Sometimes it's the wily old veterans who win their teams a championship. And, for the record, "old" in the Kentucky Wildcats' freshmen-dominated basketball program refers to 20-year-old sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
The sporting world is obsessed with yet another juggernaut of Kentucky freshmen, including consensus lottery pick Julius Randle. But the only two sophomores on the squad, Poythress and Cauley-Stein, will determine whether the Wildcats win a title that some pundits are already affording them. Here's why:
Poythress on Offense
Surprise, surprise: a John Calipari recruit has some serious skill.
For all the hype around Randle's multidimensional game, Poythress has similarly devastating abilities.
"He’s big enough that he can take smaller players down low and create problems, but he’s too quick and too athletic for your typical forward to play him straight up," Calipari said via the school's official site.
Despite consistent criticism of his up-and-down performances, Poythress still had some impressive numbers by the end of last season. He bulled his way in the paint to the tune of 58 percent shooting, and also knocked down threes at a 42 percent rate.
The expectations surrounding Randle will take some of the focus off Poythress. The presence of freshman James Young fighting for his minutes will keep him motivated. Combine the two, and Poythress is primed for a big year.
Cauley-Stein on Defense
Cauley-Stein emerged as the starting center when Nerlens Noel tore his ACL in February of last year. In the nine games the Wildcats played after Noel went down, Cauley-Stein averaged 7.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest.
Cauley-Stein has some offensive prowess. But on a team with a surplus of options on that end of the court, his most important contributions will be on defense, where he is a versatile talent.
"He can guard any position, so on pick-and-rolls, he can switch….a nimble seven-footer who can guard all these positions and who is improving—Willie's going to be off the charts," said Calipari, according to SI.com.
Some of the Wildcats' best teams have featured formidable talents at center. Cauley-Stein has the athleticism to defend the break like Noel, and at almost 250 pounds, can be a presence inside like DeMarcus Cousins.
Amongst the hailstorm of praise for Kentucky's freshmen, it's sometimes forgotten that these young men are just that: freshmen.
Stepping onto the court at Rupp Arena entails a lot of responsibilities that we can't assume they are ready for. They will be under national scrutiny, they must share the spotlight and the basketball, they must grow accustomed to the grueling student-athlete schedule.
Poythress, who was a highly touted freshman himself, and Cauley-Stein, who had to step in for the irreplaceable Noel, can provide some perspective and guidance. The two might not get the ball in the waning moments of the game, but their voice in the huddle and their presence in the locker room could be of more value.
Comparing the 2012 national champion Kentucky team to the equally talented 2010 squad that fell short shows us the utility of sophomore leadership.
Each team featured three immensely talented freshmen that would go on to be first-round draft picks. But the 2012 team leaned on their sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb more. Jones and Lamb were veteran starters and the top two shot-takers on that team.
The 2010 team ran almost entirely through John Wall, Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, who combined to take more than half of the team's total field-goal attempts. Their season ended in the Elite Eight when those three underperformed on the national stage.
Which team the 2013-14 squad will emulate will come down to Poythress and Cauley-Stein.