably be my toughest critic. That’s good. She is not going to (lie to) me. She is going to tell me the truth, and you need that.”
His mother, Regina, was always the same way.
“She had a real big impact on my whole life. She has always been there for me,” Poythress said. “She’s the person I learned my work ethic from. She always pushed me. She probably worries all the time about me now. She tries not to call me every day. She will be at most of the games, but I know she worries.”
Poythress says his explosiveness on the court is all natural and something he’s been able to do without any special work.
“I never really did work special on it. I never did leg strength work, just upper body stuff. I have always been athletic and able to jump and block shots. But you have to keep progressing all the time,” he said.
He credits his high school coach, Al Cooper, for pushing him when he needed it.
“He had a great impact on me. He used to coach my sister when she actually played basketball, so I have been around him for a lot of years,” Poythress said. “He was always tough on me, doing drills with me. He had a big influence on my work ethic, too. He pushed me really hard sometimes to where I almost didn’t like him. I didn’t understand then what he was doing, but I do now and really appreciate it.
“I am proud of what I did in high school. I was one of the first McDonald’s All-Americans from Clarksville, junior All-American. I was proud of that. It was like a dream come true to go play in all those all-star games I got to play in across the country. As a little kid you dream about that after watching games on ESPN.”
Poythress watched Kentucky’s national championship team play as much as possible last year and thought it was “pretty cool how they came together as a team” under Calipari. He says this season’s four freshmen are “really close” and willing to do the same things last year’s freshmen did to help the Wildcats win.
“We all have a time to lead. We all have times to step up and speak our mind,” he said. “I do it when I need to, but I don’t like to really talk like that. But if I need to do it, I will.”
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the same way, and Poythress says he’ll also “be like Mike” on the court.
“There is no need to do all that celebrating or talking on the court. Let your game do that,” he said. “I just take it one day at a time. You never know what the future will hold. You can’t control that. So just go play hard and enjoy it.”
He’s been trying to “sleep as much as possible” when not in class or on the basketball court. When he is working out, he’s been doing a variety of things.
“With the post players, we do hook shots. With the guards, we do triple moves, in-and-outs. Work on finishing different ways at the rim and jump shots,” he said. “I just want to do whatever my role is and play how I need to play. I can do whatever I am asked.”
Kentucky fans started coming to Poythress’ high school games after he signed with UK, and he has gotten a taste of the passion fans have already since he got to campus.
“The fans have been crazy saying they love you and Kentucky basketball,” he said. “I know Big Blue Madness will be crazy. I think I will enjoy that a lot. I have never had that experience before. But everything has been good. Classes are going good. They are pretty simple for the most part. Just do your work and you will be fine.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
There’s is no doubt and never has been about Alex Poythress’ talent for John Calipari. Instead, the question for the Kentucky coach becomes just how hard he can get the UK freshman to play.
“Alex, it’s just a motor. We’ve got to get him to understand how hard on every possession you must play,” Calipari said. “When we get him there, he will be scary. But right now, we are going to be behind. That’s just the way it is,.
“Last year we had Doron (Lamb), Terrence (Jones) and Darius (Miller). They had all been to a Final Four the year before. You are talking about one truly veteran player (Kyle Wiltjer) and two that seem to be as veteran as we keep here in two-year guys. We need Alex to play with that motor.”
Poythress, a power forward from Clarksville, Tenn., knows that and has already had many one-on-one conversations with Calipari about his intensity.
“He talks with me a lot about that. I am just trying to be like Mike (Kidd-Gilchrist was last year), trying to walk in his footsteps and play that role he played last year,” Poythress said.
Those are big footsteps, because not only was Kidd-Gilchrist the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft behind teammate Anthony Davis, but he was also one of the most intense players ever to play at Kentucky.
“I play that way all the time, I think. I can do that for this team. You just have to play hard all the time and not take plays off,” Poythress said.
“I was used to doing that in high school when I was double- and triple-teamed so much. It was good preparation for here now that everybody is really good and I won’t have two or three people on me. There’s no reason for me not to play harder than anyone else.
“I like that expectation of being like Mike. You have to have big expectations and set expectations high so you have something to live up to and work for.”
DraftExpress.com analyst Matt Kamalsky said he believes Poythress has even better talent than many realize.
“Poythress has all the physical tools to be a great NBA small forward and has shown remarkable development in his skill set over the past year and change,” Kamalsky said. “He is so versatile on the offensive end for a player his age, and it seems like he keeps finding more ways to impact the game as he’s matured.
“If he can become a reliable 3-point shooter, get stronger and learn to make the most of that strength when attacking the rim, he can be a special talent.”
“Even with how highly touted he is coming in, I think Poythress has the potential to be to surprise of this UK recruiting class.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s hard to imagine any college basketball player having a better year than Anthony Davis did from sweeping the top individual awards to winning a national championship to being part of the gold-medal Olympic team.
Apparently his play has also impressed his future NBA peers as a nba.com survey by John Schuhmann of Davis’ fellow rookies predicted he would be rookie of the year and would also have the best NBA career of any of them
Davis got 47 percent of the vote for rookie of the year and Damian Lillard 17.6 percent. He got 40.6 percent of the vote for best career with Harrison Barnes next at 12.5 percent. Those are pretty decisive margins.
Another former UK standout, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, was voted the best defender with 28.6 percent of the vote. And who was second? Davis with 14.3 percent.
John Jenkins was projected as the best shooter by a wide margin of Bradley Beal. Jenkins played at Vanderbilt and Beal at Florida.
By RICHARD CHEEKS
In what has become the standard operating procedure for Coach Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, his 2012-13 version will be a substantially new team for the 4th season in a row. Coach Calipari will build the 2012-13 edition around nine (9) scholarship players and perhaps as many as three (3) walk on players if all three members of last year’s team return for another round of practice and game mop up duties.
For those who like to look back at the way Calipari’s previous teams shaped up, in 2011-12, there were 10 scholarships and 3 walk on players. In addition, UK had two players sitting out as red shirts due to transfer rules or injury recovery. The 2010-11 team, that ended the long UK drought of final four appearances started the season with nine (9) scholarships and one (1) walk on, but before they tipped off the first game, one scholarship player decided to leave the program, reducing that team’s total numbers to nine able bodies. Calipari’s first UK team had thirteen scholarship players, due primarily to the seven (7) returners from Billy Gillispie’s last team.
The 2012-13 Cats will be starting the fall semester with similar numbers in their ranks as the 2010-11 team, but as we have also learned from Coach Calipari’s tenure, it is not the number of players that determine the quality of the team, but the quality of the players who log the game minutes. This year’s team, by that steady measure, looks to be a factor in March, when the games matter most.
Prior to the 2010-11 season, many observers, including this one, conceded that the short roster had as much to do with Coach wanting to keep critical scholarships available for a bumper crop of recruits for the 2011-12 season. Some are making similar remarks about the 2012-13 roster when looking ahead to next August when another bumper crop of high school recruits will be stepping onto college campuses. However, that 2010-11 team redeemed itself quite capably with a trip to the final four, despite doing without the services of Enes Kanter for the entire season, and the 2011-12 roster was not fully subscribed despite that bumper crop that produced UK’s 8th championship.
Therefore, there is only one conclusion about the roster that seems supportable today. Coach Calipari has nine (9) scholarship players on this upcoming UK team because that is the number of players he believes he needs to produce another contender. Yes, that will leave Calipari with plenty of room to maneuver for the best that the 2013 recruiting class has to offer, but it is doubtful that Coach Calipari extends that recruiting season beyond the nine to eleven scholarship players that have dominated his strategy these last three seasons.
Of course, in college basketball, each year provides a new and unique mix of players. Gone from the 2012 National Championship team are Seniors Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas. Also gone are Jones, Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb, Teague, and the 2013 player of the year Anthony Davis. NBA teams selected six of these seven departing players in June’s NBA draft, and four of those secured first round selections. The returning players from the 2011-12 team are Senior Twany Beckham, Redshirt Junior Jon Hood, and Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. Sophomore Ryan Harrow was a member of the 2011-12 Championship team as a transfer redshirt player, and will compete this year in what will be his sophomore year of eligibility. Coach Calipari has added to those four “veterans” a senior transfer, Mays, and four freshmen: Nerlens Noel (#1 Ranked Freshman), Alex Poythress (#8 Ranked Freshman), Archie Goodwin (#12 Ranked Freshman), and Willie Cauley (#37 Ranked Freshman). All five of the newcomers should play heavily into Coach Calipari’s plans for the 2012-13 team and season.
So, let the comparisons begin:
1. How will this team compare to last year’s team?
2. How will this team compare to the field next season?
I am sure that folks will frame the 2012 vs. 2013 comparisons in many ways. Here is mine.
PG: Teague v Harrow
The John Calipari history with point guards has become mythical, if not fully legendary, going back to his last two years at Memphis and his first 3 UK teams. The common thinking is that Harrow will not measure up to this line of first round draft picks occupying the point guard position. However, Harrow brings one element to the team this season that none of the past 3 point guards could boast. Harrow has spend one full season doing nothing but playing head to head on a daily basis against Marcus Teague while learning the Calipari point guard system. Harrow figures to hit the ground running with respect to his point guard responsibilities.
Three years ago, John Wall set the standard by earning a #1 NBA draft selection, and the fans said Brandon Knight could not follow that act. However, Brandon Knight followed the act by leading his Cats to their first Final Four in more years than UK fans cared to count, and his own first round draft pick. Then, the fans said Marquis Teague could not follow that act. However, Teague followed the act by leading his Cats to a National Championship and his own first round draft selection. Today, the fans say Harrow cannot follow that act.
I do not doubt that Wall is one of the best PGs ever to wear the UK uniform, but as Knight and Teague have proven, the point guard contributes to the team’s success in many different ways, and the ultimate team success is not dependent upon having the best point guard in school history. Now the mantle of floor generalship falls on the capable shoulders of Sophomore Transfer Ryan Harrow. He will bring a set of seasoned skills to the floor. At the least, a PUSH with 2012, and potentially ADVANTAGE 2013.
C: Davis v Noel
How can any team possibly replace a departing National Player of the Year, and the 2012 NBA #1 draft selection? Most say that no team can possibly replace such an integral component from a National Championship team. However, Coach Calipari has come about as close to doing the impossible as can be done with the addition of the #1 high school player to fill that position, Nerlens Noel. Advantage 2012, but not by as great a margin as many will presume prior to playing against Nerlens Noel.
SG: Lamb v Goodwin
Lamb as a sophomore was a force for the 2012 team. His perimeter shooting was superb, but that was expected by all. He also added moves toward the basket that were effective for himself and his teammates lurking around the basket and the perimeter. Finally, his ability to provide a stabilizing factor at the point, when Marquis Teague needed help, gave Coach Calipari the ability to let Marquis Teague develop his game at the pace Marquis needed to succeed down the stretch. Goodwin comes to the party with tremendous press clippings, but until any freshman demonstrates an ability to step onto a collegiate court and compete, he remains an unknown. For that reason alone, Advantage 2012.
SF: Kidd-Gilchrist v Wiltjer
A year ago, when I prepared the 2011-2012 comparison, I treated Darius Miller as the likely #3 position starter, but it did not take long for everyone to realize that Kidd-Gilchrist had the tools and the maturity to step onto the court as a Freshman and play the game as well as anyone. Darius yielded the starting role for the benefit of the team. Kidd-Gilchrist’s position on the upcoming team will probably be filled by Kyle Wiltner. Kyle Wiltjer was one of the best perimeter shooters the Kentucky program has ever seen as a freshman, but his foot speed limited his defensive ability, which limited his playing time as a freshman. The biggest unknown for the 2012-13 team in my opinion will be how much Kyle Wiltjer can improve his strength, his rebounding, and his defensive abilities to compliment his already proven offensive skill set. ClearAdvantage 2012.
PF: Jones v Poythress
Jones as a sophomore became a man among children, especially after his disappearing act in early December that was instrumental to the team’s only regular season loss at Indiana. However, after he returned from his hiatus over a subsequent finger injury, he was one of the key ingredients to the national title run. Jones was so much more a factor as a sophomore than a freshman. He will be replaced by another true freshman, Alex Poythress. All of the advance information about Poythress indicates that he too will have the tools necessary to play immediately as a Freshman, just as did Kidd-Gilchrist. However, until Poythress proves it, there will remain a slight Advantage 2012..
Miller, Sr. v Hood, RS Jr: Advantage 2012
Wiltjer, Fr v Mays, RS Sr: Advantage 2013
Vargas, Sr v Cauley, Fr: Advantage 2013
Beckham, Jr. v Beckham, Sr: Advantage 2013
Polson, So. v Polson, Jr: Advantage 2013
Malone, Fr. v Malone, So: Advantage 2013
Long, Fr. v Long, So: Advantage 2013
2013 will not be as strong in its starting five across the board as 2012 proved to be. In my opinion, 2012 was stronger at every position except perhaps point guard, where I see a PUSH between Freshman Teague and Redshirt Sophomore Harrow. However, the Kentucky bench in 2013 will be deeper and stronger across the board, with the exception of replacing transformed starter Darius Miller as the best 6th man in the game in 2012.
I believe that the 2012-13 Kentucky team will begin the season as a top 5 team, with Indiana, Louisville, Kansas, and UCLA providing the balance of the season’s pre-season Final Four contenders. This team will be young, as has become the trademark for the Calipari era at UK, more closely aligned, experience wise, to the 2010-11 squad than either the 2010 or 2012 editions. However, the 2013 Cats will begin with more experience at the point guard position than any UK team since Calipari’s arrival, and for that reason, I expect the 2012-13 version of the Wildcats will mature and grow up faster even last year’s team.
In last year’s edition of this analysis, I fearlessly forecast that last year’s team had a legitimate opportunity to traverse its regular season without a defeat, which it did but for its only stumble at Assembly Hall by 1 point, to a very solid Indiana team. I do not foresee the same opportunity for an undefeated regular season campaign in 2012-13, but when this team does stumble, it will be a rare occurrence and the entire basketball world will rise up and take notice.
There are two games in the non-conference schedule that are not clearly in the probable win category, road games at Notre Dame and Louisville. However, these Cats should be favored to beat the Fighting Irish, and could well be favored over the Cards by late December. In the expanded SEC, with 18 regular season games, I believe there are three road games for which the outcomes cannot be predicted as probable Kentucky wins prior to the season, at Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Florida. Of these, I believe UK will be the underdog only in Gainesville. Based on this pre-season analysis, these Cats could lose as many as three games [1 non-conference and 2 SEC] going into the post season (28-3 or better), and this team will be one of the legitimate contenders to compete in the Final Four for their third consecutive season. Therefore, by early March, most observers will regard Calipari’s fourth UK team as a legitimate contender to win the National Championship on the first Monday of April 2012.
Thank you Coach Calipari for bringing us #8, and keeping this program in the hunt for #9.