Kentucky Basketball: Blueprint for Wildcats to Return to AP Top 25

Bobby ReaganFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2013

Kentucky Basketball: Blueprint for Wildcats to Return to AP Top 25

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    Kentucky basketball has a chance to turn the corner this season.

    The Wildcats are sitting at a disappointing 11-5 overall record and 2-1 in SEC play. However, they have a serious chance to make a run in conference play with the SEC only having two teams ranked in the AP Top 25

    But with Kentucky gritting out a tough win over rival Tennessee on Tuesday, it could be a possible turning point for the Cats. With Tuesday's win as a guide, the blueprint for Kentucky's return to the AP Top 25 is easy to track.

    There's no question to the talent Kentucky has, after bringing in the top-rated class this season. Freshmen Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress are all ranked in the top 15 for the class of 2012. 

    John Calipari has a recipe for success when it comes to young teams, something he's very used to by having coached numerous freshmen-laden teams. Calipari tends to coach the team to be successful in March, not necessarily in December. That is what the blueprint is about.

    Once this team learns its role within Calipari's system, it has the chance to be another legendary team in Kentucky's history. 

Find a Perimeter Defender

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    Kentucky might have the best defender in the country in Nerlens Noel, but it is lacking a lockdown defender on the perimeter. 

    There are really only two options for the Wildcats to put on a wing player, and that is Archie Goodwin or Alex Poythress. The only problem is they haven't been able to slow anyone down, as in the last two games, Elston Turner from Texas A&M scored 40 points and Jordan McRae from Tennessee notched 23.

    Goodwin needs to be the guy Calipari can call on to shut down these types of players. At 6'5" Goodwin has the height to challenge shots both outside the lane and in the paint. Couple that with his quickness, there's no reason Goodwin isn't known as one of the best defenders in the country. 

    Calipari needs to show Goodwin video of DeAndre Liggins, who is a very comparable player in both height and speed. The only difference was Liggins had the intensity and desire to play defense on every possession, where Goodwin is more of an offensive player.

    Poythress, on the other hand, has the versatility and talent to be one of the best overall players in the country, but his toughness has been questioned by Big Blue Nation and Kentucky head coach John Calipari.

    If Kentucky wants a return to the AP Top 25, it starts on the defensive side mainly with these two players. 

Bench Production

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    Kentucky's John Calipari has settled on a rotation, starting his young bucks while bringing Julius Mays and Kyle Wiltjer off the bench. 

    The key to this is having Mays and Wiltjer be consistent on a night in and night out basis. Both players are known for their offense, especially their shooting, and they need to be able to pitch in a combined average of 18-20 points per game.

    In the Wildcats' game against Tennessee, the two elder statesmen did exactly what they need to do in order for Kentucky to be successful. The two combined for 26 points while hitting four shots from behind the arc. 

    Wiltjer is a unique talent that has the potential to change an entire game for Kentucky. At 6'10" and with the ability to hit a shot from deep while having numerous post moves, he helps spread the floor for Kentucky, allowing more driving lanes for Goodwin and Poythress.

    If Wiltjer and Mays aren't scoring, it's hard to keep them on the floor, causing Calipari to play only five guys for the majority of the game. Wiltjer is a liability on the defensive end, and while Mays is a decent defender, the Wildcats would rather have Goodwin on the floor if Mays is off.

    The key to the 2012-13 season could rest on the shooting hands of Kentucky's two bench players. 

Play Team Ball

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    Like most Kentucky teams under John Calipari, there are a handful of sure-fire first-round draft picks on this year's squad. 

    The important thing is for the players to realize passing the ball and playing team defense won't hurt their stock, but rather help improve it. They showed glimpses of this in their game against Tennessee, but the Wildcats need to be consistent in swinging the ball and finding the mismatch or hot hand.

    Against Tennessee, Kentucky made sure to find Wiltjer on the outside when he was in the game or to attack the rim by getting the ball to Noel when the Volunteers' big men, Jarnell Stokes and Yemi Makanjuola, were in foul trouble. 

    Though Wiltjer was the hot hand against Tennessee, against Auburn on Saturday it could be Mays, Poythress or Goodwin. Whoever is hot, or if there's another mismatch on the interior, the Wildcats need to make sure to take advantage of that and give up the rock. 

    Even though Calipari's system involves a heavy dose of the high pick-and-roll or driving to the lane, it is predicated on distribution of the ball. If someone gets cut off while driving the lane, the goal is to kick it out to the wing for an open jumper or a lob to a big man for a dunk. 

    This is something this group of Cats need to learn. Too often they penetrate too deep in the lane and are either called for a charge, turn the ball over or force a bad shot. 

    After all, the top pick of he 2012 NBA draft, Anthony Davis, averaged the fourth-most shots on the team last year. That didn't seem to hurt his stock. 

Develop a Killer Instinct

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    Kentucky hasn't looked impressive this season due to its inability to put teams away. In their last three games, the Wildcats have held a lead in the second half and have let their opponents back in the game.

    Against Texas A&M, it cost them a win.

    In Kentucky's two-point win against Vanderbilt, it held a 16-point lead in the second half and then somehow didn't score for nearly an eight-minute stretch. This not only allowed Vanderbilt back in the game, but also caused the game to come down to a controversial call for the Wildcats to win.

    This is something that just can't happen to a team that has the potential to make a run to the Final Four.

    In its loss against Texas A&M, Kentucky took a four-point lead with just over six minutes left to play in the game before not hitting another field goal until the 1:14 mark, when the game was already out of reach.

    Some people are even questioning if Kentucky belongs in the NCAA tournament at this part of the season. Therefore, if the Wildcats are squeaking out victories against lesser opponents, it won't do anything to help their resume or push to be ranked.

    The only way the Wildcats can return to the AP Top 25 is if they start walking all over their foes in the SEC. They need to win games by 20 against the likes of Vanderbilt, Auburn and Tennessee.