John Calipari ready to defend title with talented group of freshmen
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals have arrived on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 3 Kentucky.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: John Calipari’s Kentucky team will be among the most talented in the country, but the big question is whether the Wildcats are too young to go all the way. That storyline is recycling for a fourth straight season — with one twist. Last year’s team closed the deal, bringing Calipari his first NCAA title.
Only one contributor from that team returns, but the Cats have reloaded with yet another top-ranked recruiting class. Calipari’s had four of those and 15 NBA Draft picks since coming to Lexington in 2009. Rinse, repeat. But repeat?
“I wish it was the ‘70s and ‘80s where I had guys for four years, because it would get kind of scary,” Calipari says. Still, “to start over every year, I’m going to be honest, it’s exciting.”
The Wildcats must replace Anthony Davis, who just polished off one of the most impressive runs in history — National Player of the Year, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, national champion, No. 1 NBA pick and Olympic champion — as well as first-round pick Terrence Jones. That’s a tall task, but Calipari took his best shot.
In comes the nation’s No. 1 recruit, 6-10 Nerlens Noel, said to be a better shot-blocker than Davis, who set an NCAA freshman record for swats. Calipari also landed 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who is athletic enough that he played wide receiver in high school.
“I’m just blown away by him,” Calipari says. “I knew he was good when I (recruited) him, but he … just blossoms and blossoms.”
So much so that Calipari is already talking about using some “Twin Towers” looks with both Cauley-Stein and Noel on the floor together. Other times, he’ll use his top returning player, 6-9 sophomore power forward Kyle Wiltjer, who also happens to be the team’s sharpest 3-point shooter.
Oh, and then there’s small forward Alex Poythress, merely a McDonald’s All-American who Calipari calls “a beast” and is already a projected top-10 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went No. 2 overall in the draft, point guard Marquis Teague was a late first-rounder and shooting guards Darius Miller and Doron Lamb were both second-round selections. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Replacing four pros in the backcourt is a tall …
Calipari brought in McDonald’s All-American Archie Goodwin for scoring, Wright State transfer Julius Mays for depth, and finally has a non-freshman point guard in Ryan Harrow. The last five guys to run Calipari’s offense were one-and-dones. Harrow, a transfer from NC State who sat out last season at UK and has three years of eligibility left, will be an interesting change.
“I’m happy because I have a feel for Ryan,” Calipari says. “He’s different than all the other point guards I had. How does he compare? Well how did Marquis compare to those guys? They were really good; he’s really good.”
While slight of stature, Harrow is quick, can jump out of the gym and “may be a little bit more of a shooter like Brandon (Knight) was,” Calipari says.
Goodwin impressed all summer and will start from Day 1, while Mays, a senior who began his career at NC State and led Wright State in scoring, assists and steals last season, offers not only a versatile backup but also a veteran presence. Other possible contributors are Twany Beckham and 6-7 Jon Hood.
Kentucky, with three straight Elite Eights, back-to-back Final Fours and a national title, is enjoying its finest stretch since reaching three consecutive NCAA title games — winning twice — from 1996-98. Calipari is the king of reloading, but is repeating a fair expectation?
Since UCLA won seven in a row from 1967-73, only Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) have won back-to-back championships. But Calipari says: “I can tell you I like my team,” which he’s said at the start of the last three seasons, and those turned out pretty well.
The guys who just helped UK win it all and have been back to watch the Cats work out this summer seem to think the next group will make another run.
“I’m really impressed,” Miller says. “They’re going to have a really good team and everybody’s going to enjoy watching them.”
Says Lamb: “I think they’re going to have a great team to win it all this year.”
Athlon College Basketball Countdown So Far:
19. Notre Dame
15. San Diego State
14. North Carolina
11. NC State
10. Michigan State
8. Ohio State