Led By Another Star Freshman Class, Defending Champion Kentucky Reloads

Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, Kentucky.

This season is an important one for coach John Calipari‘s Kentucky Wildcats. After posting a 38-2 record last year on the way to winning his first national championship, five of his players would go on to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft (including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s unprecedented No. 1 and No. 2 picks). That’s something that’s never been done before and probably won’t ever be done again, unless it’s by a team coached by Calipari himself. Obviously that type of success attracts talented players, but it also raises the bar of expectation as well. Calipari’s new group of diaper dandies (including top prospects Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress) are faced with the challenge of living up to those expectations.

Although this year’s Kentucky team doesn’t quite match up to last year’s athletically, it isn’t far behind. Naturally everything begins by comparing Noel to Davis. At 6-11 and a very mobile 216 pounds, Noel is very agile and coordinated for his size. While Ant Davis was a guard who shot up in height out of nowhere, Noel is a real big man’s big man. Although he doesn’t have the same ballhandling skill set that Davis had, it’s hard to say he’s not on par with him athletically. Both players can jump out the gym, and Noel might just be more intimidating down low as a defensive force than Davis was. We’ll see eventually as he strives for breaking Davis’ NCAA record for blocks in a season.

The other player who stands out athletically on Kentucky’s roster is Alex Poythress. Poythress is a 6-8 beast with an all-around game. He isn’t necessarily classified as a PF or a SF just yet, as he’s kind of in between both. His athleticism and physical approach to the game is undeniable. Between Noel and Poythress, Kentucky will be no average athletic team. Those two will get their fair share of lobs and tip slams and will definitely intimidate teams with their athleticism. Not to mention, guards Ryan Harrow and freshman Archie Goodwin love to fly in transition and are both supreme athletes as well.
Grade: A-

If there’s one area Kentucky has to worry about this year, it’s the fundamentals. This team has a roster built for the transition game, but they could tend to struggle in a half-court setting. What this team really lacks that Kentucky has had in the past two seasons is a go-to inside presence. Poythress and Noel both are not exactly the classic back-to-the-basket players like DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Davis were. Because Kentucky lacks a traditional go-to post game, a key component for it this year will be the pick-and-roll game. With the interchangeable forwards Poythress and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, (who is a more of an outside shooter) Kentucky has the ability to mix it up and attack from different angles. Poythress will be great rolling to the basket for tough finishes at the rim, and Wiltjer will provide that pick-and-pop element, extending out to three-point range. The guards, Harrow and Goodwin, are both talented enough to score on their own, but are both so good that they could get carried away offensively. If Calipari can find the proper balance for this team, get them an identity and get them to discipline their fundamental approach to the game offensively they’ll be a great team. If not, it’ll be the lack of fundamentals that holds this team back in the long run.
Grade: C+

Calipari has emerged as the best recruiter in college hoops for a reason. While most coaches stick their noses up at the idea of a kid coming for one year and entering the draft right away, this coach welcomes the nature of temporary stardom. He knows making it to the NBA is what players really want, and that’s exactly what he gives them. The reason kids want to play for him is because he has a unique ability to bring the best out of players and lift them to that next level, both individually and also as a team.

Every year Calipari has a new batch of elite talent, and each year he becomes better and better and blending it all together. As a coach, blending new talent together and managing new egos every year is no easy task. But if there’s anyone who can make it work at such an extreme level as his since arriving in Lexington, it’s Calipari.

Obviously Kentucky is usually inferior to most top teams in the chemistry department because they rarely ever have returning starters. But the chemistry Kentucky basketball players do have is unique. It’s a certain understanding that each player has. They realize that if they can each sacrifice their focus on individual success for the success of the unit, they can make their goals of winning an NCAA championship and making it to the NBA a reality. Last year’s group was able to do exactly that. They set the example, and now this team will try to do the same. None of these kids have ever played together, but Calipari’s ability to help them figure it out as they go is like none other.
Grade: B-

There’s no question that Calipari is a point guard’s coach. He’s a firm believer in the idea that a team will only go as far as the point guard takes them. So it’s easy to understand why he goes after the nation’s top guard each year. Most point guards he gets come to him as stars already; however, this case is different.

Ryan Harrow isn’t a star just yet. He’s a work in progress, but he shows flashes of brilliance, and that’s exactly what intrigued coach Calipari enough to give him a chance. Harrow’s game is like a mix of each Calipari point guard. He’s got speed like John Wall, acrobatic finishes like Rose, a mixy handle like Evans, with a shot like Brandon Knight. He can create his own looks, and he has extended range on his jumper.

Coach Calipari saw Harrow as a perfect fit for his system, and trusted him enough to pass the torch onto. Taking transfers is a risk he doesn’t usually take, but he felt the kid was good enough for him to make an exception. With the proper molding under Calipari, there’s no telling how good Harrow could become. Although he isn’t as gritty and confident as past Wildcats, what he lacks for in toughness he makes up for in talent. Calipari has been working on making him a tougher player and knows it’s what he needs to make this team go. Things didn’t workout for him at NC State, but now Harrow knows he has been blessed with a very special opportunity and, hopefully for Kentucky’s sake, he takes full advantage. Harrow has never really been a vocal leader, and that is a glaring difference between him and the rest of Calipari’s point guards. Should he can turn into one, and be that coach on the floor that Kentucky needs, they’ll be where they want to be come March.

Although it would be a surprise to see five players from this team get selected in the first round of the NBA Draft next year, who’s to say it couldn’t happen? Five — Harrow, Goodwin, Poythress, Noel and role-player Willie Cauley-Stein are all already on the radar, with Noel near the top of most mock drafts. If this team can soak in all the knowledge and play selfless basketball as last year’s group did, they will have similar results.

Ant Davis and co. set the bar extremely high for this years group. Winning Calipari’s first championship was a huge accomplishment for them, but the encore is even more critical for the Wildcats. It’s important for this group to win in order to prove that last season was no fluke, even if few were on the team and hold no stake in it. If they fall short, the critics will begin to talk again and the one-and-done Kentucky basketball formula will continue to be frowned upon. But if they continue to build on last year’s success and repeat as champions, it could be the beginning of a new college basketball dynasty for the Wildcats, who already have Aaron and Andrew Harrison (two of the top five players in the class of 2013) on deck for next season.

Hit the jump to see more all-access videos with Kentucky this season…

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