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The team that steamrolled to a national title last year, against a team that missed the postseason entirely in 2012—wouldn’t seem like much too think about here.
When the former loses its entire core of players that got it a title, and the latter adds a few key components to an improving team, it makes things a bit more interesting.
Kentucky enters the season ranked third in preseason polls despite losing the two players taken one and two (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, respectively) in the NBA Draft. Throw in the losses of Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, and the Wildcats lost 91 percent of their scoring—and an even higher percentage in defensive intensity—from a year ago.
Granted, Coach Calipari knows how to reload, and he certainly did. Freshmen sensations Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Mays, and Archie Goodwin—along with NC State transfer Ryan Harrow—will give UK every opportunity to contend for another title by the time March rolls around.
With any young team—especially one this young—the process will take some time. Kentucky will not be the best, or third best, team in the nation when it takes the court in Brooklyn on Friday.
Maryland, meanwhile, has a nice blend of experience and newcomers that could very well lead to a trip back to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus. For its opening game, it also has the size to contend with UK’s impressive freshman frontcourt.
Alex Len is a lottery pick in waiting for Coach Mark Turgeon. The 7’1” sophomore showed flashes of brilliance a year ago, but will need to be on the floor for 30-plus minutes to reach his true collegiate potential. Joining him up front will be freshman Shaquille Cleare, the prized recruit for Turgeon this past year. They should, at very least, prevent UK from dominating inside on both ends.
In the backcourt, Maryland will gladly welcome two players it wasn’t sure it would have heading into the season. Pe’Shon Howard will return from a knee injury to run the point—a position the Terps had no consistency or chemistry with a year ago. Dez Wells, a transfer from Xavier who was just granted eligibility after his initial request to play immediately was denied, will provide the Terps with an infusion of scoring and rebounding ability from the two-guard spot.
If Howard and Wells can win the backcourt contest against the freshmen Mays and Goodwin, then Maryland could just turn a bunch of heads right away.