College Preseason Top 25: No. 4, Kentucky
Does the heralded freshman class live up to the hype?
No team will enter the ’09-10 season with more of a media firestorm and intrigue surrounding it than the Wildcats. Even before Memphis had its 2008 Final Four vacated by the NCAA, John Calipari was the talk of the town in Lexington, this just adds more fuel to the fire. Factor in that Kentucky’s incoming recruiting class is already being hailed as one of the best of all time and you have all the makings for a perfect storm brewing in the SEC. UK fans are thinking national championship, skeptics are saying games are won on the court not on paper, it seems that everyone has an opinion of how Coach Cal’s squad will fair this season. While it certainly is premature to crown them best in the land already, given that several of the teams “stars” have yet to suit up, it’s hard to argue that Kentucky has the potential to be a very, very good team this season.
Any other year, Wildcat fans would be trying to figure out how to fill the void left by scoring machine Jodie Meeks who took his 23.7 ppg with him to the NBA. This year, the questions focus more on how quickly before freshman guard John Wall blossoms in Calipari’s dribble drive offense. The 6-4 point guard will remind many of Derrick Rose because of his size and athleticism for the position, the latter of which is off the charts. It may take longer for the North Carolina product to develop into the kind of playmaker Rose was, but certainly his scoring prowess is already there. Wall’s name has been tossed into the ring when discussing the top player in the 2009 freshman class and he is already being looked at as the possible number one overall pick in the 2010 draft by some pundits. His perimeter game is still a bit shaky at this point, but he is so quick off the bounce and elevates so well that even when defenders know he is attacking the basket, he is still extremely difficult to slow down in one-on-one situations. His size and length will also give him a distinct physical advantage on most nights and will make him a tough defender on the perimeter thanks to his lateral quickness. Given the propensity for Calipari-coached teams to run and push the tempo, he couldn’t have gotten a better floor general than Wall to lead his offense.
Joining Wall in the backcourt will be another talented young point guard in freshman Eric Bledsoe. The Alabama native isn’t nearly the physical specimen that his counterpart is, but the 6-0 floor general is an excellent playmaker who possesses great court vision and a very high basketball IQ. He is quick off the dribble, more than capable of beating defenders in isolations situations, and once he does he knows how to get into the heart of a defense to draw additional opponents and kick to open teammates. Bledsoe has also proven to be a gritty on ball defender thanks to his quickness and anticipation abilities. Given Wall’s tremendous ability to get to the rim and finish, it isn’t out of the question at all that both he and Bledsoe will be on the floor at the same time with the latter running the offense. The onus will be on the two freshmen to run the offense though as Kentucky doesn’t return a true point guard from last season but will feature a bevy of sizeable options on the wing for the newcomers to distribute the ball to.
The returning trio of Ramon Harris, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins will all be counted on to provide scoring from the wing spots after showing modest production last year. Harris, a 6-7 senior small forward out of Anchorage, Alaska averaged just over five points per game last season but did so on less than seven possessions and four shots per contest – connecting on a very respectable 53 percent of his field goal attempts. A good athlete, Harris saw the most success in transition last season where he handles the ball well for a bigger perimeter player. The rest of his game is a bit raw as he struggles in spot up and isolation situations but as if often the case with longer athletes, he finishes consistently on cuts around the rim and on offensive rebounds. Like Harris, Miller is a taller perimeter player, who saw significant minutes during his freshman season. The similarities end there though as the second year in-state product is at his best when operating in spot up situations, a position where he gets nearly one-third of his touches. From here he has an pretty even split between catching a shooting (which he excels at) and putting the ball on the floor, something that significantly reduces his shooting percentages. It will be interesting to see how Miller has improved his perimeter shooting ability as he shot a modest 33 percent, something that will have to improve if he is going to exist primarily as a player who looks to spot up and fire. Both Harris and Miller were valuable assets on the glass though, as both rebounded at a very good rate for a perimeter player. Liggins had been rumored to consider transferring out of the program after his freshman year, but the Chicago shooting guard opted to return to Lexington. Overall, it was a rocky first go for Liggins in terms of scoring the basketball. He didn’t see a ton of playing time or shots, but he didn’t exactly finish at a consistent rate either. The only offensive scenario he seemed to have success in last season was in spot up scenarios, where he proved to be solid both as a catch and shoot threat as well as pulling up off the dribble, though he tended to lean more heavily towards doing the former. The youngster also showed a lot of potential as a playmaker, posting an average of more than six assists per 40 minutes.
The Wildcats will get two more additions to the backcourt, freshman small forward Jon Hood and Junior College transfer Darnell Dodson. Hood is a 6-5 homegrown talent who is never going to stand out on a regular basis, but plays solid fundamental basketball; he’s the type of role player all winning teams need and have. The first year player is a crafty ball handler who will be able to have some success at the college level breaking defenders down in isolation, but he will really earn his keep thanks to his range which extends several feet beyond the arc. Dodson is a talent who has gone overlooked in this crop of incoming players simply because there are so many other individuals receiving coverage. Originally a Pitt recruit, the 6-8 small forward failed to qualify academically so enrolled at Miami-Dade CC for a year before ultimately joining the Kentucky family. Dodson should create some matchup problems with his ability to shoot consistently off the dribble, something that most players his size can’t do with any sort of regularity at the college level.
Where Kentucky really will set itself apart from the majority of teams it faces this season will be in the frontcourt where a trio of talented big men will give Calipari and Co. an almost nightly advantage inside. The return of junior Patrick Patterson gives UK arguably the best big man in the country on the floor this season and one of a handful of early candidates for national player of the year honors. The West Virginia native had a monster sophomore season, nearly averaging a double-double with 17.9 ppg and 9.3 rpg all while shooting over 60 percent and blocking more than two shots per game at the other end of the floor. At the college level Patterson is a man amongst boys with his 6-9 235-pound frame and massive 7-2 wingspan. The scary thing about his game right now is that he finishes at an extremely high rate in all scenarios where a big man like him touches the ball: the post, offensive rebounds, cuts in the paint and in transition. Not surprisingly, the majority of his touches come in the post where he does an outstanding job of establishing position before going to work on his defender. He has good footwork, improving handles and a nicely developing repertoire of moves that includes the drop step, baby hook and a turnaround jumper. Once he is able to completely develop his left hand to the point that it is a viable option for him, there will be absolutely no stopping him at this level. His defense has improved a great deal, though he still struggles when he is pulled away from the paint, but for the time being he has the athleticism and strength to continue being a force here as well.
While Patterson was left to carry essentially the entire frontcourt on his shoulders last year, he will have some very talented reinforcements joining him down low this season. Alabama product DeMarcus Cousins was one of the top five players in his high school class and presents a potentially devastating combination of size and skill. Standing 6-11 and packing 260 pounds onto a frame that features a huge wingspan, the freshman has the speed and agility to face up and attack the basket off the dribble while also possessing the range to connect from beyond the arc on occasion. Cousins shows incredible feel for the game, able to create shots for himself with surprising ease when he is on his game and also showing fantastic touch. There is a world of potential with the big man but there are also a number of questions surrounding his game. He certainly shows a tendency to get too complacent and fall in love with his perimeter game rather than working inside as a true post player. His toughness has also been questioned on many an occasion as has his conditioning. Perhaps some of this came as a result of being so gifted and so talented beyond the majority of the players around him, but it will certainly me something to watch early in the season. If Cousins can put it all together and live up to his potential, we are looking at a player who could dominate the college level from day one.
The final piece of the puzzle inside will be another freshman, Oklahoma City product Daniel Orton, a mammoth defensive presence who should make life difficult for opposing bigs almost immediately. The 6-10 260-pound is a shot eraser thanks to his girth, length and fantastic timing; he will alter more than a handful of shots every game he is on the floor. Orton should be equally as effective on the glass as well, which is likely where he will get a good percentage of his points from in the early going. As good as he is on the defensive side of the floor, his game needs that much work offensively. Lucky for him, with either Patterson or Cousins likely to be on the floor with him, it will be nearly impossible for opposing teams to double him up, making it easier for him to use his size to his advantage.
Regardless of where Kentucky winds up on any rankings list heading into the season there is going to be an outcry. Wildcat fans will state their case that their team should be ranked as one of the two or three best in the country given the return of Patterson and freshman class whose legend continues to grow without a minute having been played. Critics will say it is outrageous to put a team in the top five whose predicted success is predicated largely on the expected performances of a handful of fresh faced eighteen year olds. Both sides have a point. Kentucky has too much talent, potential, hype – whatever you want to call it – to not be highly ranked entering the season. With that said, to place the burden of number one or two on a team that is largely devoid of college experience just can’t be done in good conscious. Regardless of how they perform as individuals or as a team, UK is going to be a lightning rod for discussion this season in the college basketball world and with good reason.