Team Preview: 2014 Kentucky Wildcats
By: Jonathan Salmon
2012-13 Record: 21-12 (12-6 in the SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (533-163)
John Calipari isn’t accustomed to having bad years.
But last season left a sour taste in the mouths of Wildcats fans. After losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT, course correction was in order, and the program has been doing all it can, short of burying their heads in the sand, to forget that 2012-13 ever happened.
Strongside: Calipari has a knack for snatching up the best recruiting classes and he doesn’t seem to have lost his touch; this season he brought eight freshmen into his lineup (and has rolled out an all-rookie starting five in two consecutive games). Although it sometimes feels like he is repeating himself with these one-and-done teams, the celebrated coach looks like he has outdone himself with this one, picking up six of the 15 best players in the NCAA circuit, and putting forth arguably the best squad he has assembled during his time at UK..
Headlining that class is Julius Randle. If the 6’9”, 250-pound forward from Prestonwood Christian wants to score or rebound, good luck beating him out; he is a beast, plain and simple. He is already the front-runner for grabbing the Player of the Year honors, posting a double-double in every game so far in 2014. If he keeps playing like this, only an act of merciless god will bar his way.
Dependability at the guard position was UK’s Achilles Heel last year. But Coach Cal can put those doubts to rest with Andrew Harrison, one of the top-rated point guards out of high school and one of Kentucky’s six McDonald’s All-Americans. He is already being looked at to be a top NBA prospect, the type of player that every coach wants two of…
And Calipari does have two of them: Aaron Harrison has been heating it up for the Cats even more than his twin brother. The 6’6’’ Richmond-born player shot seven of 12 from the field to finish a revenge game of Robert Morris game with 28 points. If he can keep that up, it doesn’t matter if someone defies nature and finds a way to stop Randle; he’ll just kick it out to this sharpshooter for an easy jumper.
Still not convinced? James Young puts all the guard doubts to rest. He shot 15 of his 26 points from beyond the arc against UT Arlington and has shown us that he can be a dependable shooting guard as well.
Willie Cauley-Stein will round out this young team as a powerhouse in the paint, the sole sophomore reminder that Kentucky doesn’t always make it as far as they want.
Weakside: This is a young team, fast and strong, but it is still uncertain whether they can play a full 40 minutes without taking their heel off the throat of their opponent. In their game against Cleveland State, they looked like they were going nowhere until the final 10 minutes, ultimately saving their asses. If they can play the rough-and-tumble defense we saw when their backs were up against the wall all-season, they could do some damage, but effort for a quarter of the game simply won’t cut it.
All Told: Calipari has some time to whip his roster into shape so no one can count them out quite yet, and if they do begin firing on all cylinders they will be hard to beat. Randle can score with the best even when the odds aren’t on his side, as he showed against Michigan State, putting up 27 of the 68 Kentucky points in the loss, but even his broad shoulders can’t support this team for the whole season. What it comes down to is the intensity that Calipari is able to get out of these youngsters and the Harrison brothers’ late-game threes dropping.
Born and raised somewhere in rural or urban Canada, Jon Salmon might have once been a cow herder in the American Midwest until he gave it all up for the glamorous life of writing. Little did he know that the career move would leave him economically destitute. If you see him, toss your dirtiest nickel or a half-eaten sandwich his way. All of his work is written with 1.89 litres of beer and a bag of dill sunflower seeds.