Team Preview: Kentucky Wildcats
By: Fraser Lockerbie
2011-2012 Record: 38-2, 16-0 in the SEC
Coach: John Calipari, 102-14 at Kentucky, 547-154 overall
John Calipari has made a habit of foiling pundits; through the nineties, he led a UMass team with no spectacular pedigree before he arrived to five straight Atlantic 10 titles and NCAA tournament berths. When he took up in Memphis, he shattered the teams (and the NCAAs) single season win record (38), led the Tigers to two top seeds in the tournament and practically reinvented the way we think about half court offensive with the “dribble drive motion.” Even his time in the bigs, with the New Jersey Nets proved to be the then faltering franchises lone bright spot in the nineties, getting swept by Jordan’s Bulls in the first round in 1998.
Now he’s at Kentucky and has for a few years been skirting the system, defying the odds and getting the naysayers all worked up again by screwing with that one word the talking heads love to heed: experience. Calipari has turned Kentucky into what everyone’s calling the “one-and-done” program thanks in large part to a recruiting system that intentionally pulls in the best blue chip high school talent available knowing full well that they will declare for the draft inside a year and competes with only that season in mind on raw ability alone. Well, raw ability and coach Calipari’s unparalleled knack for pulling teams together; he’s coming off three straight Elite Eight appearances, back-to-back Final Fours and last year’s National Title.
Strongside: Calipari has proved this system can work and so he’s stuck with it; Kentucky unapologetically brought in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class in 2013 for the fourth year in a row.
Nerlens Noel, a 6-10 center said to be a better shot blocker than Anthony Davis, will be charged with replacing the first overall draft picks production in the the paint; defensively he’s comparable to Davis but it’s unlikely he has the skill set to play at both ends of the floor.
For that, Calipari has a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans: Archie Goodwin, a natural scorer with a knack for draining threes will take up residence at the two spot, while Alex Poythress, a 6-7, 240 small forward will be charged with muscling up on fast breaks and is a candidate, behind Goodwin, to lead the team in scoring. The Wildcats also have Kyle Wiltjer, one of the only returning players from last season National Title team, who in his own right is a top-prospect and now the de facto veteran and leader of this young team. At 6-10, he’s a tough matchup on offense at college level for a power forward and should round out the Wildcats offense with at least double digit points per game.
Conducting this young cast will be Ryan Harrow, a NC State transfer who sat out last season as per NCAA provisions. His time practicing and learning the game plan with the National Title team will g a long way to transferring knowledge over and keeping this team on track.
Weakside: Other than the obvious “this team’s too young to win a National Title” argument, there aren’t a lot of holes here. Kenucky even comes complete with depth with Julian Mays, a transfer that led Wright State in scoring, steals and assists a year ago coming off the bench and uber-prospect, seven footer Willie Caulie-Stein to fill in for Noels should foul trouble become a concern. Injuries and inconsistency are really the only things we can point out as notable weaksides; if Ryan Harrow succumbs to either this offense could have trouble getting going.
All Told: Losing six players to the pros is usually cause to regroup and prepare the fans for a long rebuild, but not for coach Calipari and Kentucky; they’ve proved winning a National Title can be done with a virtually untested team and they’ll look to do it again in 2013.