2009-10 SEC Basketball Previews: Kentucky

Kurt Wirth@Kurt_WirthCorrespondent IOctober 15, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 26:  Head Coach John Calipari of the Memphis Tigers adjusts his team against the Missouri Tigers in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the University of Phoenix Stadium on March 26, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Bandwagon [band-wag-uhn]—Noun: A cause or movement that, by its mass appeal or strength, readily attracts many followers. (www.dictionary.com)

What bigger fanbase is there in college basketball? Certainly none more rabid or anxious for success than Kentucky.

When a large mass of people begin to buy into something (a belief, a political party, Kentucky basketball, etc.), the buzz spreads. Who better to create that buzz than God himself (for practical purposes, the previous can be assumed to be John Calipari)?

Granted, Calipari has numbers. He's 403-137 (.746) as a head coach, including wildly successful stints at UMass—five straight conference titles, five straight conference tournament titles, five straight NCAA appearances, one Elite Eight appearance, and one Final Four appearance—and Memphis—four straight conference titles, four straight conference tournament titles, six NCAA appearances, two Elite Eight appearances, and one National Championship Runner-up.

Easy to see, then, why the True Blue are in a frenzy over their new head coach.

This is a different level of coaching prestige. Billy Gillispie came into Kentucky as one of the hottest mid-major coaches, yes, but Calipari's achievements make Gillispie look like the slow kid from the house next door that always won a ribbon no matter how many times he ran the bases the wrong way.

Despite being the cynic I am regarding this year's Kentucky team, I admit that Calipari is a very talented program leader and is a massive step up from the now-alcoholic Gillispie.

Expectations are undeniably at a level that even the majestic Wildcats haven't seen in some time.

Kentucky is ranked second in many national top-25 publications I've viewed and in the top five in nearly all of them. The Wildcats are fully expected to challenge for a national title with the help of the [insert NBA Hall-of-Famer here] protege freshman John Wall.

In fact, it seems as if anything short of a Final Four would be a severe disappointment for most Kentucky fans approaching 2009-10.

My, how memories are short and rationale is scarce.

Unless I've suffered an offseason stroke, this is the same backbone of experience that missed the NCAA Tournament in 2009, a feat that hadn't been achieved since before some of their players had been born. Despite the undeniable talent of Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks, the team simply had no chemistry and relied on Meeks for more than 40 percent of its scoring.

Well, guess what? That 40-plus percent is gone. Meeks opted to stay in the NBA draft, leaving Patterson as the only player to average more than eight points last season.

The amount of talent added in Meeks' place is understood. Calipari's first recruiting class in Lexington is mathematically one of the best the game has ever seen. The stars fell in Lexington this offseason.

While the freshmen will, in my opinion, vault Kentucky from a non-NCAA team to a Sweet 16-type team, freshmen simply don't win championships. A freshman, perhaps even two, being relied upon to help carry a team can be doable (Calipari and Derrick Rose comes to mind), but not a whole roster full of freshmen.

That's not my only reasoning here, Kentucky fans. Stop writing the hate mail you've undoubtedly begun and hear my second point.

Truly great teams require a healthy dose of experience, talent, depth, and balance. Experience I've discussed, talent will be ample, and depth should be okay. Let's break down Kentucky's balance.

Five freshmen in the entire conference hit more than 36 percent of their three-pointers last season. Most, if not all, of these came in as shooters. With the loss of Meeks, Kentucky does not have a single returning player that hit over a third of his three-pointers.

Let me re-emphasize that: Kentucky does not have a single returning player that hit over a third of his three-pointers.

Thus, it would seem relatively important for this all-star incoming freshman class to have some shooters. This is common logic. Let's break down that recruiting class now.

John Wall
(No. 1 Overall - No. 1 PG - five stars - 6'4" - 175 lbs.)

Wall is everyone's (yes, everyone) preseason favorite for National Freshman of the Year. He's also garnered many picks as preseason favorite for National Player of the Year. Yes, it happens, but no, it doesn't happen often.

I've never been a fan of all-league or non-freshman-related national honors for incoming freshmen, but that's a different article for a different day.

Wall is very, very quick, has a great layup touch, and is particularly talented at taking contact in the lane. He's also has an excellent knowledge of the game and superior passing skills.

His weaknesses (yes, he does have them) all involve shooting. His accuracy is subpar, especially for someone with his expectations, from mid-range and flat-out suspect from behind the arc. This will almost certainly become more so against collegiate-level players.

Wall will start—shock, I know—at the point and should obviously challenge for every freshman award there is both in the SEC and in the nation.

DeMarcus Cousins
(No. 10 overall - No. 2 C - five stars - 6'9" - 245 lbs.)

Cousins is an aggressive, physical athlete with an excellent work ethic. Think Patrick Patterson with more range. Cousins is pure potency offensively either on the block or face-up and will almost certainly start alongside Patterson.

Defensively, Cousins needs work—like most freshmen—and his range is limited to about 10 to 12 feet. As it stands, Cousins is not a perimeter shooter in the college game.

Daniel Orton
(No. 18 overall - No. 4 C - five stars - 6'9" - 260 lbs.)

Think of Orton as a mirror image of Cousins—at least in some ways.

Like Cousins, Orton is big, physical, and aggressive. Unlike him, he favors defense instead of offense.

Orton is an instinctual shot blocker and has a tremendous presence under the basket defensively. His offense needs a lot of refining, however, as his mechanics lead him to be block-prone himself.

That lack of basic offensive mechanics also leads to a lack of free throw opportunities.

Orton is tremendously talented and has a great deal of potential, but he needs some work to become an all-around threat.

Eric Bledsoe
(No. 30 overall - No. 6 PG - four stars - 6'0" - 185 lbs.)

Bledsoe will quickly become one of the purest point guards in the conference. His leadership and ability to see the open man will be nearly unrivaled in the SEC, and he should share a decent amount of time with Wall because of it.

However, Bledsoe is a weak scorer. He's not particularly aggressive with the ball, and his stroke needs work. His perimeter shot is particularly questionable.

Jon Hood
(No. 48 overall - No. 10 SF - four stars - 6'6" - 180 lbs.)

A weak defender, Hood is a unique player overall due to his serious work ethic and passion for the game.

Hood is a classic student of the game and plays as such. He reads the floor masterfully, though he has a tendency to turn the ball over, and has an excellent mid-range jump shot, though he will find it tough to out-step his defender in college because of his lack of dynamic speed.

His perimeter shot is average, perhaps slightly above average, and that should translate better to college than most due to his versatile shot-selection portfolio.

Hood is a solid all-around backup, but he will need to utilize that basketball knowledge to find open opportunities because of his lack of speed.

Darnell Dodson
(JC - SF - three stars - 6'8" - 180 lbs.)

Dodson, a junior-college transfer, comes in as the sophomore of the class known for his shooting. Dodson is a talented scorer who can rebound very well for his thin size.

Dodson's length helps his long-range shot as well, and he should be able to provide the Wildcats some amount of backcourt presence.

See a trend here? The Wildcats are looking to have one player, just one, who may actually provide any consistent long-term threat from deep. That is a junior college transfer, no less, whose game may or may not translate efficiently into the Southeastern Conference.

With those transitions, there are success stories and there are failure stories.

Hood has the potential to complement Dodson if the chips fall correctly and he is able to continue to improve his long-range shot against quality competition.

While it's easy to argue that I'm simply hating or being pessimistic, I'm simply not.

I'm not saying Kentucky won't be a very good team, and I'm not saying their offense is going to fall apart. What I am saying is that an inordinate amount of their offense will run through the frontcourt due to a lack of backcourt depth, and in return the Wildcats will struggle with teams with talented low-block defenders.

With this glaring weakness, Kentucky simply isn't well-rounded enough to win a national championship and is not deserving of a top-10 spot at the moment.

Here's analysis of Kentucky's current roster.

Patrick Patterson: 6'9", 235-lb. Junior PF
(17.9ppg - 9.3rpg - 60.3% FG - 1.02 A/TO)

Patterson is clearly the more rational and sane option on Kentucky's roster in the 2009-10 National Player of the Year discussion.

There's simply nothing Patterson doesn't do nearly perfectly. He is the second-most dominating offensive big man in the conference (to Vanderbilt's A.J. Ogilvy, based on efficiency numbers), his rebounding speaks for itself, and his defense is also second-best in the conference (to Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado).

What's most surprising about Patterson is not the standard scoring/defending numbers. It's what else he does well.

He registered more assists than turnovers last year, which is nothing short of remarkable for a big man. In fact, only five forwards return with better ratios.

He also blocked 70 shots, third-best in the conference.

Patterson is, to me, the All-American superman of college basketball. Think Tim Tebow of college hoops.

Patterson will, once again, garner First-Team All-SEC honors and likely jump to the draft after this season.

Perry Stevenson: 6'9", 207-lb. Senior PF
(7.8ppg - 5.9rpg - 67 blk - 54.0% FG)

Stevenson is one of the more underrated low-block defenders in the conference, as his blocking efficiency ranks in the conference's top 10.

His range is fairly impressive, stretching out to the three-point line at times, though he's not a huge offensive threat. His rebounding, however, is excellent. Stevenson will likely play backup to an incoming freshman but will be a solid player in his own right.

Ramon Harris: 6'7", 218-lb. Senior SF
(5.5ppg - 3.8rpg - 53.1% FG - 28 starts)

Harris believes he has deep range. His 24 percent three-point percentage from last year suggests otherwise.

Harris is a typical backup, with questionable offensive numbers but with decent rebounding and defensive numbers. He is also above average in the turnover department.

Darius Miller: 6'7", 223-lb. Sophomore SF
(5.3ppg - 3.1rpg - 80.4% FT - 1.13 A/TO)

Miller has more upside than most backups, as his efficiency and effort are above average in nearly every department.

His performance at the stripe alone means he will be an asset on the floor, though his in-game shot selection could be better. He's smart with the ball and a very good defender. Should see a decent amount of playing time.

DeAndre Liggins: 6'6", 202-lb. Sophomore PG
(4.2ppg - 2.4rpg - 1.23 A/TO - 24 stl)

Liggins is the perfect example of high incoming freshman expectations that don't see fruition. Liggins was a consensus top-25 and four-star player out of high school, but he struggled mightily on offense (as his 23.5 percent effort on 51 three-point attempts shows) and ultimately saw little floor time.

His skills for his position are solid, as is his knowledge of the game. But his offensive ability, along with his assertiveness, will need to increase before he can challenge for a starting spot.

Josh Harrellson: 6'10", 265-lb. Junior PF
(3.6ppg - 2.5rpg - 20 blk - 72.2% FT)

Harrellson caused waves in last season's exhibition debut, but those waves have turned to ripples and faded out since.

His game simply isn't, and never will be, refined enough to make him more than another big body on the floor to provide others with downtime. His shooting touch isn't too bad, but his ball-handling makes him a liability every time he sees the floor.

Kentucky is, without a doubt, both very deep and very talented in the frontcourt. In fact, it could be the best in the nation, much less the league.

The backcourt, however, will be key.

Freshmen aren't known for their consistency, and Dodson/Hood will absolutely have to be better than 36-percent shooters. At least two other Wildcat players will need to become relative threats from deep as well if Kentucky has any hope of matching the incredible expectations placed upon them.

Schedule Breakdown

Cupcakes: Morehead State (H), Miami-OH (H), Sam Houston State (H), Rider (H), UNC-Asheville (N), Indiana (A), Austin Peay (H), Drexel (H), Long Beach State (H), Hartford (H)

Real Games: Cleveland State (N)

Marquee Matchups: North Carolina (H), Connecticut (N), Louisville (H)

Opposite Division: Auburn (A), Arkansas (H), Ole Miss (H), LSU (A), Alabama (H), Mississippi State (A)

Predicted Result: 21-9, 10-6; NCAA Tournament

Analysis: Kentucky's schedule is very favorable, with several mid-majors at home that should build the RPI. Having UNC and Louisville at home are both positives.

What's Returning

Points: 56.95 percent (11th—SEC Avg: 73.81 percent)

Rebounds: 75.76 percent (6th—SEC Avg: 75.80 percent)

I fully realize Kentucky fans will be ripping this to shreds, and only because I refuse to agree to an opinion simply because others have it.

Logic and evidence suggest that Kentucky will be competitive and probably a top-25 team, but not the world-beaters that the Kentucky faithful insist they will be.

Calipari is well on his way (further than he should be in his first year) to building a juggernaut in Lexington, but this isn't the year for the Wildcats to compete for a national title.


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