How far will John Calipari and Kentucky basketball go in 2011?
Though John Calipari’s office overlooks the court at the Kentucky Wildcats' basketball practice facility, he’s not allowed to watch what happens there in the summer. Apparently, he was missing out on quite a show. “I asked about the pickup games, and somebody said, ‘Ooh. Kind of like a couple years ago,’” Calipari says. “So it’s good.”
A couple years ago, Calipari assembled the most heralded recruiting class in the school's storied college basketball history. Four of them jumped to the NBA after one year. Last season, with a team less star-studded but more experienced, he coached the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 1998.
Now Calipari has a team with some of the same hype as his first squad at Kentucky but some of the same intangibles as the second, a team that figures to be among the favorites for the NCAA title. “We’ve got a good blend of veteran guys and young players,” Calipari says. “We’ve got some length, got a little bit of everything.”
No player exemplifies that versatility more than 6'9" sophomore Terrence Jones, who spurned an NBA opportunity to return for a second season at Kentucky. Jones led the SEC in rebounding last season, was seventh in scoring and was the league’s Freshman of the Year. And he’s “on a mission” this season, Calipari says, to show that he can be even better after bulking up to 252 pounds. “I came back to try to win a national championship, get more mature,” Jones says. “College was just too fun. I wasn’t ready to leave.”
At his new weight, Jones could be more physical, but Kentucky lacks a true bruiser in the mold of DeMarcus Cousins and Josh Harrellson, keys to the Wildcats’ success the past two seasons.
Instead, the frontcourt focus will be on athleticism, much of it provided by 6'10" freshman Anthony Davis. Two years ago, Davis was a 6'3" guard, but he hit a growth spurt that turned him into an explosive frontcourt player with guard skills. He’ll likely contend for National Freshman of the Year honors.
Kentucky will get frontcourt depth from freshman Kyle Wiltjer, a 6'9" sharpshooter. And Calipari hopes that senior center Eloy Vargas can provide some rebounding and inside presence.
Key Wildcats Stat: 7
In two seasons at UK, John Calipari has won seven NCAA tournament games. The Cats won a combined six games in the NCAA tournament in the six seasons prior to his arrival.
Point guard Marquis Teague will run the show as a freshman, and if that sounds familiar, it should. He’ll be the fifth consecutive highly touted freshman to play the point for Calipari, following Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis and John Wall and Brandon Knight at Kentucky, all of whom were one-and-done stars.
Teague is an explosive finisher and a deft distributor who should complement shooting guard Doron Lamb, back for his sophomore season after leading the SEC in 3-point percentage as a freshman.
Lamb has added weight and strength, and his instinctive feel for the game makes him “our best basketball player,” says Calipari, who claims Lamb could be a top-15 player nationally.
The third backcourt spot likely will go to senior Darius Miller, who has 71 starts in three seasons, but he’ll be pushed by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6'7" freshman who can provide defensive toughness and offensive versatility.
Junior Jon Hood is expected to miss the season with a knee injury, so Kentucky will look to sophomore Stacey Poole for backcourt depth.
Twany Beckham, who transferred from Mississippi State at the semester break last season, could be a defensive stopper when he becomes eligible in the second semester.
Once again, Calipari will have to blend a core of talented newcomers with established veterans, but that’s become old hat for the Kentucky Wildcats.
“We’ve been in this situation before with new teammates, a new team,” Miller says. “We know what it’s going to take to get where we got last year. We know how hard it’s going to be and what kind of work we’re going to have to put in.”
Most of that work will have to come on the defensive end. After struggling in the regular season in 2010-11, Kentucky caught fire in the postseason and made the Final Four based largely on the strength of its team defense.
Calipari’s cupboard is loaded with offensive weapons, and it’s his best mix yet of talent and experience at Kentucky.
If this team can replicate last season’s defensive intensity — and if Teague is ready to hit the ground running like his point guard predecessors — the Wildcats have all the ingredients for a repeat run to the Final Four with a legitimate chance at an NCAA title.
SEC Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Runner-Up