The Kentucky Wildcats have one of college basketball's most talented freshmen classes in recent memory, featuring six high school All-Americans all gathered in Lexington seeking historic glory.
However, this is a team sport, and even having such a loaded bunch of recruits doesn't guarantee superb results, strings of victories or championship banners. Chemistry is key.
Head coach John Calipari and his young, precocious squad are still trying to figure out the right combination of elements to capitalize on their—to steal the words of San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh—"plutonium-grade" potential.
Here is a rather simple blueprint for the Wildcats to at least take steps toward achieving synergy and eventually fulfilling an almost presumed destiny as one of 2013-14's Final Four teams.
Share the Ball
What a novel concept, right? But seriously, the Wildcats are averaging only 13.3 assists per game, which is 149th in the nation before Wednesday's game versus Eastern Michigan.
Dumping it down low to Julius Randle (19.8 PPG, 13.7 RPG) isn't a bad idea considering how much of a beast he is on the lower block with his array of moves and superb rebounding ability.
The problem is that Randle is a bit reckless with the ball in the infantry stages of his career, averaging 2.2 assists to 3.7 turnovers per contest through six games.
Ball movement along the perimeter would help, but Randle and swingman James Young have been trusted to take the majority of shots thus far. Young is taking seven three-pointers on average and hitting only 31 percent against mostly meager competition, too.
Improved shot selection will help, as will spacing, which Kentucky should develop a better understanding of as its offense evolves anyway. For now, the shot clock must be worked down, and the Wildcats must not have so much stagnancy in half-court sets.
Maintain Hustle on the Glass
There is some psychological element to team chemistry, with different personalities clashing and so many blue-chip players trying to make Big Blue Nation erupt.
It is more or less a component of the team dynamic that has to run its course and pan out—the hope is—sooner rather than later.
What the Wildcats can control is effort and enthusiasm, which has been on display in the early going. Led by Randle and sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein (8.5 RPG), Kentucky is crashing the glass hard in pulling down 47.8 rebounds per game, which was seventh in the nation before Wednesday's action.
It helps, too, that both twin brothers in the Wildcats' backcourt tandem of Aaron and Andrew Harrison stand at 6'6" and can rebound the rock, too.
Sophomore forward Alex Poythress has taken on a lesser role and has averaged 7.8 boards with only 18.3 minutes of playing time each night.
This rebounding prowess from Poythress and others demonstrates willingness for this amazing team to work hard for Calipari. They should reap the benefits of that down the road.
Use Early Adversity as Fuel
This last element has a little bit more to do with intangibles than anything, but it was characterized in the extraordinary efforts of Andrew Harrison on Tuesday evening.
Trailing by 10 with under eight minutes to play against Cleveland State, Harrison keyed the Wildcats' rally in Rupp Arena and took the game into his own hands late.
Harrison had two critical three-point plays, setting the stage for his brother Aaron to drain a clutch three-pointer with 1:20 left, driving Kentucky to a 68-61 victory.
Randle has known Andrew Harrison since fifth grade and knew that he had the clutch gene to get it done late in games. Having said that, Randle implied that Harrison needed the desperate circumstances in a way to bring him out of an early-season funk, per the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker:
I didn't need to see him do it. I knew he could do it...but maybe for himself, he needed to see himself do it so he could have confidence to know that, 'Man, I can do it.' I think what happened to him is kind of what happened to all of us, as far as not just trying to think. At the end, we were just like, 'Forget it, we're going and making plays.' I think we need to play like that a lot more.
Harrison also hoped it was a turning point for him, and Calipari noted the importance of crisis in shaping a team's identity.
"It's a game we needed. We needed: OK, are you ready to start changing? Are you ready? The only way that can change sometimes is in a crisis," said Calipari.
Letting instincts take over is easier said than done when chemistry has yet to be established between a clan of such amazing youngsters. The individuals are developing their own games while trying to contribute to the team dynamic at the same time.
But Harrison took a big step with his virtuoso performance, which helped save the Wildcats from a second loss on top of the one to Michigan State on Nov. 12.
If struggles confront Kentucky against Eastern Michigan, it can't be viewed as a negative.
Rather, it should be viewed as a proving ground for the wunderkind Wildcats to build collective resolve, helping mold the fabric of the epic team they have all the ability to become.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!