Kentucky Basketball: Full Preview, Predictions and Storylines for 2012-13

Tim Keeney@@t_keenContributor INovember 5, 2012

Kentucky Basketball: Full Preview, Predictions and Storylines for 2012-13

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    Ho-hum. Just another year for John Calipari and the University of Kentucky.

    The Wildcats, led by mostly freshmen and sophomores, won 38 games, the SEC regular season title and a national championship in 2011-12. Just two weeks later, Calipari's entire starting five declared for the NBA draft, joining senior Darius Miller to round out the departure of the top-six scorers.

    That might serve as a roadblock for some programs, but for Kentucky, it was just an expected speed bump. 

    The return of sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, a former 5-star recruit, combined with the No. 2 ranked recruiting class in the nation (according to ESPN) has the Wildcats ranked No. 3 and primed for a run at the first repeat championship since Florida did it in 2006 and 2007. 

    Let's take a look at what's in store for yet another rebuilding-but-not-really-rebuilding year for Calipari and the 'Cats. 

Impact Newcomers

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    C Nerlens Noel (Freshman)

    SF/PF Alex Poythress (Freshman)

    SG Archie Goodwin (Freshman)

    C Willie Cauley (Freshman)

    PG Ryan Harrow (Transfer from NC State)

    PG/SG Julius Mays (Graduate Student from Wright State)

    Where to start?

    Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 recruit in the nation after reclassifying from 2013, is probably as good of a place as anywhere. The 6'10"—about 7'4" with the hair—monster is without a doubt the best shot blocker in this class, and he might just already be the best in the country. 

    Everyone will jump to compare him to Anthony Davis, but that might be a little optimistic, simply because Davis was a once-in-a-decade player who made a once-in-a-lifetime impact at the collegiate level.

    Still though, while Noel is slightly more raw than Davis on both sides of the court, it's undeniable that he'll have a major impact blocking shots, letting the wings play tight defense on the perimeter, rebounding with ferocity and scoring efficiently from close to the basket. 

    Poythress, Goodwin and Harrow will also step directly into the starting lineup.

    Harrow, the transfer from NC State, might just be the most important. He's following a long line of talented point guards under John Calipari, but unlike any of them, he has some college experience and a year of learning Cal's system under his belt. 

    The former 5-star recruit might not be as talented as John Wall or Derek Rose, but he's got the experience and skills to put forth a monstrous season. 

    Meanwhile, Goodwin, paired with Harrow, should make for one of the best backcourt scoring duos in the nation and Poythress, at 6'7", 239 pounds with a 7'0" wingspan, will bring athleticism and strength to both forward positions. 

    Seven-footer Willie Cauley amazingly played wide receiver in high school, and that's a testament to his combination of size and athletic ability. He still has a ways to go in his development, but he'll simply back up Noel off the bench.

    Finally, Julius Mays scored 14.1 points per game for Wright State last season while knocking down 1.7 treys per game at a 42 percent clip. The graduate student with an extra year of eligibility could very easily play the Darius Miller role, albeit from a different position. 

Key Losses

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    PF Anthony Davis (Draft): 14.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 1.4 spg, 4.7 bpg, 32 mpg

    SG Doron Lamb (Draft): 13.7 ppg, 1.5 apg, 0.5 spg, 31.2 mpg

    SF/PF Terrence Jones (Draft): 12.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.3 spg, 1.8 bpg, 29.3 mpg

    SF Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Draft): 11.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.0 spg, 0.9 bpg, 31.1 ppg

    PG Marquis Teague (Draft): 10.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 4.8 apg, 0.9 spg, 32.6 mpg

    SG/SF Darius Miller (Graduation/Draft): 9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.8 spg, 26.1 mpg

    Once again, where to start?

    How about with some numbers?

    Kentucky is losing 93 percent of its scoring, 89 percent of its rebounding, 94 percent of its assists, 93 percent of its blocks and 94 percent of its steals.


    It's not just about the stats, though. 

    Anthony Davis was arguably one of the most dominant college basketballs player ever. You aren't replacing that, no matter how awesome the flat top. Moving on. 

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist didn't always light up the stat sheet, but he was as energetic and hard-working as he was talented. He did whatever it took to win, and it never seemed like he was a freshman.

    Terrence Jones had a quietly dominant defensive season, but he also brought a unique offensive game. He could dribble like a guard, score from the inside and step outside to hit the three-ball. 

    Marquis Teague was the engine that ran everything, and he only got better as the season went on.

    Doron Lamb was the lights out shooter you couldn't leave alone.

    Darius Miller was the veteran leader who came off the bench, calmed the young guys down when need-be and constantly hit big shots. He was the ideal glue player that every national championship team needs. 

    It's not just that fact that Calipari is losing an insane amount of NBA talent. It's the fact that every single player knew his role, played it to perfection and worked brilliantly with one another. Not only are the stats gone, but the team chemistry must start back at square one. 

Projected Starting Lineup and Depth Chart

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    When your team is realistically only seven players deep, the depth chart is usually pretty easy to predict. 

    Ryan Harrow, who has been learning under John Calipari for the past year, is a lock to start at point guard. Similarly, Archie Goodwin is too much of a freak athlete and can score in too many different ways to consider starting on the bench.

    Julius Mays, who, much like the guys he'll be backing up, can score in a variety of ways but can also handle the ball. He should get time at both guard positions.

    One of the only real question marks surrounding Kentucky's starting lineup is where Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer will go, as both can play each forward position.

    At 6'10", Wiltjer has a few inches on Poythress, and while the sophomore does have sneaky good footwork and a set of old-school post moves around the rim, his ability to light it up from the outside should serve Kentucky better on the wing.

    Poythress, meanwhile, has a body made more for banging down low (6'7", 239 pounds). He's muscular, but he's also incredibly athletic and has an endless motor, which mean he could conceivably play the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist role.

    Still though, the freshman needs a lot of work on his outside game, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him spend most of his time inside the key. 

    Finally, Nerlens Noel is an obvious starter, but he can't play 40 minutes every game. Fellow freshman Willie Cauley will give him breaks, but probably also step in next to him if Calipari needs to go (really, really, really, really) big down low. 

    Position Starter Backup
    Point Guard Ryan Harrow Julius Mays
    Shooting Guard Archie Goodwin Julius Mays
    Small Forward Kyle Wiltjer Jon Hood
    Power Forward Alex Poythress
    Center Nerlens Noel Willie Cauley


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    Guard Play

    You are going to be hard-pressed to find a more talented trio of guards in the country. 

    Ryan Harrow's size (6'2", but just 170 pounds) scares me a little bit, but he can both shoot the lights out and get to the basket. While you won't mistake him for a pass-first point guard, he can still find the open teammate while scoring with relative ease. 

    Additionally, the fact that Harrow has been with the Wildcats for the past year is going to be huge. Having your point guard as your most experienced player is always an important attribute come March. 

    Over at the 2, Archie Goodwin might just outshine his point guard in the scoring department. 

    The 6'5" true freshman is long, he's athletic, he's smooth, he can get to the cup with the dribble, he can pull up and hit the jumper, he can catch and shoot from the three-point line and by most accounts, he's a solid kid who is continually improving and doing whatever it takes to get better. 

    When it comes down to it, while both starting guards like to get to the hoop and draw fouls, they will take whatever the defense gives them, and that makes them dangerous. 

    Throw in Julius Mays bringing elite shooting ability off the bench, and it will be hard for any team to slow down these guys on the offensive end. 

    The First Noel

    Kentucky fans will undoubtedly be looking for the second Anthony Davis, and while Noel won't quite give that kind of production, being one of the top interior defenders in the country will simply have to suffice. 

    The Wildcats will be fine defensively on the perimeter. Harrow, Goodwin and Poythress are all athletic, physical specimens. Nonetheless, losing someone like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will always somewhat hurt a defense.

    But it won't matter. 

    The Wildcats could have a bunch of old Mike Bibbys—sorry, Mike—on the perimeter, and would still be an above average defensive team with Nerlens Noel's size, length and insane jumping ability protecting the rim. 

    Whether you're a Kentucky fan or not, he's going to be fun to watch. 


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    Can They Field a Team?

    As much as John Calipari always makes it work, the lack of depth is still a major concern. 

    The Wildcats are only going to play seven players, and yes, that will be pretty similar to last year's national title team, but it can still certainly be noted as a significant weakness.

    Should Noel, who isn't nearly as disciplined as Anthony Davis, get into foul trouble, the Wildcats only have Willie Cauley. There's no question that the big man is talented, but it's still a bit of an unknown as to whether or not he's ready to make significant contributions at this level. 

    Essentially, with such a short rotation, everything must go perfect. No foul trouble, no injuries, no unexpected lack of production, no hits to the roster. 

    Only Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow Can Go to a Bar

    Of the seven major players on this squad, only Mays and Harrow are 21. Again, Calipari has coached this type of youth to success before, but that doesn't mean it's going to work every time. 

    Freshmen like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist don't grow on trees (that tree might just be creepier than the StubHub tree). Some players are certainly as talented, yes, but not all of them have that same will to win, that same willingness to constantly get better or the same ability to gel so quickly with teammates. 

    Furthermore, last year's team had sophomore leaders like Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, not to mention a senior in Darius Miller who had been at Kentucky for four years. This year's squad only has Kyle Wiltjer, Harrow and Mays. I'm not so sure they'll be the same type of leaders. 

    It didn't seem possible, but there's even less experience than last year. 

Storylines to Watch

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    Since UCLA's dominant run in the late 1960's and early 70's, only two schools have been able to repeat as national champions.

    Duke did it in '91 and '92, and Florida did it in '06 and '07.

    If John Calipari managed to accomplish the feat this season, however, it would be vastly more impressive than either of those instances.

    This is an entirely different team than the one that took the title home last year, and while it helps to have more 5-star recruits than you know what to do with, a repeat would be a true testament to John Calipari's coaching prowess and ability to get full potential out of just about everyone he teaches.

    And if the Wildcats are going to take home another title, Calipari will have to do just that: Squeeze every ounce of talent out of all seven contributors.

    NBA Talent

    Yes, it will be interesting to see how all of this talent meshes together, but if you're an NBA fan, every Kentucky game will essentially be a look into an NBA tryout. 

    According to Draft Express, four Wildcats are projected to be drafted in the first round of the upcoming draft: Noel at No. 2, Poythress at No. 8, Goodwin at No. 10 and Harrow at No. 27. Kyle Wiltjer's elite offensive talent and Willie Cauley's unique size and skill set should soon have them right dab in the middle of NBA talks as well.

    It will be intriguing to watch these players rise and fall on draft boards as we see just how well they work together with other future NBAers. 

Best-Case Scenario

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    This one's pretty simple. If John Calipari gets the most he possibly can out of this talented group, it will win another national championship. 

    If Harrow's added experience turns him into 5-star Harrow and not NC State Harrow, if Goodwin and Poythress learn to use the "Kidd-Gilchrist" gene to match their uncanny athleticism and talent with energy and fire, if Noel does what we all know he can do, and most importantly, if Kyle Wiltjer takes that important next giant step in his development, the Wildcats are going to be nearly impossible to beat. 

    It's a lot of "if"s, sure, but they are reasonable expectations for a team with seemingly endless amounts of NBA talent. 

Worst-Case Scenario

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    The worst thing that could happen to this team is a lack of team chemistry and willingness to work together.

    You can have all the talent in the world, but if the players aren't willing to sacrifice for each other and do what needs to be done to win, the end result is going to be a disappointment. Knowing Calipari is at the helm, though, makes that seem like a long shot. 

    Moreover, if all the minutes that these young players are going to have to log come back in the form of an injury or extended absence, the season would instantly be derailed. As noted earlier, if something goes wrong on a team with this little depth, things are going to go downhill extremely quickly.

    So, while Kentucky's ceiling is higher than any other team's in the nation, it's floor is also one of the lowest. 

Regular Season Prediction

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    26-4 (14-3 SEC), First in SEC

    Kentucky has a few preseason challenges on its slate. The Wildcats "host" Duke in the Georgia Dame, travel to both Notre Dame and Louisville and host Baylor. I foresee them escaping those games with just one loss, which will most likely come at the KFC Yum! Center (or maybe I just wanted to type Yum! Center). 

    Then we get to conference play. 

    Despite the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri—but mostly Missouri—the SEC is still fairly weak. Florida and Mizzou are, like always, talented, Arkansas looks much improved and Tennessee should build off last year's 19-win season.

    But after that, there's not much else to challenge the Wildcats' throne. 

    That being said, another undefeated run through the SEC is out of the question. This team has a little less depth and a little less experience than last year's. Don't be surprised if it falls victim to a few upsets.