If last year's version of Kentucky featured the very worst pieces for John Calipari's system, the first two games of the season suggest this one features the best.
Calipari has the ideal point guard—the most identifiable problem with last year's team was the point guard just didn't fit—and Andrew Harrison has a better understanding for running a team than your typical freshman.
And Calipari has an alpha dog in Julius Randle, who when the going gets tough, likely won't back down from anyone. He's also a perfect fit in the dribble-drive offense.
It's difficult to temper expectations in November and take a wait-and-see approach, because we've been waiting to see this "greatest recruiting class ever" all offseason. Through two games—an 89-57 win over UNC Asheville on Friday and a 93-63 win over Northern Kentucky on Sunday—we finally can start forming some impressions of what the Wildcats can be.
Kentucky matches up with No. 2 Michigan State in Tuesday's Champions Classic, and whether it's fair or not, opinions will be made immediately following that game.
That might not sit well with Calipari, who had this to say on that last week:
The issue becomes playing teams this early is not fair for my team. It may be fair for everybody else, but it's not fair for my team. And our program is not traditional, so we'll have four or five kids come back, but five or six will leave. So this is not traditional.
...It is a program and they're connected. It's just not traditional in a sense that everybody stays four years. So it's not fair when we walk in and everybody's more experienced than us, and it's your first, second or third game out of the gate. We're at a big disadvantage.
Good try, Cal. I'm here to tell you that, sure, the Wildcats have improvements to make, but they're further along than the coach is letting on because of the readiness of his top three prospects.
Where Were These Twins Last Year?
After I saw the box score of Friday's game, I went into watching the replay this weekend anticipating that I would come away most impressed with Randle. And he was great, and I'll get to that, but the maturity of the Harrisons is what left me most impressed.
The twins are not blindingly fast like Calipari's best guards, Derrick Rose and John Wall, but their ability to handle and their understanding of how to attack defenders makes them nearly as effective.
What you'll see early on this season is a lot of guards trying to relentlessly attack the rim and hope they're rewarded under the new rules. It's not a bad approach. But what stood out with the Harrisons in the first two games is how they attacked under control.
Andrew Harrison in particular seems to know when he gets in the lane whether to go all the way to the rim or stop and dish.
Calipari's dribble-drive motion is meant to put help defenders on an island. Notice in the clip below how after Andrew gets past the perimeter defender, he realizes help is coming up the lane and wisely dishes it off to Marcus Lee for the easy bucket.
Aaron has always been more of a scorer and that is already showing up in two games. He too can pass and has proven to be a capable backup point guard early on, but he's usually looking to score.
The ability of either player to bring it up has led to more transition opportunities. Both look to drive before the defense gets set, as Aaron does in the clip below.
The Harrisons' scoring numbers were solid but not spectacular this weekend: 23.5 points per game combined. Their primary contribution was making the offense work.
It didn't take long for the 'Cats to look comfortable on the offensive end and that was because of the Harrisons, who have combined for just four turnovers in two games.
Randle Wants to Star
Those who decided against including Randle as a preseason All-American gave the sound explanation that there's only so many shots to go around for the Wildcats.
It's a go-to argument for a team so stacked. It's just not looking like a very good one after two games. Randle seems to be finding a way to get his numbers, averaging 22.5 points and 15 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per game.
A year ago Calipari didn't have true go-to scorer with the skill set or the mindset to dominate. And it wasn't just the point guard he lacked to effectively run his dribble-drive offense.
The offense is designed to space the floor and let drivers attack, and Calipari had to run more ball screens last year because he didn't have the drivers to get by their men without any help. The Harrisons, James Young and Randle have changed that.
Randle has been most effective thus far when he gets the ball at the top and Kentucky's movement and spacing give him a window to attack.
This play continues with Andrew Harrison running to the left corner and that action creates a driving lane to the right for Randle. The defense tries to sag, but it's hard to stop Randle when he gets a moving start.
Kentucky has also looked to get Randle the ball in the post, and he's been aggressive in his post-ups.
The only struggle he had in the first two games was finishing on his first shot on his first three opportunities in the post on Friday, but twice he got his own miss and was fouled. He has already shot 27 free throws, making 21.
Randle has generated so many opportunities for himself because he doesn't just wait for a play to be called for him. Moving without the ball can be the biggest adjustment for some freshmen. Post guys are so big in high school that they don't have to post hard. They can simply wait for their teammates to lob them the ball.
Randle hunts for his opportunities and ducks in hard in the post. Watch how aggressively he runs to the block after making the initial pass to start the offense.
Randle has also created scoring opportunities for himself with his aggressive work on the boards. Through two games, he has 11 offensive boards, which works out to an offensive rebounding percentage of 26 percent. There's no chance he keeps that pace, but to give you an idea of how impressive that number is, the top offensive rebounder in the country last season had an offensive rebounding percentage of 18.5, according to KenPom.com (subscription needed).
All of this, obviously, was against two teams that do not have the athletes or strength that Kentucky will face on Tuesday against Michigan State.
Calipari was really smart to schedule two games before the Michigan State game so he could get his young guys an extra game to get prepared. As he said, it's tough to be ready for that kind of challenge this soon with so much youth.
But the way Randle and the Harrisons got things done over the weekend makes me believe they're more ready for the show than Calipari will let on.
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