Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats Still Enduring Growing Pains
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Although comparisons will inevitably be made, this year's version of Cal's Cats is starkly different from last year's.
Last year's team relied on talent and depth, while this team relies largely on experience.
This reliance on experience comes not out of luxury, but necessity. The Wildcats lost eight players from last year's rotation due to graduation, the NBA Draft, and personal issues.
Coach Calipari reloaded by bringing in another No. 1 recruiting class, but only four of these additions have been able to contribute in any significant capacity.
Because of this lack of depth, Kentucky's veteran players have been forced into bigger roles than fans may have ever imagined.
Senior Josh Harrellson has seen himself rise from a bench warmer to possibly the team's most valuable player. After playing just four minutes a game last year, Harrellson finds himself now playing over 25 minutes a game, while averaging 7.1 points and 9.4 rebounds.
When asked about the source of Harrellson's improvement this season, Calipari explained that, "He's building his own self-esteem because he's performing in games."
This search for self-confidence is part of the dichotomy seen in this year's team. The veterans, who were largely bench warmers or role players in the past, must now figure out how to deal with success. Meanwhile, the freshmen have to learn how to transition from being star players to members of a cohesive team.
One of the keys to this team's success will be Darius Miller's transition from a role player to a team leader, and building the confidence that comes with that responsibility.
"I think he should be all-league; that's what I think," said Calipari in reference to Miller. "But it doesn't matter what I think or you think. It's what he thinks."
The junior certainly has all of the tools to become a dominant player, but still needs to become mentally stronger.
"He'll give people problems. You saw him in the post. He can shoot a three. He can make free throws. He's good with the ball. He's just got to be tougher, man. Mix it up, man," said Calipari.
On the other side of the spectrum, the freshmen are still working to break old habits and become team players. Calipari praised Brandon Knight's efforts so far, explaining that he is a different player than he was just a couple of months ago in the Maui Invitational.
"Brandon is really running our team and playing for his teammates. He's not playing for himself anymore; he's playing for them," he said.
Terrence Jones, on the other hand, is still struggling to play the way Calipari would like. Jones still has a lot of work to do in changing old habits and playing with more hustle and consistency.
"If I've done my job and Terrence has responded, Terrence Jones will be the best player in the country by the end of the year. If he wants to be," said Calipari. "If he wants to listen and change, change some habits, he will be the best player in the country by the end of the year. Or he may be benched by someone else on our team."
Only time will tell whether or not Jones is able to meet this ultimatum. If he does not, the team will have a tough time competing during SEC play.
Yet, the team's success hinges on more than just Jones. Every player must accept the role he has been assigned if the team is to improve on last year's Elite Eight run.
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