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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Kentucky

To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: Kentucky, where John Calipari has a bona fide national title contender.

I wonder if the NCAA would let us wear the same number.
I wonder if the NCAA would let us wear the same number.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season starts today!  We've been counting down the teams to get everyone up to speed on the state of basketball in the SEC, and today we've reached the 14th and final preview in the series.  So this team is (surprise) the pick to win the conference.

Kentucky Wildcats 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

You know this program.  After two subpar (by Kentucky's standards, anyway) seasons under Billy Gillispie, John Calipari was hired away from Memphis, where he had taken the Tigers within a few seconds of a national championship (which would have been vacated after the fact, but still.)  Before that, he had taken UMass to the Final Four.  But those were Memphis and UMass.  How would he do coaching at a traditional powerhouse?

The answer: pretty well.  In five seasons on the Bluegrass, Calipari has won a national championship (or only one national championship, as some members of Big Blue Nation call it) and also taken the Wildcats to two more Final Fours and an Elite Eight.  He also missed the tournament entirely in 2013, but that's only a minor complaint.

But you might be surprised to learn that Kentucky's most recent SEC championship came in 2012.  Calipari likes to say that talent trumps experience, but as his battles with Billy Donovan's Florida team the last couple of years have confirmed, experienced talent trumps inexperienced talent.  While Calipari has been able to assemble an annual collection of McDonald's All-Americans, in his first few years in Lexington most of them only stayed a year or two before heading off to the NBA.  That was a disadvantage when his teams ran up against Florida squads that had almost as much talent, but on which those players were juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores.

That won't be an issue this year, though.  Over the past couple of years, whether by design or by accident, Calipari's team has begun to resemble a more traditional college program, with players actually staying in Lexington for two or three years.  There aren't any seniors on scholarship, but in an unusual twist, Calipari has two formerly highly-touted recruits who are actually in their third year at Kentucky, as well as six sophomores.  It's an impressive collection of talent, and one that is almost universally picked as the favorite in the SEC.

Projected Depth Chart

Losses
  • Julius Randle (30.8 mpg, 15.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg); NBA draft
  • James Young (32.4 mpg, 14.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg); NBA draft
  • Jon Hood (13 games, 3.6 mpg, 1.2 ppg, 0.3 rpg); graduated
  • Jarrod Polson (8.5 mpg, 1.0 ppg, 0.6 rpg); graduated
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Starting Five
  • PG Andrew Harrison (6'6", 210 Soph., Richmond, TX)
  • SG Aaron Harrison (6'6", 212 Soph., Richmond, TX)
  • SF Alex Poythress (6'8", 238 Jr., Clarksville, TN)
  • PF Karl-Anthony Towns (6'11", 250 Fr., Piscataway, NJ); #2 C and #5 overall
  • C Willie Cauley-Stein (7'0", 240 Jr., Olathe, KS)
Top Reserves
  • F Marcus Lee (6'9", 220 Soph., Antioch, CA)
  • G Devin Booker (6'6", 206 Fr., Grand Rapids, MI); #8 SG and #22 overall
  • G Tyler Ulis (5'9", 155 Fr., Lima, OH); #3 PG and #19 overall
  • F Trey Lyles (6'10", 235 Fr., Indianapolis, IN); #2 PF and #10 overall
  • C Dakari Johnson (7'0", 255 Soph., Brooklyn, NY)
Bench
  • G Dominique Hawkins (6'0", 195 Soph., Richmond, KY)
  • F Derek Willis (6'9", 216 Soph., Mt. Washington, KY)

Kentucky's depth is such that Calipari plans to implement a "platoon" system, with basically two units of five players, though Calipari himself says it won't be a strict platoon system as players may earn more or less playing time depending on performance.  The top reserves listed above are basically the second platoon, and looking at that group, it's better than a lot of team's starters.

If you had two words to describe Kentucky, those words would be "big" and "athletic."  The first unit, with Alex Poythress, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Willie Cauley-Stein goes 6'8", 6'11", and 7'0" across the front line.  The second unit is even bigger, with 6'10" Trey Lyles, 6'9" Marcus Lee, and 7'0" Dakari Johnson.  If there's a disadvantage, it's that both units will feature either Poythress or Lyles playing out of position at the three, but this is really a minor flaw (and in Poythress's case, it's probably for the best since his NBA future is more likely to be at the three than the four.)  And Kentucky's size may actually be understated, if anything.  Towns was listed at 7'1" coming out of high school, and previous Kentucky stars like Nerlens Noel and James Young have proven to actually be taller at the NBA combine than they were listed on Kentucky's roster.  Kentucky isn't fudging its players' heights like a lot of programs do; when you see 7'0" on the roster, he's probably actually 7'0" and not 6'10".

At the very least, all that size means that opponents are going to have a lot of difficulty scoring in the paint.  What's more, since almost all of the bigs are athletic, Kentucky doesn't have quite as much to worry about in transition as a team with a plodding big man would.  What's more, Towns, Lyles, Johnson, and Poythress also have a considerably offensive game in the post.  Cauley-Stein is much more of a defensive presence, averaging 2.9 blocks per game while only averaging 6.8 ppg and shooting a woeful 48.2 percent at the foul line.

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The guard play, while still good, isn't quite as good as the post game.  In the Harrison twins, Kentucky effectively has two 6'6" combo guards; I spent most of last year trying to remember which of them was the point guard and which was the shooting guard because their games are fairly similar to one another.  Andrew averaged considerably more assists than his brother (4.0 to 1.9), but both shoot the three reasonably well and can also get to the basket.  The backups exhibit more of the traditional roles: Tyler Ulis, at 5'9", is a more traditional point guard, while Devin Booker -- son of former Missouri star Melvin Booker -- is more of a pure shooter.

While overall, this is an impressive collection of talent, there are some question marks.  As usual for a Calipari team, free throw shooting could be a problem -- last year's team shot 68.2 percent at the line, and two of the better foul shooters (Randle and Young) are gone.  The Harrison twins are pretty good at the line, but with all the new bigs on the roster Kentucky may or may not have any reliable free throw shooters inside, and overmatched teams may resort to the Hack-a-Shaq strategy and force Kentucky to beat them at the line (I'm looking at you, Frank Martin and Mark Fox.)  But in any case, this is far and away the most talented roster in the SEC, and possibly in the country.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/14 Grand Canyon
11/16 Buffalo
11/18 vs. Kansas (Indianapolis)
11/21 Boston University
11/23 Montana State
11/25 Texas-Arlington
11/30 Providence
12/5 Texas
12/7 Eastern Kentucky
12/10 Columbia
12/13 North Carolina
12/20 vs. UCLA (Chicago)
12/27 at Louisville
Conference Home-and-Home

Missouri, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida

Conference Home

Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Arkansas

Conference Road

Texas A&M, LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi State

The non-conference schedule does have a few marquee dates, though strangely the trip to Louisville after Christmas is the only true road game on the schedule.  There are neutral-court games against Kansas and UCLA in, respectively, Indianapolis and Chicago, while Providence, Texas, and North Carolina come to Rupp.  There's a decent chance that Kentucky can get through the non-conference schedule unscathed.

If that happens, the perennial 40-0 talk will begin in earnest, because other than maybe a mid-February visit to Florida, Kentucky should be favored in almost all of its SEC games.  Avoiding a trip to Fayetteville ups the odds a bit that the Wildcats will get through the SEC schedule at 18-0.  Other than that, though, it's a question of whether the Wildcats have an off game at some point: a February 10 trip to LSU (three days after the game at Florida) might represent the strongest possibility of an upset.

Outlook

There really isn't a whole lot to say about this team that hasn't been said already.  As usual, John Calipari has a highly talented roster, and also one that's somewhat experienced unlike in 2013 and 2014.

The obvious answer to the question of what could trip up the Wildcats is chemistry.  While the platoon system is a novel idea, here's to guessing that most of the McDonald's All-Americans and NBA prospects on the roster did not sign up to play 20 minutes a night.  Calipari, of all coaches, is probably best equipped to handle the problem of too much talent, but you simply never know when a player or two is going to decide that his draft status is more important than the team.

But still -- when that's the best you can come up with, you know you have a very good team on your hands.  There are no glaring weaknesses on the team, and the only answers I can come up with for why Kentucky might not win the SEC or a national championship are "chemistry" and "free throw shooting."  Both of those seem pretty weak, and when those are the only answers you can come up with, you know you have your pick for first place.