Thursday, November 3, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 29-9, 10-6 (2nd SEC), lost in the Final Four to UConn

Head Coach: John Calipari

Key Losses: Brandon Knight, Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins

Newcomers: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Kyle Wiltjer

Projected Lineup:

- G: Marquis Teague, Fr
- G: Doron Lamb, So.
- F: Darius Miller, Sr.
- F: Terrence Jones, So.
- C: Anthony Davis, Fr.
- Bench: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Fr.; Kyle Wiltjer, Fr.; Eloy Vargas, Sr.; Twany Beckham, Jr.

Outlook: John Calipari did it again. For the third straight season while heading up the Kentucky program, Coach Cal has brought in a freshmen class that is absolutely stocked. This difference this year, however, is that instead of bring those freshmen into a program that has nothing else left, he actually returns two potential first-round picks from last years team. It sounds weird saying this, but this may actually be the most talented team that Coach Cal has had in the Kentucky tenure, including the 2010 team that had John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and three other first round draft picks.

The strength of this team is going to be their front court as Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones both have a chance to be first team all-americans. Jones is the more intriguing of the two. Early last season, Jones looked like a potential player of the year candidate. He was scoring everywhere on the floor, he was dominating the glass, he was blocking shots and he was hitting threes. But something happened midway through the season. He lost his confidence, he worked his way into John Calipari's doghouse for being selfish and by the end of the year he was the third or fourth option for the Wildcats offensively. Which player shows up this season? Based on the amount of work Jones put in this summer (he's now built like a tight end) and the 52 point performance he had in UK's Blue-White scrimmage, it will be the former.

Davis has a chance to be just as good, if not better, than Jones. Davis sprouted from 6'3" to 6'10" before his junior year in high school, meaning that he still has the perimeter skills he had spent his life cultivating, just now in the frame of a power forward. He also managed to keep all of his coordination and athleticism -- a fact that may actually be more impressive than the growth spurt itself -- which makes him just a scary prospect. There are two issues for Davis heading into the season. The first is obvious: strength. He's rail thin and it will take him some time to adjust to the physicality of SEC basketball. The second problem is whether or not he actually knows how good he is as a player. This is a kid who, if possible, has been talked up even more than Harrison Barnes was last season. Just a year ago he was a run-of-the-mill, 6'3" guard on an average high school team in Chicago. Does he get the fact that people are saying he can be somewhere between the next Kevin Garnett and the next Kevin Durant?

Coming off the bench will be Eloy Vargas and Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer is a top 25 recruit and a player that would be the jewel of any other program's recruiting class. He's a face-up four with range beyond the three-point line. Vargas is a 6'11", 250 lb center that has never lived up to his ranking as a top 50 recruit in high school. He's going to be an important piece this year, however. It sounds weird saying this, but the player that Kentucky is going to miss the most this season will be Josh Harrellson. They don't have that physical presence in the paint, the guy that can get them eight or ten rebounds a game, block a few shots and make opposing big men work to get position or a post touch. I don't think Vargas can be that guy, but it sure wouldn't hurt the Wildcats if he did.

The most interesting positional battle on the UK roster is going to happen at small forward between Darius Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Miller has kind of taken over the role of leader for this team. He's a veteran presence that has been through his share of battles with these Wildcats. He's a sniper from distance, a more-than capable rebounder and a guy that seems ready to embrace the role of being the defensive stopper for this team.

The problem? That's everything that makes Kidd-Gilchrist the player that he is. I'm not sure that there is a player in the country that I'm more intrigued by than MKG (yes, I'm making that a thing). We're talking about a kid that was considered by most analysts to be the best high school player in the country, regardless of age, heading into his junior season. He fell in the rankings by the time he committed to Kentucky, but that doesn't take away from the raw talent MKG possesses. He's a grinder, a guy that is perfectly suited to playing a role on a team loaded with other future lottery picks.

The other two perimeter players for the Wildcats will be Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb. Lamb is a guy that has taken a ride on John Calipari's hype machine already. Over the summer, the Kentucky head coach referred to him as the best player on the roster. While its tough to agree with that sentiment, I do think that Lamb is a terrific player. Coming in with the reputation of being a player that thrives in the mid-range, Lamb proved himself to be a dangerous three-point threat and capable of getting the ball to the basket. Teague will be intriguing to follow this year. He comes in with quite a bit of expectation -- the past four Calipari point guard recruits have gone 1st, 4th, 1st and 8th in the Draft -- but without the same level of hype. He's the best point guard in this recruiting class, but he's not necessarily a great NBA prospect. He's a terrific penetrator and scorer, but he will have to learn how to be a leader and a guy willing to kick the ball out when he draws an extra defender.

Kentucky has as much talent as any team in the country, and the only reason they are currently sitting behind North Carolina on this list is because of their youth and their question marks. Kentucky does have some unknown quantities that will be starting and/or playing major minutes. But, barring injury, this team will win the SEC and will certainly be a favorite to win the national title.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I understand UK is behind UNC due to uncertainty. Which team has the higher upside?