Kentucky Basketball: 12 Reasons the Wildcats Could Seriously Struggle in 2011-12

Justin SparksCorrespondent IIISeptember 15, 2011

Kentucky Basketball: 12 Reasons the Wildcats Could Seriously Struggle in 2011-12

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    John Calipari takes his No.1 recruiting class into the new season looking to improve upon their Final Four results. Calipari faces an uphill battle yet again, with so many new faces and potentially three to four new starters.

    The Kentucky Wildcats will certainly be one of the preseason favorites going into the 2011-12 season. Kentucky has several hurdles to clear before they can start thinking about wearing their dancing shoes in March.

1. Freshmen

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    John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats have been a revolving door for talented freshmen to the NBA during his two years in Lexington. Calipari brings in the top recruits in the nation for a year, refines their skills and releases them to the next level.

    This may be fine and dandy with the majority of big blue nation, but not all freshmen are the same. The John Walls and Brandon Knights of the world do not come around everyday. They were already capable of going to the NBA before their time in Lexington.

    Freshmen are going to be freshmen. They will make bonehead mistakes, get caught up in the moment on the road and may not catch on to what Calipari preaches right away. Kentucky brings in yet another stud recruiting class in 2011, but can Calipari bring them up to speed by next spring like he's done with his last two freshman classes?

    Big blue nation hopes Calipari can work his magic once again.

2. SEC Schedule

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    The Kentucky Wildcats play eight of their conference games at 7:00 PM or later during the year, putting the Wildcats into the spotlight more often than any other team in the conference.

    This is Kentucky we're talking about, so that is to be expected, but being in the spotlight and on ESPN almost every single week could take its toll on impressionable freshmen.

    If the young Cats put together a string of losses, it could damage the psyche of the several freshman playing on the team. After all, Kentucky only have four upperclassmen on the roster.

    Darius Miller is the only one with substantial playing time under his belt out of the four upperclassmen. Eloy Vargas spotted during different points of the season last year, but remained largely a situational player.

    The SEC schedule will be a maturation process for the young, talented Wildcats once again this season. Playing in the spotlight is part of the reason they chose Kentucky, but losing a game or two on national television should provide a reality check for the new crop of talented freshmen.

3. Louisville

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    The inner state rival Louisville Cardinals have not taken too kindly to all the publicity coming out of Lexington over the past couple of seasons. Since they won the Big East Championship in 2009, the Cardinals have been relatively irrelevant. Unless of course you count Rick Pitino's extortion case.

    The Kentucky Wildcats beat Louisville by 15 on the road last season and won by nine points two seasons ago in Lexington. The two results make John Calipari 2-0 versus the "communist red" Louisville Cardinals.

    However, no good rivalry stays lopsided for too long. Basketball is one of the few games that talent typically prevails, but a rivalry can equal out that advantage.

    Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals travel to Lexington this year desperate to beat their rivals and bring Kentucky's fans back down to earth. Suffering a defeat to the Cardinals at home and simultaneously breaking Calipari's unblemished record at Rupp Arena could have a profound effect on their season.

    And may I add, not the good kind.

    The pressure that will follow this team after such a monumental loss early in the season could damage their mentality going forward. They must beat Louisville and take care of business at home or the Wildcats will never hear the end of it.

4. Physical Presence Down Low

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    The days of Demarcus Cousins have long been gone, but the Kentucky Wildcats were able to replace his presence on the blocks with unsung hero Josh "Jorts" Harrellson last season. Harrellson measured in as the second tallest player on the team after Eloy Vargas.

    Vargas comes in at 6'11'' for the Wildcats. The nation's No. 1 recruit—listed at 6'10''— Anthony Davis comes to Lexington looking to fill the void on the blocks.

    The problem with Davis will be how quickly he becomes acclimated to the play at this level, which shouldn't take too long, but you never know. Cousins left Lexington a night and day difference from where he started.

    Calipari's team needs an enforcer on the boards and in the paint that the team can ride during nights of poor shooting. Demarcus Cousins was that guy two years ago. Josh Harrellson became that force down the stretch during last year's run.

    Kentucky needs one of their power forwards to take charge this year on the blocks or it could be a long season for the Cats.

5. Lack of Upperclassmen

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    This sort of goes hand in hand with the first slide, but from a different angle. John Calipari's roster only contains four upperclassmen, which in today's basketball world may not be out of the ordinary.

    Call me old school, but I'm a strong believer in leadership and older guys showing the new guys the ropes. The Kentucky Wildcats don't have that. They have Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas as the two lone seniors. Both played enough minutes during last year to understand the struggle it takes—on and off the court—to get back to where they were last April.

    Darius Miller, the only upperclassman included in the regular rotation, must step up as the vocal leader and lead by his actions—on and off the court. Part of being a leader involves holding your teammates accountable for going to class, showing up for practice on time and staying out of trouble.

    You do not need a large number of upperclassmen to have strong leadership within a squad. You need strong leaders. Miller and Vargas are the go-to guys now. Kentucky needs them to fulfill their roles in order to succeed.

6. First 3 Days of December

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    The Kentucky Wildcats go into a mini pre-conference exam during the first 10 days of December. Luckily for the Wildcats, two of the three games will be played in the friendly surroundings of Rupp Arena.

    Kentucky host the St. John's Red Storm on the first day of the month for a 7:30 PM tip-off. St. John's come off a season in which Steve Lavin helped revive the program and made them relevant again in the Big East. The Red Storm moved up to No. 15 in the polls during last season before dropping a couple games during their conference schedule.

    Lavin's team will be looking to shock the basketball world and prove they are a force to be reckoned with in the Big East. A win in Lexington would do just that.

    Then Kentucky host perennial college basketball blue-chip rivals the North Carolina Tar Heels at Rupp Arena just two days later on Dec. 3. The Wildcats traveled to Chapel Hill during the regular season last year and lost a nail-biter by two points. But Calipari's squad got their vengeance in the Elite Eight. 

    North Carolina come into Lexington as one of the preseason Final Four favorites. This matchup should provide a barometer for the Wildcats on whether they are ahead or behind on the learning curve.

7. Terrence Jones

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    Terrence Jones opted to bypass the NBA draft and return for a second season as a Kentucky Wildcat, a decision that may prove to be highly beneficial in the long run for the 6'9'' forward out of Portland. 

    Jones had a good year during his freshman campaign, but I would make the argument he has a ton of room to improve. That may seem like an obvious evaluation, considering he's only entering his sophomore season, but Jones had the occasional game where he would disappear, only recording seven points or so.

    That cannot happen this season. Jones is entering his sophomore season, which makes him a seasoned veteran by today's standards. He remains a vital part of this team's DNA and must perform at a consistent level.

    I realize that may be a harsh assessment for a kid who averaged 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but consistency must be a priority.

    Jones must demand the ball more this year—especially early in the season—so the baby Cats can become acclimated into the system. He must also spend some extra hours in the gym working on his free throws. Jones averaged 64.6 percent from the charity stripe last season on 6.4 trips to the line per game.

    As asinine as this may sound, Terrence Jones must step up his game during his sophomore season for the Wildcats to enjoy success.

8. Road Games

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    John Calipari boasts an undefeated record at home during his two-year campaign coaching for the Kentucky Wildcats.

    The same cannot be said for his away record—a casualty of playing with so many youngsters on his roster.

    Last season the Wildcats struggled mightily on the road, losing seven games. Six of those games were to conference opponents.

    Kentucky faces yet another tough road schedule this season. They kick off their road campaign with a trip to Bloomington, Indiana to face the Indiana Hoosiers in Assembly Hall. The cross-state rivalry will provide a tough challenge early in the season for the Cats.

    The Wildcats' SEC road schedule consists of several primetime games and you know the opposing crowds will be ready for Kentucky. Everyone brings their "A" game for Kentucky. Matching the emotional high night in and night out for the Wildcats might see them lose a handful of games during their travels.

9. Jon Hood Injury

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    He may have only played 158 minutes and scored 26 points during the 2010-11 season, but Jon Hood's injury could effect the Kentucky Wildcats in more ways than one.

    Jon Hood tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on July 18 during a pick-up game on campus with some of his fellow teammates. 

    After an offseason in which Hood dedicated himself to improving his game, his world came to a screeching halt with the news that he would more than likely be forced to red shirt and sit out the season. A tough blow for a kid looking to see his first major playing time in his third season as a Wildcat. 

    Kentucky miss out on a player who buckled down and put in the time necessary for him to succeed. Calipari lamented on his disappointment with hearing the news of Hood's injury. "I was hoping that he would have a breakout year."

    Similar to Josh Harrellson last season—who also worked on his game during the offseason a year ago—Jon Hood could have fulfilled his potential and became an impact player for the Cats. I guess we'll have to wait another year to see if that happens or not.

10. Free Throws

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    Free throws can win or lose a game. Something that is a fundamental part of the sport should not be overlooked, but often is.

    During the Final Four game last season, the Kentucky Wildcats shot just 4-12 from the charity stripe against the Connecticut Huskies. As every Kentucky fan will remember, they lost the game by a single point to the eventual national champions.

    All that could have turned out differently if the Wildcats didn't shoot a porous 33.3 percent from the line. Even shooting 50 percent from the free throw line would have seen Kentucky through to the national championship game to face the Butler Bulldogs.

    And we all can assume Kentucky would have been huge favorites going into that game.

    Kentucky must get in their extra shots from the free throw line before and after practice. If they don't, they could be returning home earlier than expected again come next spring.

11. 2012 Recruiting Class

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    As I type this, one of the largest programs in college basketball has no recruits committed for 2012.

    None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

    Flabbergasted comes to mind when trying to describe what Kentuckians must be feeling throughout the Commonwealth. John Calipari has brought in two star-studded recruiting classes and will introduce a third shortly, but has no recruits committed for next year.

    How could that be? Why would he let that happen?

    This is Kentucky we're talking about here, so you can rest assured that they will land some recruits—some big recruits at that.

    But, what if they don't?

    Recruiting can be a funny thing sometimes. If you wait till the last minute—to be frank—you will get screwed. With all the one-and-done players that come through the doors in Lexington, Calipari cannot afford to not have freshmen reinforcements lined up.

    How does this affect their season this year? It doesn't, but it could be a distraction for the coaching staff and a program as a whole. Something you would like to avoid if at all possible.

12. Assists

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    Despite having one of the best point guards in the nation last season, the Kentucky Wildcats came in as the 176th best team in the nation for assists. Averaging 12.7 assists per game does not exactly have too many people worried. It's not like they were averaging three or four assists per game.

    That would be a huge red flag.

    Part of the low number of assists can be attributed to the type of athletes and players that Kentucky field on their roster. Players like Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb do not need a great pass to free them from their defender or to create a play.

    They can create their own plays and be their own assist man.

    However, improving upon your assists would be something to take into consideration. Kentucky has Marquis Teague coming in this year to hopefully adequately replace the one-and-done Brandon Knight.

    If Teague can't distribute the ball well—or the rest of the team for that matter—then the Wildcats are going to struggle. Relying on your defense and individual skill will win you games against lesser opponents, but to beat the big boys you need to have the complete package.