Kentucky vs. Notre Dame: Is UK Overrated or Just Experiencing Growing Pains?
The Kentucky Wildcats traveled to the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind., to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the SEC/Big East Challenge. Being the Cats' first true road game of the year, coach John Calipari said in his pregame radio show that he had no clue how this team would respond to the environment.
Now that the game is over and the Wildcats got walloped, 64-50, I am sure that Calipari expected anything besides this horrible performance. Throughout the year, his young team has played tough and fought back in every game in which they've played. That was not the case Thursday night, as Notre Dame's experience and home-court advantage pushed the home team over the edge.
Therefore, a valid question must be posed to Big Blue Nation: Is this team overrated, or is it simply experiencing growing pains? Does this loss expose a squad that had too much preseason hype, or is it simply part of the maturing process of a typical young John Calipari team?
Advance to the following slides to hear arguments for each side of the debate, as well as my personal opinion on the state of the Kentucky program.
Kentucky Is Overrated This Season
After winning the 2012 NCAA championship, it was perfectly understandable why the national media would rank Kentucky among the three best teams in nearly every preseason men's college basketball poll. They did return yet another highly rated recruiting class, headlined by one of the nation's top recruits in center Nerlens Noel.
However, now that the dust has cleared, it is easy to see that the Wildcats have been overrated all along. Most alarming is the team's lack of experienced leadership, which has already proven to be a key factor in losses to Duke and Notre Dame.
When last year's team met adversity, it turned to players such as Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to right the ship. All three players were starters on Kentucky's 2011 Final Four squad and were essential members of the 2011-12 squad.
Before that, Kentucky could turn to experienced upperclassmen such as Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson to keep the team moving forward while the freshmen found their footing in college.
This year's team lacks that player, and that's one of the key reasons why Kentucky is overrated. Kyle Wiltjer is their most experienced returning player, and he was a freshman seventh man on last year's team. As for seniors, the only key contributor is Julius Mays, who is a first-year Wildcat after transferring from Wright State.
Lacking experience is one factor to the Wildcats' early-season losses, but so is their rebounding and team defense. These are the main areas to focus on when talking about how this squad is overrated.
Their two leading rebounders are Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress, but after those two this statistic drops off considerably for the team. Power forward Kyle Wiltjer is not getting it done on the glass, and neither is talented seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein. Unless they drastically improve their game, Kentucky will lose plenty of games due to rebounding.
As for team defense, the Cats gave up 75 points to LIU-Brooklyn and 70 to Morehead State. Some folks might have thought those were flukes, but they were actually signs of things to come. That Kentucky will not be an elite defensive team only adds to its overrated stature in this season's college basketball landscape.
In the end, though, the most important thing that everyone seems to forget is what Kentucky lost from last season's title team. The Wildcats lost their top six players during the offseason. Everyone seemed to think that a group of freshmen could replace that, but so far it is proving difficult and will continue to do so as the year rolls on.
Kentucky Is Experiencing Growing Pains
Even though the Wildcats did not play well against Notre Dame, it is not worth getting too riled up over. After all, this is an extremely young team that is loaded with talent but simply has not had enough time to learn how to play effectively with one another.
Once this happens, then this team is going far in March and the 2013 NCAA tournament. In other words, this loss to Notre Dame and our earlier loss to Duke do not worry me in the slightest. Rather, they excite me because they were good tests that will only benefit this team down the line.
Kentucky was rated third overall in the preseason, and that ranking was right on the money—if it was an offseason poll. By the end of the year and heading into March Madness, I would be shocked if Kentucky did not end up as one of the four best teams in the entire country.
First of all, their youth and potential really jumps out at you. The frontcourt duo of Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein has generally played fine all year long except in the Notre Dame game, and neither played horribly. Noel still finished with 10 points and seven rebounds, while Cauley-Stein contributed six points.
Once these two completely figure each other out in the post, then there will not be another team in the country who can match the Cats' size, length and athleticism. This is one reason why I am not worried at all right now and am glad that the squad seems to be taking it all in stride.
Another reason why this team is experiencing growing pains is because that is how Calipari wants his teams learning each and every season. He always opens up his team against plenty of challenging foes during the non-conference schedule, which he uses as a measuring stick to gauge how far it has come along.
To be honest, that is why I believe in this team's staff and I am excited for the near future of Kentucky basketball. As long as the Wildcats use this game against the Irish as ultimate motivation, then they will handle Baylor on Sunday.
Once all of the young talent emerges, such as Noel, Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Poythress, then that is when this team will get in a groove and finish among the top five or six teams in the country nationally. And trust me—nobody will want to play them during the NCAAs.
Conclusion: Kentucky Is Experiencing Growing Pains
It is easy to look at this Kentucky team now and write it off as an overrated bunch. Frankly, it does not play like one of the country's five best teams. The Wildcats' only signature win is a narrow 72-69 victory against a decent Maryland team.
They have lost their two toughest games of the early season, so what is there to get really excited about?
The fact of the matter is this is how John Calipari's teams have operated during his tenure at Kentucky. Granted, last season was an exception, but overall his teams do not play anywhere near their best basketball until halfway through conference season.
Because of the talent and youth that is present on his teams, they are competitive early on and show a lot of promise. However, his teams do stumble at times early in the season. They might even lose the majority of their conference road games, as was the case with the 2011 Final Four team led by Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson.
The fact of the matter is each of his teams are formidable come March. He recruits elite athletes as well as talent, so when it comes down to a one-game, winner-take-all format, then his teams more often than not feature longer, taller, quicker players who are extremely talented and are then seasoned and ready for a deep run.
Look at the potential of this team. They feature two seven-footers (Cauley-Stein and Noel) who can both block shots, run the floor, finish with authority and rebound the ball. Come tournament time, very few teams will have an answer for two players of their size and skill set in the paint.
As for Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, there may not be a better one-two perimeter punch in the country once they reach the NCAA tournament. Goodwin is a dynamite scorer who attacks the rim relentlessly, draws a high number of foul shots, shoots with efficiency from the perimeter and can score from anywhere on the court. He is also a triple-double threat every time out on the court due to his ability to rebound well for a guard and dish out assists.
Poythress is one of the most intriguing players in the country and just had a four-game streak of scoring 20 points or more snapped versus Notre Dame. He is incredibly strong and will have an athletic advantage against nearly every other small forward that he will face this season. Once he learns to keep his motor running throughout every possession, then the sky is the limit for him.
Even players such as Mays, Kyle Wiltjer and Jarrod Polson are high-IQ players who can score from the perimeter and have experience. They will be ready for the challenges of the NCAA tournament and will be there to guide their younger teammates to glory.
Last but not least, John Calipari and Kentucky are on a three-year roll right now and show no signs of stopping any time soon. Until a Calipari-led team loses its composure early in the NCAA tournament, it is never smart betting against a coach who has always led his teams to deep tournament runs, including his teams at Memphis and UMass.
All of the above reasons are why Kentucky is simply experiencing growing pains right now and will be just fine as they progress through the remainder of its 2012-13 schedule and beyond.
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