BIG BLUE NATION

How UK stacks up this season.

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How UK stacks up this season.

Post  MULECHOPS on Thu Aug 16, 2012 11:36 am

Defending a national championship is hard. The Florida Gators did so quite successfully in 2007, of course, winning a second consecutive national title. But let's not forget that the ensuing group of Gators also had to defend a title, and that 2007-08 team went to the NIT. The same destination awaited the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2010 one year after winning it all.



In fact, since Florida cut down the nets in 2007, no team defending a national title has made it past the Sweet 16. Call it the curse of the defending champions.



Which brings me to the Kentucky Wildcats in 2012-13. Can the Wildcats break this curse? Absolutely, but let's not minimize the obstacles they'll face.





The main question is this: How does this season's UK team stack up to the ones John Calipari fielded in previous seasons? We're used to thinking of UK as an entirely new team every season, as Calipari recruits his latest crop of one-and-done stars and rides them at least as far as the Elite Eight (2010), if not the Final Four (2011) or the national championship (2012). We're used to thinking that way because it's true.



You may remember that a couple weeks ago I looked at how well major-conference programs have done in terms of recruiting over the past five years. Thanks to Drew Cannon's detailed multiyear data on recruiting rankings, we can speak with some degree of specificity as to how amazing Calipari's recruiting really has been at Kentucky.



The answer turns out to be: Pretty darn amazing. In fact, the Wildcats have brought in four of the five best recruiting classes of the last five seasons (UCLA's 2012 class is the outlier).



So, yes, Calipari replenishes his talent annually, and he does so with the best recruiting classes to be found anywhere in Division I. But keep in mind this coming season the Wildcats will be inexperienced even by Calipari's standards. For example, that 2009-10 team had veterans like Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller to put alongside John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. In 2010-11 the old-timers were Miller, DeAndre Liggins and (the criminally underrated) Josh Harrellson. And last season the returnees were unusually prominent -- not only Miller (yet again), but also Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.



Who are this season's veterans? Well, to begin with there's Kyle Wiltjer. As a freshman last season Wiltjer (understandably) averaged just 12 minutes a game, but he showed commendable assertiveness looking for his shot and, better still, he knocked down 43 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.



Wiltjer won't be the only non-freshman on the team, however. Jon Hood, a 6-foot-7 wing who missed last season because of injury, will return to compete for minutes in the backcourt. Speaking of the backcourt, last week I fearlessly predicted that NC State transfer Ryan Harrow "will get a few starts and average in the low-20s in minutes while serving as a capable pass-first point guard." Lastly, Calipari will be able to call upon 6-2 transfer Julius Mays, also from NC State (albeit by way of Wright State).



Then again, this is Kentucky we're discussing. Why talk about veterans? Nerlens Noel arrives in Lexington billed as perhaps the only player who can even hope to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Davis on defense. An elite shot-blocker with either hand, Noel is expected to step right in and allow Calipari to deploy the same kind of outstanding defense his teams have pretty much always had, whether at Memphis or at Kentucky. Even though Noel hasn't exactly set the scouting world on fire with his appearances this summer, it would qualify as a shocker if a big man this highly rated played for Calipari and turned out to be anything but excellent on defense.



A word of caution is in order here, however. Davis was obviously an outstanding defensive player, but the thing he did better than any other outstanding defensive player (say, Cousins) is simply stay on the floor. Davis played an incredible 80 percent of the possible minutes for his team. It will be next to impossible for any freshman, even Noel, to duplicate both the quality and more especially the quantity of the defense played by Davis.



The good news is Noel doesn't have to be Anthony Davis 2.0 for Kentucky to have Kentucky-like success. This freshman class -- Noel, 6-8 wing Alex Poythress, 6-4 shooting guard Archie Goodwin, and 6-11 big man Willie Cauley-Stein -- isn't as highly rated as last year's class at UK, but it's superior on paper (repeat, on paper) to any other class signed by Kentucky in the last four seasons. That includes the Wall- and Cousins-led unit of 2009-10.



So right now the safe bet may be to expect something like what we saw from Kentucky in 2011, the Brandon Knight/Terrence Jones-led team that made the Final Four as a No. 4 seed and lost a close game to eventual national champion Connecticut. That feels about right for this 2012-13 edition of the Wildcats.



Defending national champions have had a tough time lately, but Calipari's teams are almost as consistent on defense as he is in recruiting. Besides, last season he showed us what he can do with a six-player rotation. I say this curse ends here.
John Gasaway ESPN Insider.
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MULECHOPS

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Location : Sullivan Kentucky
Favorite College team: : UK
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