5 stats/keys to success to keep an eye on:
1. Perimeter defense- Kentucky had interior defense last season when Nerlens Noel was healthy, but the Wildcats never found the guy who could contain the other team’s best perimeter shooter or guard. Not only did hot shooting guards plague the Cats last season, but quick/penetrating point guards often burned Kentucky as well. Kentucky may not find a DeAndre Liggins or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist… but guys like Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague became formidable perimeter defenders though during their time at Kentucky.
2. Shot blocking- We have become accustomed to great shot blocking over the past two years with Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. Marcus Lee is not necessarily either of those guys– at least not yet. Cauley-Stein showed flashes of shot-blocking brilliance late last season. The shot blocking will likely be an effort by committee rather than simply one player dominating the statistic.
3. Two 3-point shooting threats- We know that Kentucky has Kyle Wiltjer. Although his shot wasn’t consistently falling last season, he is likely to see a lot more open looks with the personnel Kentucky will have on the court. We’ve also seen Wiltjer’s defense though. Kentucky would benefit greatly from having another three point shooting threat in addition to Wiltjer in times when his defense is a major liability for the team.
4. Fouls- Kentucky will have no shortage of interior defenders between Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Julius Randle. Not only does that list include a list of very good players, but that’s also 25 fouls per game to spare. Not that Kentucky would (or would want to) give up 25 fouls, but foul trouble shouldn’t ever be an issue with the big men on this team. Calipari has already mentioned that he wants to press more with this team. Kentucky will be able to gamble more on all areas of the court with the depth this team will have.
5. Who will be the back-up point guard? I honestly think this is one to keep an eye on. Jarrod Polson gained a lot of experience last season and also had a lot of success. Dominique Hawkins is more athletic, but lacks the experience Polson has.
4 potential losses:
1. vs. Michigan State –Kentucky will have only had 2 true games and 2 exhibition games under its belt before facing an experienced, talented and well-coached Michigan State team. Kentucky will be the kind of team you want to catch early next season if you hope to have a chance. Michigan State will definitely have a chance.
2. @ North Carolina– The Tar Heels are 1 Andrew Wiggins short of having the talent to go toe-to-toe with Kentucky like they did 2 years ago when Anthony Davis became the late-game hero. The home court advantage for North Carolina might not be enough to even the playing field, but it’s enough to make it awfully close.
3. vs. Louisville– Kentucky was an NIT team (barely) last season and still almost beat Louisville ON the road. Louisville essentially has the same team coming back, minus a few key pieces. Kentucky will have a totally revamped and more talented roster. Stranger things have happened though in the UK/UL series than the favorite losing. You have to give the defending national champions a chance, especially in a game played in December.
4. @ Florida– Kentucky and Florida will be the class of the SEC and it’s not even really close. Both match-ups next season should be the premier SEC games of the entire season. Florida returns a great deal of talent while also bringing in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. I expect at least 1 of the 2 games between these two teams to be a 5-point or less game.
3 things that shouldn’t surprise you at the end of the season:
1. Orlando Antigua finding his first head coaching job– It’s only a matter of time. I feel like we’ve been saying that ever since Calipari and Antigua arrived in Lexington. Antigua has passed up on a number of potential opportunities. His name will continue to be thrown into the coaching carousel mix year in and year out. If Kentucky wins its second national title in three years, coming off of yet another #1 ranked recruiting class aided STRONGLY by the recruiting of Antigua– what better timing could he have to make the move? Also, don’t be surprised to see him back in Lexington again someday…
2. At least 5 players averaging double figures. No one averaging more than 14 ppg. — Kentucky will have so many weapons that it’s hard to pinpoint who the leading scorer on this team will be. Any of the top 7 guys when you look at the roster could average double figures, easily. My guess is at least 5 of them do. Much like the national championship team of two years ago, I can’t see any one particular player scoring the lion’s share of the points either. Balance, balance, balance. Teams will have to pick their poison on any given night.
3. Louisville fans who told us “not to live in the past” for years about our national championships… living in the past and still talking about 2013.
2 sleeper games to keep an eye on:
1. Boise State
I don’t expect that both of these games will be close, but I do predict that 1 of them will be closer than you would expect (at least until late in the 2nd half). Kentucky will likely pull away in the end, on its home court, but both of these NCAA tournament-experienced/veteran teams could give Kentucky a little trouble at first.
1 player leaving at the end of the season who you did not expect to be a one-and-done
We’ve seen this happen before with guys like Eric Bledsoe and Marquis Teague. If Kentucky wins the national championship, you can almost be sure that at least one player who had a better season than expected will make the jump. Calipari tends to have at least 1 player every season who really over-achieves. I’m not saying it will for sure happen, but keep an eye on a guy like Dakari Johnson who has developed rapidly in the last 6 months alone.
As the old saying goes As someone has probably at least said once, “you can’t teach being a 7-footer.”