*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – the top 16 teams in the nation are being previewed individually here. After we broke down Ohio State earlier this morning, we’ll keep this going with No. 2-ranked Kentucky (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
At one point during last February’s matchup between St. Patrick’s and Andre Drummond-led St. Thomas More at Kean University, elite wing forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went down hard – and stayed down in obvious pain, holding his shoulder.
A relatively A-list crowd for a high school game, which included Dajuan Wagner, Ron Harper, the omnipresent World Wide Wes, Irv Gotti – yes, that Irv Gotti – and Kentucky coach John Calipari, got quiet in a hurry. Luckily, Kidd-Gilchrist was just shaken up. Calipari was visibly relieved, and everyone settled back in to watch Kidd-Gilchrist score 28 points in a 12-point St. Pat’s victory.
Calipari’s concern was understandable, as no coach counts more on high school phenoms on a year-to-year basis. But in actuality, what could end up making this the best team Calipari has had since coming to Lexington is his returning talent.
Here’s what sets this year’s Wildcats apart:
When Oak Hill shooting guard Doron Lamb declared for Kentucky during the 2010 Jordan Classic, it piqued my interest. For a team that would put four freshmen in the first round of the NBA Draft two months later, Lamb, though a good player, was practically guaranteed to still be around for his sophomore year.
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For the third straight year, Calipari brought in hands-down the best recruiting class in the country. But the fact that Lamb, Darius Miller and – somewhat surprisingly – Terrence Jones are still plying their trade in Lexington is why this could very well be John Calipari’s best squad since he took the Kentucky job, even better than the 35-3 Wall/Cousins team two years ago.
Lamb – who I once watched score 49 points in a high school game – plays below the rim, but he’s a dead-eye shooter with a decent handle. The versatile Miller, the only senior on the team, is also very good from long range and hopes to find the consistency to step into an expanded role.
But the real coup for Calipari was getting Jones back. Similar to Harrison Barnes, Jones skipped out on a potential spot in the NBA lockout to work on his game, improve his stock and take aim at a championship. The naturally gifted Jones was superb last season, and if his 52-point game in a scrimmage is any indication, an improved work ethic has transformed him into what Calipari believes is potentially the best player in the country.
“Thinking about coming up short last year, it hurt so much that I wanted to do better this year and not have that feeling again,” Jones said recently. “I just feel everything at practice is important. Being the older guy that other players look up to, I feel like I’ve got to take every drill seriously.”
Calipari has been on a roll recruiting-wise, and depending on who you ask – we’ll go with Rivals –Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague make up 60 percent of the top five players in this year’s class. In addition, sharpshooting power forward Kyle Wiltjer has already opened eyes and could earn time, pending his defense.
To score not one but two elite forwards like Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis is a coup. As anyone who watched Prayer for a Perfect Season knows, Kidd-Gilchrist is a creative slasher with an unstoppable motor, a passion for defense and a furious drive to succeed. He’ll be a force to reckon with as part of a Kentucky defense that Calipari wants to press 30-40 percent of the time.
The 6-foot-10 Davis, meanwhile, isn’t a prototypical big man in that he grew 10 inches in the past two and a half years. He spent the summer testing himself against visiting pros such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and he’s fast enough to make plays on the break. At the same time, Davis’ length will allow him to be one of the best shot blockers in the country and a monster on the offensive boards.
There’s plenty of hyperbole about Davis being one of the best freshmen big men in recent memory, but there’s also reason to believe he could live up to it.
The only UK freshman to leave for the NBA last season was Brandon Knight, who scored in double digits in every game but three, tore it up down the stretch and led the Wildcats by far with 35 minutes per game.
Kentucky’s pretty much as good as it gets from two-through-five, but in order to reach their full potential, they’ll need Teague to hit the ground running. Calipari needs Teague to be comfortable playing a full complement of minutes, while balancing a scorer’s instinct with an offense that possesses a variety of diverse talents.
Calipari’s offense thrives when it has a dynamic point guard – Wall, Rose, Evans, Knight – running the show. If Teague doesn’t approach that standard, it’s probably about the only thing that can derail Kentucky. But if he’s anything like his brother, Teague should have no problem being an immediate contributor on both ends of the court.
The Bottom Line
“Last year, it took us until February before we could figure out how we had to play,” Calipari said a few weeks ago. “Let’s hope it doesn’t take us that long this year.”
Rest assured, Kentucky won’t start 7-6 in SEC play again, mainly because it has the requisite balance of upperclass talent and freshmen dynamos. The versatility of this team is such that Calipari can conceivably send out a lineup including Miller, Kidd-Gilchrist, Davis and Jones – all at least 6-foot-7, all multi-talented, all with length and athleticism.
Kentucky has few weaknesses: Calipari’s teams always play defense, and Kentucky improved last year from the 218th-best three-point shooting team the year before to the ninth-best. Knight dominated Kendall Marshall in last season’s Elite 8 victory over UNC; We’ll get an idea of whether Teague can similarly hold his own when the two teams stage a rematch on Dec. 3.
Not a lot of people outside of Lexington like John Calipari, but with the most complete team since he arrived at Kentucky, it’s looking like the college basketball world may have to get used to Calipari sitting on top of it.
“We do more than move the needle,” Calipari said at Big Blue Madness. “We are the needle.”