It was during the midst of ESPN’s Tuesday Big Ten game, with Purdue putting the screws to Wisconsin, that TV analyst Dan Dakich, began talking about the network’s next game, Kentucky-South Carolina. Dakich said that this was about the quietest Kentucky team in years. I pondered it and thought how little I’d heard about the Wildcats. They were buried under the din of the NFL playoffs, New Year’s Six and the media focus on Duke and Marvin Bagley. What gives with Kentucky?
The resume to date is not very impressive, at least by Big Blue standards. They’re projected as a 4-seed for the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. They only rank 32nd in the country in defensive efficiency and the offensive numbers are even lower. They lost the game Dakich was hyping, blowing a double-digit lead to the Gamecocks and are simply one of a group of five teams in reasonable position to win the SEC title.
It will also surprise no one to find out that six of Kentucky’s top eight players are freshmen and the two “veterans” are sophomores. Kevin Knox, a 6’9” forward, is the best of the group, averaging 15 points/6 rebounds per game.
Knox leads up a lineup whose core strength is on the frontcourt. Knox is joined by P.J. Washington at the forward spot. And when John Calipari goes to his bench, he finds size waiting. Wenyen Gabriel, Nick Richards and Sacha Kilyea-Jones all go 6’9” or taller and all rebound the ball consistently.
But the biggest story for Kentucky is who hasn’t been on the floor—or at least who just returned. Another big freshman, Jarred Vanderbilt was injured prior to the season and got his first minutes of this season in spot duty against South Carolina. Vanderbilt goes 6’9”, can rebound, and is renowned for excellent court vision. He even played a little point guard against the Gamecocks.
In short, Kentucky is getting it’s presumptive best player back just at a time when everyone else has been able to gain experience playing without him and just in time for the season’s biggest games. The Wildcats currently trail Florida by a game in the conference and the Gators are coming to Rupp Arena on Saturday night for the ESPN national audience. One week later, it’s the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and a tough road trip to West Virginia.
Kentucky has been quiet so far this year. These next two Saturdays will give us a hint of whether that’s going to change as March draws closer.
The college sports world made the complete segueway from football to basketball tonight, so perhaps it was appropriate that Alabama was in action and going down to defeat. The SEC began conference play and Missouri knocked off the Tide 84-68. Mizzou is one of three teams with a legitimate shot at the conference crown, as we lay out the landscape for the coming two months in SEC basketball.
THE BIG THREE
Missouri is the highest-ranked team in the polls right now at #10, and Florida is right behind at #11. And you can’t rule out Kentucky, even though a series of non-conference losses have left the Wildcats unranked.
Missouri: Just as they were last year, the Tigers are oriented to the backcourt, but unlike last year there’s a little more muscle up front to back up the guard play. Alex Oriakhi, the UConn transfer is averaging eight rebounds a game, and senior forward Laurence Bowers does it all—scores 17 a night, rebounds and hits better than 40 percent from behind the arc. Phil Pressey leads up the guards, scoring 14 and dishing seven assists per game with Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell all combining to produce nearly thirty points a game, and all three go 6’4” or 6’5”, giving the Tigers a good size matchup in the backcourt.
The Tigers have only lost to Louisville and in overtime on the road at UCLA, while Stanford and Illinois are their best wins. There will be a lot more wins ahead of them, and if Oriakhi keeps hitting the boards, the rest of the team will stay consistent.
Florida: The Gators had great expectations coming into the year and there’s still every chance to fulfill them. Losses at Arizona and to Kansas State have slowed them down, though Florida has blown out Florida State, Marquette and Wisconsin. While none of those three are Top 16-caliber teams this season, Florida’s ability to blow them out at least establishes that Billy Donovan’s team is still several cuts above the standard NCAA bubble team.
It’s an experienced group, with Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario providing the senior leadership and scoring in the backcourt, with Erik Murphy and Patric Young up front. Young is also the team’s best three-point shooter. The problem Donovan has had is that forward Will Yeguete or two-guard Scottie Wilbekin haven’t really stepped up. My concern about Florida from the start has been their ability to improve beyond their core veterans and so far that’s not in evidence.
Kentucky: John Calipari has to like where he’s sitting. The media pressure is off and the Wildcats are unranked, even though their four losses are to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville, a quartet that would make a very credible Final Four. Kentucky’s also got a win over Maryland, another young team that’s on the rise.
UK is big across the front line, with Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wittjen all at least 6’10” and all of them rebound. So does freshman forward Alex Poythess, who averages 14 points/7 rebounds. Poythess and Noel join Archie Goodwin as the great Calipari freshmen this year. Goodwin leads up the backcourt with 16 points per game. Kentucky’s most recent loss was a competitive 80-77 defeat to Louisville and I think UK is coming on. My chits are on the ‘Cats to grab the SEC title before it’s over, with Missouri in second and Florida rolling in third. All three teams will be threats to go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
THE X-FACTOR TEAMS
All of these teams either have red flags on their non-conference resume, but intriguing talent, or have piled up a string of non-descript wins that leave us in wait-and-see mode.
Ole Miss: Murphy Holloway averages a 16/11 each night, but the 6’7” forward needs to be banned from the three-point shot where he’s hitting 14 percent. Reginald Buckner is another talented forward, and this duo is joined by explosive junior Marshall Henderson in the backcourt, who’s averaging 18 ppg. Jarvis Summers does a credible job running the floor. The Rebels are hindered by the lack of a center, although in today’s game that’s not a killer problem. More concerning are the losses to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State, with no notable wins.
LSU: Another two-loss team, with the defeats to Boise State and Marquette, and Seton Hall being the best win. LSU is heavily guard-dependent, with sophomore Johnny O’Bryan being the only player taller than 6’5” that gets regular minutes. Fortunately, 6’5” Shavon Coleman can rebound and block shots, and a three-guard offense is well-balanced, with Charles Carmouche running the show and Andre Stringer the best three-point shooter. How far can they get relying exclusively on the guards?
Tennessee: They’ve got four losses, including ones to Georgetown and Oklahoma State, but the Vols have also beaten Wichita and Xavier in a non-conference run that will have them toughened for league play. Tennessee gets good backcourt play from Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, and they have a group of four forwards that go to the glass. If the Vols get a little frontcourt scoring, they’ll move up. Pencil them in as the most likely team in this group to break the ceiling and get to the next level.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks have two explosive scorers in sophomore guard B.J. Young and forward Marshawn Powell. The post players are respectable in Hunter Mickelson and Coty Clarke, though both need to be a little tougher on the boards if the Hogs are going to move up. While there are no notable wins, none of the four losses—Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan are anything to be ashamed of.
Auburn: I’m pushing my luck putting them this high, since the Tigers are 6-7. But they have a great scorer in Frankie Sullivan at the guard spot, and he’s ably supported by running mate Chris Denson. 6’10” Rob Chubb does a good job rebounding. Most important, the Tigers are improving. In the last two games, they took Illinois to overtime on the road and beat Florida State. Look for Auburn to at least be midlevel in SEC play.
THE DOUBLE X-FACTOR TEAMS
Another group of teams with similar resumes to the ones above, but just enough problems to warrant dropping them a tier.
South Carolina: They are similar to LSU with the heavy reliance on the guards, only the Gamecocks are even smaller, with 6’5” Lakeem Jackson being the tallest player to get regular time. And the non-conference record, though 10-3, includes a loss to Elon and an overtime win over UW-Milwaukee, who is terrible this year.
Texas A&M: Another 10-3 team and the Aggies lost to Southern. You have to like Elston Turner and his 16 ppg, and senior forward Ray Turner who averages a 12/7. But unless Johnny Football can suit it up and play basketball, the NIT is the best hope this team has.
Alabama: The loss to Missouri tonight was a harbinger of things to come. The Tide aren’t strong enough up front, and they rely heavily on Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey to score from the perimeter. Both are good enough shooting the three that they, along with 6’6” sophomore Rodney Cooper, can have some magical nights, but eventually someone has to score and rebound down low.
Vanderbilt: A program that’s enjoyed its share of success is on a major rebuilding project, though at least 17 ppg Kedren Johnson gives the Commodores something to build around.
Georgia: Another case of a team with one good player, in this case Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, with his 18/7 each night.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have nothing. A loss to Alabama A&M on December 30 is the harbinger of a long year ahead.
The buildup to the Final Four concludes today with a look at Kentucky. Following the same format we did with Louisville, Ohio State and Kansas, TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the Wildcats’ personnel, tracks their path to New Orleans and looks back on the program’s recent Final Four history.
PERSONNEL: John Calipari uses a six-man rotation. If we use the benchmark of about 20 minutes per game as determining if a player is a real part of the regular rotation, six isn’t unusual. But Calipari’s six is top-heavy, with only one other player even being in double digits, and four of the key six breaking the 30-minute mark. Anthony Davis at center is the team’s most celebrated player and presuming the freshman enters the NBA draft, will be the first overall pick in June. He’s a double-digit scorer and rebounder, and blocks five shots a game. It’s not hard to see why the pro scouts love him and why opposing college coaches fear him. But don’t overlook Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who might be the #2 pick. His stats aren’t as spiffy, but he does average 12/8, and has a way of playing his best in the biggest games. The third freshman in the regular rotation is point guard Marquis Teague, who does an excellent job distributing the ball and can shoot just well enough to keep defenses honest, as Iowa State could attest in a second-round game when Teague lit them up for 24 points. The sophomore class on this team is Terrence Jones up front, a 6’9” bruiser who stands in contrast to the lanky Davis. Doron Lamb is the team’s best outside shooter, hitting 47 percent from both inside and outside the arc. Lamb is also the team’s best free-throw shooter and would presumably be the one Calipari wants with the ball in end-game situations. And yes, Kentucky does have a senior getting significant playing time, that being Darius Miller, a 6’8” forward with a respectable outside shooting touch.
SEASONAL ARC: Kentucky won its two big tests of the early schedule, beating Kansas prior to Thanksgiving and then winning a one-point thriller over North Carolina at Rupp Arena on December 3, a game I expected to see again on Monday in New Orleans. UK took its only regular season loss on a buzzer-beater at Indiana on December 10, then recovered with four easy wins, including one over future NCAA Tournament team Lamar. That set the stage for their 69-62 win over Louisville on New Year’s Eve. Kentucky then proceeded to systematically dismantle the SEC. They won their first nine games, including a sweep of Tennessee and the closest game was a 77-71 decision over Alabama at Rupp. The week after the Super Bowl was the time for the ‘Cats to really lay claim to the territory though. Florida and Vanderbilt were on the schedule for a Tuesday/Saturday run on national TV, and UK won both games decisively. Florida and Vandy represented two of the final three regular season games, and though the Commodores were a tougher out this time, Kentucky still swept both rivals. After a win in the SEC Tournament over LSU, it was time for a third straight Florida/Vandy run. This one wasn’t as sharp. Kentucky narrowly escaped Florida by three and then lost the tournament final to Vanderbilt. Calipari was unconcerned and it appears he was right to be so. Kentucky played sharp offensive basketball in beating Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16, taking revenge on Indiana and then a complete domination of a talented Baylor team that put Kentucky back in the Final Four for a second straight season.
FINAL FOUR HISTORY: My short book, Memories Of March Madness, covers a lot of Kentucky’s seven previous Final Four appearances in the post-Wooden era that began in 1976, and I hope you’ll take a look at it for just $2.99. Here’s a brief rundown…
*1978: Jack Givens lights up Duke for 41 in the NCAA final and Kentucky wins its first national title in the post-Adolph Rupp era.
*1984: A little home cookin’ in Lexington got Kentucky through stiff regional tests against Louisville and Illinois, but a neutral floor and Georgetown’s stifling defense did them in at the Final Four in Seattle.
*1993: Rick Pitino brought his team to New Orleans led by Jamal Mashburn and a bunch of no-names. They almost upended Michigan’s heralded Fab Five, before losing in overtime. In spite of the fact that Pitino only had one of the top six players on the floor it was speculated by the press that he’d been outcoached by Michigan’s Steve Fischer. The notion seems as insane writing this today as it did back then.
*1996: The national title returned to Lexington, as Kentucky dominated all year long and then finished the job with a decisive run through the NCAA Tournament. The biggest game was against UMass in the semi-finals…pitting Pitino against John Calipari.
*1997: A return trip to the final game came up just short in overtime as Arizona edged Kentucky.
*1998: New coach in Tubby Smith, but back in the Final Four and this time with another national title, as the ‘Cats won a gut-wrenching Final Four game over Stanford and then beat Utah on Monday night.
*2011: I recall last year being surprised that it had been that long for Kentucky to be out of the Final Four. Calipari did a solid coaching job getting his young team to peak at the end of the season, win the SEC Tournament, and then oust the top two seeds in the East, Ohio State and North Carolina. UConn ended the dream in the Final Four.
Kentucky faces a big week in the SEC starting tonight, with a nationally televised home game against Florida (7 PM ET, ESPN) and then a big Saturday night prime-time trip to Vanderbilt (9 PM ET, ESPN). The Wildcats are 23-1 and the only loss came at Indiana on a buzzer-beating trey. Kentucky is ranked #1 in the country and if the season ended today would clearly be the team to beat in the NCAA Tournament. With a big week foreshadowing the crunch of the SEC schedule, TheSportsNotebook breaks down Kentucky piece-by-piece.
John Calipari’s team faced four significant non-conference tests and went 3-1. They knocked off Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville, and had the loss to Indiana. The ‘Cats haven’t really been tested in the SEC, but not because the conference isn’t good. The schedule is just backloaded. They still play Vandy and Florida again after this week, including a season-ending showdown in Gainesville on March 4. And there’s a February 21 trip to Mississippi State looming. Calipari relies on six players getting the lion’s chunk of minutes. Here’s the rundown…
Marquis Teague (6’2” freshman, 10 ppg, 4 apg): As the point guard on a team with good scorers I’d like to see Teague’s assist numbers come up—by comparison, North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall averages close to 10 a game. In fairness, Teague is a better scorer, so he doesn’t have to hit double-digit assists, but I think UK would run for efficiently if he was about around seven a night. Teague is a respectable shooter from the floor, though lacks range on the three-ball.
Darius Miller (6’8” senior, 10 ppg): What I want to know is how a guy 6’8” and presumably mismatched against most guards, can sneak in from the wings and get 5-6 rebounds a game? Miller was a non-factor against Kansas, Louisville and Indiana and only close to his average against North Carolina, so we have to wonder how he’ll fare against really good competition. And Florida and Vandy both have good backcourt play.
Doron Lamb (6’4” soph, 14 ppg): Lamb is the best three-point shooter on this team, hitting 48 percent from behind the arc. Picking up on what I was saying about Teague improving his assists, it would be nice to see situations of Teague taking a man off the dribble and kicking it to Lamb for the three. The sophomore has been there in big games, averaging 15 ppg in the four key non-conference tests.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (6’7” frosh, 13 ppg, 8 rbg): This kid’s a stud. Gilchrist not only hits the boards, but he’s stepped it up in the biggest games. He grabbed nine boards against both Kansas and Indiana. Against the trees of North Carolina, he pulled down 11. And he buried Louisville inside for 19 rebounds. That’s the kind of work that bails you out in the inevitable big game you have to win when the shots aren’t falling. Oh, and his scoring? In these same four games, Kidd-Gilchrist is averaging over 15 a game. He’s beating his season-long averages against the opponents who should theoretically be pulling those numbers down. I suppose that begs the question of where he is the other nights, but let’s not rain on the parade today.
Terrence Jones (6’9” sophomore, 13 ppg, 7 rbg): Jones has been a good foil for Kidd-Gilchrist, with stats mostly equivalent. Jones isn’t as dominant as his freshman counterpart against the nation’s elite, but nor has he been absent. Jones had good games against Kansas and UNC, while playing poorly against Indiana and Louisville. What way he swings will be a factor in these five key SEC games down the stretch.
Anthony Davis (6’10” freshman, 14 ppg, 10 rbg): Now this is the kind of work from your center that wins national championships. Davis is also a shotblocking threat, in addition to his low-post scoring and rebounding. He blocked seven shots against Kansas, and hit the boards against Carolina, Louisville and Indiana. The one thing he doesn’t have is Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability to raise his game against the best competition—or at least, we haven’t seen it based on the four best case studies we have. But on the flip side, he still gets right around his season averages, and he’s steady on the nights the national TV spotlight is absent.
That’s the core personnel that John Calipari will rely on to hold off the dogs in this SEC race and ultimately to win him his first national championship and the school’s first since 1998. I really like the way this team is put together. They’ve got the outside shooter in Lamb, they’ve got an outstanding front line and they’ve got a guy in Kidd-Gilchrist who can go crazy when faced with tests from the top teams. Teague’s improvement as a playmaker will be important down the stretch, but even here I like the odds of the freshman settling into the role as the season hits its crunch point.
There was a time when you couldn’t even consider picking a team with three freshmen and two sophomores in its top six to win a national championship. I’ve still got five weeks to decide if that’s what I want to do with Kentucky. What I do know right now is that nobody’s more complete. I think they will likely lose at least one of these five big SEC games coming up, but they’ll win the regular season title that eluded them a year ago at the hands of Florida. The changing of the guard starts tonight in Rupp.
The SEC gave the country a good Saturday of college basketball. Tennessee upset UConn and within conference play Kentucky survived Alabama 77-71, and Mississippi State won an overtime thriller over Vanderbilt, with all three games on national television. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a look at the race for the conference championship and how the contenders compare.
Kentucky leads the league with a 5-0 record and will almost surely ascend to #1 nationally after Syracuse’s loss at Notre Dame. Vanderbilt and Florida each have one conference loss, while Mississippi State’s win Saturday kept them in the mix at 3-2 in SEC games. Since the Bulldogs are ranked #15 in the country, and probably going to move up when the new polls come out, I’m going to include them in this discussion, something that’s not being accorded to other two-loss teams in Ole Miss and Arkansas. Why? I think only Mississippi State, Florida or Vandy have a puncher’s chance of stealing this league from the Wildcats this year and that’s what this article is aimed at. Here’s a breakdown of the SEC’s top four…
Kentucky (19-1 5-0): Only a last-second three-pointer at Indiana is keeping John Calipari’s team from undefeated status, but being a typically young Calipari outfit, there’s reason to think they can get better. Six players get most of the action, and three are freshman while two more are sophomores. And the one senior, guard Darius Miller is the least productive of the bunch.
Freshman Marquis Teague runs the show and I would like to see better play from him. He’s doing a decent job in distributing the ball, but he’s not a great shooter and I’d like to see his assists shoot up close to double-digits, along the lines of Kendall Marshall at North Carolina. That’s a high expectation to put on a freshman, but when you’re a Calipari recruit you’re probably only around for two years at most anyway. Doron Lamb is the sharpshooter in the backcourt, equally adept in hitting from in front of the arc or behind it. The frontcourt is led by 6’10” freshman Anthony Jones, averaging 14 points/10 rebounds per game right now, while fellow frosh Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and sophomore Terrence Jones each score in double digits and kick in some rebounding help. The frontline is already playing at national championship level, Lamb can make defenses pay for collapsing down, so all that’s left is for Teague to raise his game a little bit. One of the country’s highly touted recruits coming into the year, I think there’s every reason to think he can do that, and it’s why I believe this team is the best in the nation right now.
Vanderbilt (14-5, 4-1): Vandy opened the season with hopes of challenging Kentucky and being a legitimate Final Four threat. After a tough December they briefly fell off the radar, but they now seem to be settling back in. The Commodores can beat you outside with the three-ball and they go hard to the glass with a balanced frontcourt. That’s a nice combination to have working for you, and while they don’t have the raw talent of UK, they do have experience.
The backcourt is led by senior Brad Tinsley and junior John Jenkins, a duo in its third straight year of starting together. Both are solid shooters from the floor and good from downtown. Jenkins is the pure scorer of the two averaging 20 ppg. At forward Jeffrey Taylor averages a 17/6 line and can step out hit the three himself. Lance Goulborne and Festus Ezeli fill the roles well, providing modest offense and solid rebounding help. If Ezeli, at 6’11”, can start grabbing 11-12 rebounds a game, up from his current 7-8, Vandy can win the SEC, which means they could also be the nation’s best.
Florida (15-4, 3-1): Billy Donovan has an experienced backcourt and a rebuilt frontcourt, which perhaps explains why his team is very dependent on shooting the ball to win. In Florida’s three SEC wins they’ve shot better than 50 percent from the floor. The one time they didn’t, they lost to Tennessee. That’s a tough way to make a living if you’ve got designs on a championship, since eventually you have to survive games when the shots aren’t falling.
Florida’s guards are Kenny Boynton and Ervin Walker. Like Vandy’s backcourt, the Gator pair has been together for several years now. Walker is a pure point guard, who distributes very well and shoots well enough to make you respect his jumper. Boynton is a lights-out two-guard who averages 18 ppg. Freshman Bradley Beal has been inserted into what’s become a three-guard offense, and Beal has made his mark by hitting the boards, even though he’s only 6’3”. That’s a nice intangible for the Gators to have, but it also underscores why the post men of Patric Young and Erik Murphy need to develop. Young is the only pure rebounder on this team right now, as Murphy is a finesse big man who can step out and hit the outside shot. Overall, Florida looks like a fun team that can play spoiler, but it’s tough to see them competing for an SEC title when a 6’3” guard is your second-best rebounder.
Mississippi State (16-4, 3-2): The Bulldogs haven’t played great in SEC games, winning an ugly game against Alabama and losing to Arkansas. They rely on getting to the free throw line, which can be an iffy proposition in road arenas come late January and February. But senior guard Dee Bost is a solid leader who scores 16 ppg, and the front court has three quality contributors in Arnetti Moultrie, Rodney Hood and Renardo Sidney. Moultrie is a tough rebounder and good scorer, giving MSU a good inside-out combo, while hood and Sidney provide reliable support. If the Bulldogs want to stay in this race, they need sophomore Jalen Steele to step up and provide Bost some help in the backcourt.
The SEC’s been as down in basketball lately as they have been up in football, something that can be obscured by the presence of Kentucky, but not since Florida’s back-to-back national champions of 2006-07, has the league been deep and provided several quality teams in its conference title race. In other years, the current Florida and Mississippi State teams would have been live contenders. This year I’d see both of them a notch behind Vanderbilt and Kentucky, with the young and talented Wildcats living up to the press clippings of their recruitment, at least for the rest of the regular season.
For the coming week, the games to keep an eye on are Vandy’s trip to Tennessee tomorrow night. The Vols are 9-10, but with the recent wins over Florida and UConn, we have to think this young team may be coming on. And on Saturday it’s Mississippi State going to Florida. Feburary is the real sweeps month, when Kentucky plays Vanderbilt twice, along with Florida and Mississippi State.