Let me start by saying that I think that John Calipari is a great basketball coach. He isn’t quite on par with the Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Bobby Knight or Dean Smith just yet but he could very well be when it is all said and done.
He has completely revived a Kentucky program and fan base that had gone stagnant during the last few years of Tubby Smith and through the failed Billispie experiment. You may not like the way he recruits but the fact remains that he wins and wins a lot. He consistently produces waves of NBA talent and then reloads year after year. But after watching the first two games of the season for the ‘Cats one thing is for sure, this team isn’t on the same level as UK’s previous three.
Kentucky was ranked somewhere between 1-3 in virtually every pre-season poll. That ranking was largely based off of last season and what Cal has been able to do with a virtually new roster each and every year. Pre-season rankings are virtually meaningless in college basketball so it really doesn’t matter if UK is too high or too low but what is too high is the expectations for this team from virtually everyone not named John Calipari. Cal knows his team and has said multiple times that they aren’t good enough yet. He knows why this team is different and he knows that they are a work in progress and probably won’t have the success of his previous squads.
In 2009, Cal’s first season as head coach, he brought in a top class headlined by John Wall. He had a lot of talented freshman that season and they all played significant minutes and filled key roles. But he also had depth and experience as well. People forget that Patrick Patterson, Perry Stevenson, Darnell Dodson, Ramon Harris, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins were all on that team providing veteran leadership to go along with that talented group of freshman.
Cal brought in another #1 class in 2010 with the likes of Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. Freshman again played a key role on that team but just like with the previous year, the team had a mix of freshman and seasoned veterans. Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins and Eloy Vargas were all upper classmen that contributed on a nightly basis.
Last season Kentucky brought in the #1 class for the third straight year after landing Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Again, three freshman were in the starting lineup. As was the case in the prior two seasons, Kentucky had experience on the roster. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb both passed on entering the draft and came back for their sophomore years and Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas were two seniors that played key roles off the bench.
This season, the Wildcats again bring in another highly touted recruiting class but there just isn’t that same mix of talented veterans to mix with the freshman. Kyle Wiltjer played less than 11 minutes per game a season ago, Ryan Harrow has talent but hasn’t played in over a year and Julius Mays has bounced around after not being able to cut it at NC State and just isn’t the type of talent that Kentucky fans have grown accustomed to.
This team, while talented, has no go-to player, lacks much offensive production outside of Alex Poythress and will struggle for most of the season while it searches for its identity. They have the potential to be a very good team as Coach Cal has stated on many occasions but they don’t have a clear-cut leader on the court and their inability to score will hurt them in close games. One thing they can do is protect the rim with their bigs. They have two shot blockers in Noel and Cauley-Stein that are hard-nosed defensive players.
The issue is going to be keeping both of them out of foul trouble because Harrow and Mays have shown a tendency to get broken down off the dribble entirely too much. That type of penetration will put a lot of pressure on Kentucky’s interior players and with very little depth it could be a problem as the season wears on.
This is not to discount Kentucky for what they are, which is a good basketball team but the lofty expectations of some after last season’s title run has set the bar a little high for this bunch. They have plenty of individual talent but they are younger and more inexperienced than they have ever been. It showed against Maryland and again against Duke.
This will only get better as the season moves along but fans will have to table the title talk because this team is still a long way from being that type of team.
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