The defending NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats are favored by many to repeat, and why not? With another tremendous recruiting class and arguably the best head coach in the game, UK is always going to be in it and should be one of the SEC’s best yet again. But will they be repeat worthy? Five reasons why they may not be celebrating while “One Shining Moment” plays in the background
Kyle Wiltjer is the lone returning contributing Wildcat.
Last season, UK featured three of the best defenders in the nation in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrance Jones and Anthony Davis. Davis was a once-in-a-decade type of defender who had the ability to guard anywhere on the floor and changed the game. At nearly five blocks a game and nearly one and half steals, Davis had length (to the tune of a seven-foot, six-inch wingspan), quickness and erased many perimeter defensive mistakes. Kidd-Glichrist played as hard as anyone in the country and took pride in his perimeter defense. He used his seven-foot wingspan to get in the passing lanes as MKG added nearly two steals per game. Not to be discounted was Terrance Jones who averaged nearly two blocks a game and has a seven-foot, two-inch wingspan. The net results were over one out of every five opponent shots were blocked and opponents shot less than 40 percent from the field both best in the Nation.
Last season, the ‘Cats featured six prolific scorers who were all around double digits in scoring. The presence of Davis caused a lot of pressure on opponents defensive strategies. Davis, while the most talented player, was unselfish as he averaged the fifth most shots on the team; it is extremely rare that the alpha player will subdue his ego to the betterment of the team. The results were a national title and the second most efficient offense in the country. The ‘Cats shot over 52 percent from the field and were in the top 25 in turnover percentage and offensive rebounding percentage.
Doron Lamb, Terrance Jones and Darius Miller all were elite level college players who returned to school and they figured out early last season that the talented freshmen were to be the focal point of the team and they needed to be secondary yet still important parts. It became about the team and not their draft status and the trio were fine with the freshmen, Davis, Teague and Kidd-Gilchrist receiving the attention and the accolades. That’s extremely rare. Many teams self-destruct early with ego clashes, draft driven stat pursuits and the disease of “me”.
At programs like Kentucky, it is national championship or bust. To bring the crown home to Kentucky after a nearly 15-year absence was long over due for “Big Blue Nation.” People forget how hard it is to win six games in a row in the tournament as the expectations of this season will be of that of last season and it’s not fair. Kyle Wiltjer is the lone contributor from last season’s team making this a very young team. Ryan Harrow steps in at point guard trying to follow the line of Derek Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight, Tyreke Evans and Marquis Teague, all NBA first round draft picks after playing one season for John Calipari. Harrow, a transfer from NC State, struggled at times at NC State starting 10 of 29 games as a freshman. He doesn’t have the physicality of the point guards before him but he will keep the defense honest with his ability to score. The talented trio of Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin will show flashes of NBA talent but the ability to do so with consistency is not a realistic expectation out of freshmen. Transfer Julius Mays and junior returnee Jon Hood both pack offensive firepower. There are great ingredients of a top-level team here however, putting the formula together and coming out with a national title is not realistic.
The SEC is Better
Last year, there were two teams for Kentucky to fear in the conference, Vanderbilt and Florida. The rest of the conference was quite honestly inconsistent. This season the SEC is better, a lot better.
Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee all have tournament aspirations and the addition of national power Missouri through conference realignment (with four impact transfers to complement one of the best point guards in the country in Phil Pressey) and a now-healthy Laurence Bowers make it a team to be reckoned with.
Arkansas has the league’s best talent in BJ Young and a healthy Marshawn Powell.
Georgia has future NBA lottery pick, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope amongst its four starters returning.
Alabama and Ole Miss each return four starters.
Leigh Klein is the owner of Five-Star Basketball Camps and formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island. He will be providing insight for college basketball and recruiting to 247Sports.com. Follow Five-Star Basketball’s Leigh Klein on Twitter @leighalanklein and let him know what you think about the column!