Kentucky Basketball: 5 Reasons the 'Cats Are Still Final Four Contenders

Paul AblesContributor IIIDecember 8, 2012

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Reasons the 'Cats Are Still Final Four Contenders

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    The Kentucky Wildcats basketball team has gone through a wild roller coaster ride early in the 2012-13 season. The team kicked off the year with a gritty victory over Maryland and a narrow loss to a senior-laden Duke team. Both games showed signs of promise for this young but talented team.

    However, the wheels fell off quickly and the 'Cats are now 5-3, having suffered back-to-back losses versus unranked Notre Dame on the road and unranked Baylor at home. The loss to Scott Drew's bunch was the first home loss during John Calipari's tenure, and it snapped the nation's longest home winning streak in an embarrassing fashion.

    With all of that being said, Kentucky fans have no reason to panic. That is because despite all of this team's early season woes, this bunch of Wildcats is still a legitimate contender for the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta. Read the following slides to find out why there is plenty to be hopeful for when looking ahead to March.

The Archie Goodwin Show

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    Winning in March requires a lot of things to go right for a team, including good health and a small dose of luck. Another key ingredient to advancing in March dynamic guard play.

    This is where Kentucky is looking just fine as a NCAA tournament contender and it all revolves around one person—Archie Goodwin. The dynamic do-it-all lead guard has been arguably the team's best all-around player and is someone to watch out for later this season.

    For a college freshman, Goodwin has surely impressed plenty of basketball fans with his amazing scoring ability. This is certainly his biggest strength, as he is leading Kentucky in scoring by averaging 16.6 points per game. He does so by scoring in every way imaginable and is only getting better as the season progresses.

    However, his scoring is not the only reason to look forward to his March Madness play. Archie affects the game in so many ways, as evidenced by his season averages of 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.

    This is what Kentucky fans should really be getting excited for. Goodwin is simply all around the ball, whether it be on offense, defense or in transition. He can score it, dish it and collect it with the best guards in the country.

    All of this is a big reason the Wildcats are still a legitimate Final Four contender. In the winner-takes-all, one-game scenario that is the NCAA tournament, having a player like Archie who can dominate the game in so many ways is crucial.

    It is even more effective being that he is the team's lead guard and will continue to improve as a leader for this team as they reach conference play and beyond.

    In recent years, simply refer to the stellar guard play of Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker and Tyshawn Taylor to see how important it is to have a player like that. Sure, Goodwin is not on those players' level yet. But his all-around ability, sky-high confidence and incredible talent will give Kentucky a leg up over the competition come tournament time.

The Twin Tower Lineup with Noel and Cauley-Stein

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    The Kentucky basketball teams of the early 1980's were dominated by a pair of post players who defined an era of Wildcats and reached the Final Four. This pair was Sam Bowie and Melvin Turper, and these two giant seven-footers were affectionately known as the "Twin Towers."

    By utilizing their length and defensive prowess, Joe B. Hall's squad was a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. This is the same effect that this year's team hopes to emulate with Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.

    The two centers are young and inexperienced, but they hold the key to Kentucky's success in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The two post players have played a lot of minutes together and are becoming more comfortable in the paint with each passing game.

    Once the new Twin Towers figure out their games, then the rest of the nation better be on the lookout. Noel is actually playing wonderfully and is averaging 11.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 3.1 blocks and 2.9 steals per game this year!

    That statline is flat out fantastic and really shows Noel's hustle and effort. He plays all over the court and seems to have a knack for being around the ball.

    As for Cauley-Stein, he is actually a better runner down the court and is used more in guarding perimeter players than the paint. This is mainly because Nerlens excels in the paint, but Willie is not bad in that department either.

    He is averaging 8.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and is shooting .571 percent from the field. He is doing so while playing bench minutes against a tough early non-conference schedule.

    Willie's last game saw him record a double-double by scoring 12 points and hauling in 12 rebounds. Kentucky fans are hoping that it is a sign of things to come.

    If it is, then this formidable duo will truly be unstoppable come tournament time. Outside of a few teams ranked at the top, which other team can match the size, athleticism and agility of Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein?

    The short answer is none, and with another 20 games under their belt this front court pairing will be playing beautifully come in March. They will be a nightmare for teams to face.

This Is a Down Year in College Basketball

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    One of the key reasons Kentucky is still a legitimate Final Four contender is that there are not many "super teams" to contend with. In terms of pure talent, Kentucky has arguably just as much as any team out there.

    The fact of the matter is that the 2012-13 college basketball season is a down year for the sport and should present us with a wide open NCAA tournament that will be similar to the 2010-11 season, in which Kentucky reached the Final Four.

    Last year was an unusually loaded season as the NBA lockout and a great freshman class kept more returning talent in the college ranks.

    Players such as Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Kentucky's duo of Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb bypassed the NBA and competed in a fantastic season that was full of championship-worthy contenders.

    However, nearly every major contending team from last year lost multiple players over the offseason and is starting over. The only teams that return a wealth of experience and talent are Indiana, Louisville, Duke and Michigan.

    In all honesty, none of those teams are a sure-fire lock to advance to the 2013 Final Four. In a normal college basketball season, those teams would be ranked in the top 15, but are now rated in the top five due to the uncertainties of most other schools around the country.

    This works in Kentucky's favor, and as the year progresses and their talent turns into experience, they will be a formidable opponent for any team in the field of 68. For a refresher on an ideal path to the Final Four, simply refer to the 2010 team led by Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson. It can be done, and this team is no less talented than that Calipari-coached squad.

Kentucky's Youth & Talent Give Them a Higher Ceiling

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    When John Calipari is asked if he would rather have talent or experience, here is his response:

    But if the choice is talent or experience, I'm taking talent. Then you can blame me for us not winning. But I'm taking talent, that's just how I've been throughout my career. I'd rather have that than experience.

    This approach was finally validated as last season's Kentucky team won the 2012 NCAA Championship and was mostly led by freshmen and sophomores. 

    However, that same approach has led to a sluggish start for this year's Wildcats. They have lost three games and snapped the nation's longest home winning streak with a loss to unranked Baylor. That loss even led to Kentucky falling out of the rankings for the first time in Calipari's tenure here at UK.

    Despite all of that, this team still has plenty of talent, and this is where the team's greatest strength remains. The youth on this squad means that they are only going to improve as the year moves along, which has happened to each of John's teams here in Lexington.

    This team will be no different, and they will continue to improve with another 25 games or so under their belt before playing in March Madness. The beauty of it all is that because of this team's youth and elite athleticism, their improvement will progress more rapidly than that of a normal veteran-laden squad.

    Take Duke for example. They beat a scrappy Kentucky team earlier this season but withstood a furious rally at the end to hang on. Duke has three senior starters on their squad while Kentucky has four newcomers on his starting lineup.

    That Duke team that we saw in November is as good as they will get all season. Come tournament time, they will be good, but certainly not elite. Experience only takes you so far, and they simply lack the talent of other schools around the country—including Kentucky.

    However, the Kentucky team that we saw that night will be dramatically different from the one we will see in February. This has always been the case with Calipari's teams, and come tournament time, Kentucky will be the more feared opponent.

    This is due to their higher growth ceiling. Talent gives you that and these players simply have to play through the early tough times before they take off by season's end.

John Calipari's Teams Are Always Ready for March

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    The number one reason Kentucky is still a legitimate Final Four contender is their head coach's track record. Throughout his entire career, John Calipari has had his teams prepared for March and always seems to lead his squad on a deep run in the tournament.

    During his time at Kentucky, all three of his teams reached the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, two of them advanced to the Final Four, and last year's team took home the national title.

    Going back to his Memphis days reveals a similar pattern for success in March. The last four teams that he coached there finished in the Sweet 16, National Final, Elite Eight and Elite Eight, respectively. 

    At UMass, Calipari led his teams to a Final Four berth, an Elite Eight and a Sweet 16 appearance.

    As you can see, his teams simply perform at high levels, and this could be traced to a number of different reasons. One is that John's teams are usually great defensive teams that feature elite athletes. 

    Another reason is that Calipari's player development usually results in extremely rapid improvement over a shorter amount of time. He gets more improvement out of a player during one season than most coaches can in three. If you do not believe me, then simply refer to the cases of Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins from the 2011 Final Four squad.

    Last of all, his teams always seem to peak at the right time. Because he usually lacks experienced veteran players, John's squads consist of young players who have high ceilings and do not reach their peak play level until the end of the season. They often take that momentum right into the NCAA's.

    Whatever the reason, John Calipari has proven himself to be an excellent NCAA tournament coach and will work his magic again with this bunch later in the year.