The Kentucky Wildcats (35-3, 14-2 SEC) finished first in the SEC East in 2009-2010 and then won their conference tournament, beating Mississippi State in OT 75-74. The Cats then went to the Big Dance where they hammered opponents, beating East Tennessee State 100-71 Wake Forest 90-60 and Cornell 62-45. In the Elite Eight, Kentucky lost to West Virginia 73-66. It was a good but disappointing run for the Wildcats and their new coach John Calipari.
With a new season on the horizon, the Cats look promising. But unlike last year, the team will have some extra-tough competition within their division. It will come specifically from the much-improved Florida State Gators. Can Kentucky maintain their spot at the top of the SEC East? There is plenty of young and untested talent at Kentucky and much of it is top-rated.
There’s no doubt that Kentucky has some very good players. But both the frontcourt and backcourt have lost important contributors and the team is thin on experience, especially in the front. With the loss of forwards DeMarcus Cousins (15.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and Patrick Patterson (14.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.3 bpg), the team will have to rely a lot on n a few rookie front men.
Center Enes Kanter from Istanbul, Turkey, is a rangy, long armed player. Standing 6-10, Kanter, who is the top rated freshman forward in the nation, was a major rebounder when he played semi-pro ball in his native land. He’s got good legs and runs the court well. Kanter has solid hands and is an effective scorer inside. If he’s allowed to play (there’s some questions regarding his eligibility), he’ll be a major force in the post.
Freshman forward Terence Jones, who is 6-9, 230 pounds, is a multidimensional big man. He can score inside and grab rebbies, but he is also a fine ball handler and able dribbler. Jones won’t be limited to taking inside shots. He’ll use another major strength, his passing, to create more scoring opportunities and points for the Cats.
With a two-man frontcourt, the Wildcats go with three players in the back. The team will have to makeup for the production of NBA-bound Eric Bledsoe (11.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and John Wall (16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.5 apg). The good news is that the guard spots are very deep. Once again, this group will utilize freshmen in key starting roles. The Kentucky frosh are some of the best in the country and arrive ready to gear up to the next level quickly.
The point will be manned by 6-3, 183-pound Brandon Knight. Knight, who is a two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year, has an accurate shot, is a skilled passer and is a fine playmaker. Knight brings an excellent work ethic to the team and should improve throughout the season.
There are various other freshmen players who can see court time but the most likely starter is Doron Lamb. Lamb, who stands 6-4, weighs 183 pounds, can hit from downtown, putting points on the board in bunches. He comes to the team as the 23rd ranked guard in the country.
The anchor of the backcourt will be the one experienced guy on the court—junior guard Darius Miller (6-7, 223 lbs., JR, #1, 6.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 21.2 mpg, .400 FG, .336 3PT, .795 FT). In two years, Miller has put in some clutch performances and shown steady progress. He’s the team’s best three-point and foul shooter. He needs to be more aggressive as a shooter to reach his full potential. There’s the chance for many nights made up of double digit scoring.
Coming off the bench, the Cats will use junior college transfer Eloy Vargas at forward a lot. Vargas, a junior, comes from Florida where he saw limited action as a freshman. He’s a good shooter. Senior forward Josh Harrellson (6-10, 265 lbs., SR, #55, 1.3 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 0.0 apg, 4.0 mpg, .462 FG, .500 3PT, .100 FT) will also see action and may have an expanded role.
Junior DeAndre Liggins (6-6, 202 lbs., JR, #1, 3.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.8 apg, 15.3 mpg, .419 FG, .318 3PT, .590 FT) will be used as a defensive force. He’s a solid ball stealer and pressure guy. When forward Vargas is in the frontcourt then freshman Stacy Poole Jr. will be at guard. The 6-5, 190-pound Poole is versatile enough to play back and front.
The Wildcats will be trying to continue from where they left off last season when they earned an offensive efficiency grade of 116.1 (15th). The club’s offensive rebounding percentage was fifth in the country at 40.5% and their effective field goal percentage came in 32nd at 53.1%.
This was one of the best two-point shooting teams in the nation, hitting 54.6% (6th). But they were weak from the foul line, sinking 66.9% (239th). Since 21.5% of their points came from the charity stripe, it would behoove the Cats to improve on their frees and get a few more points from the line. They were ranked ninth of 12 in the conference from the free throw line.
Kentucky was especially effective on defense as they earned a grade of 86.3, ranking them sixth in the nation. The Cat’s defensive effective field goal percentage was 43.1%, making them third. On two-point defense, they were rated 6th in the country at 41.1% and on three-point “D” they came in 47th at 31.3%. In terms of overall rebounding, the club was first in the conference with a +8.1 rebounding margin.
Coach Calipari (480-143 in 18 years, 35-3 in one year at Kentucky) wins the award for having recruited the best incoming class in the nation for a second straight year. It’s good that he has because the Cats desperately needed to reload after losing four major contributors. Calipari is one of those coaches on a constant search for new talent. That’s because each year he loses some of his best players to the NBA. Of the five that left the Cats for the pros after last season only one was a senior.
The coach likes to run the pick-and-role and with starters Kanter and Knight and subs Vargas and Poole, he’s got two good premium tandems for that drill. Calipari likes his teams to get the ball up the court quickly, emphasizing the need to find the best shot possible and create second shots off the rebound. His teams also transition well, playing pressure defense. These Cats will be able to do these things and more in order to compete.
In the past five seasons, Calipari’s teams have lost just three conference games. This is a coach who knows how to dominate within highly competitive leagues. There’s no doubt that this year’s edition of the Kentucky Wildcats will be highly competitive.
The head coach is not concerned about the youth on his club. His top four recruits are ranked first, third, 13th and 21st in the nation. Obviously, there’s a huge amount of potential on this club. But Kentucky will have tough competition, especially within its division. A first or second place finish and another trip to the Big Dance are on the horizon for them. How many conference games will they lose? Probably no more than two. Kentucky goes into the season ranked fourth in the country.
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