For a lot of those reading this blog, the name Andrew Dice Clay means absolutely nothing. Even though at his peak, he hit a level of stardom that very few comedians in history have ever attained, now he is best known (if known at all) for some joke that will begin with “Hickory Dickory Dock” and then “AYYYYYY!” When Dice was at the height of his popularity, I was too young to know him and in recent years I have kept up with him only through his appearances on Howard Stern. He usually plays his arrogant persona, can be fairly entertaining (in part because Stern and his crew constantly poke fun at him) and I always try and tune in when he will be on the show. Today however I saw a new Dice, as I watched the Woody Allen movie “Blue Jasmine”. I will be up front here. In general I find Woody Allen to be the most overrated director/writer in movies. That isn’t a popular position for movie snobs to take, but with a couple of exceptions (Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris, etc) I find most of Allen’s movies tough to get through and amazingly self-indulgent. But because “Blue Jasmine” had Dice, Louis CK and Alec Baldwin (three folks I really like), I went and checked it out. I think it might be Allen’s best movie in 20 years. Cate Blanchett will get nominated for awards as the lead role, but the entire ensemble is solid and the movie was extremely well done. If it is still on in your area (unlikely) check it out, and if not, wait until it come On Demand. Some good films are coming (“Prisoners”, “Rush”, “Gravity”, etc) but this was a solid choice for a Sunday afternoon, even though we didn’t have nary a one “Jack and Jill Went up the hill” setup.
With basketball season right upon us, I thought it might be worthwhile (especially with a football bye week) to look at the buzz surrounding each of the UK Basketball Players. What follows is a collection of thoughts based in part on my observations and (in larger part) on talking with those around the program/those who have been in Lexington to see workouts. While the major work is still to be done and we will almost certainly see massive changes in all the players’ games before the season, here is a good primer as of right now:
What can be said about Randle that hasn’t already? He is the most uniformly praised player at this stage in my time covering the team. What I have viewed has been unbelievably impressive and his ability to get to the basket and finish is as good as I have ever seen in college. Don’t believe me? Ask the experts. Jay Bilas said he is as good off one dribble as any player in his time as an analyst. Seth Greenberg says he has the best physical gifts since Lebron. Julius Randle is going to be a star, both at UK and at the next level. His physicality and penetration ability are unmatched and he can score on anyone. If he adds consistency on his jumper, he is unguardable and UK is unstoppable.
I will do what we rarely see and actually split the Harrison Twins up for this endeavor. Andrew Harrison will be the best Point Guard in America (along with Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart). My best way to describe him is to say he is a slightly less athletic John Wall, who can shoot just a notch below Brandon Knight while also having excellent passing skills. In short, he is the perfect combination for a John Calipari point guard. He is able to get to the basket on almost anyone and will be a great defender due to his size. One person who has seen him play often in Lexington told me, “if Julius wasn’t on the team, he would contend for First Team All American. As it is, I still think he finishes on the Second Team.” High praise indeed.
The surprise of the team for me has been Aaron Harrison. Always thought of us as the second Harrison, I am not firmly convinced Aaron will not only start, but have a huge role on this team. He is a great shooter (maybe the best on the team) and has the ability to get to the basket, while also being a top-level defender. With the amount of attention Randle/Andrew will get from defenses, I expect Aaron to have some huge scoring nights. In fact, for Kentucky to hit the next level as a team…to get into the “great” stage that UK has hit four times since probation (all of 96, SEC play in 2003, 2010 except for that damn West Virginia game, and 2012), Aaron Harrison has to be the guy who does it. If you believe like Jay Bilas, that great teams have at least three elite players, Aaron may be the most likely candidate to be #3. One college basketball commentator put it to me succinctly, “let everyone else talk about Randle and Andrew Harrison…they win the title because of Aaron Harrison.”
From my eyes, Cauley-Stein has improved quite a bit offensively and now has the ability to score from the low block (which he did not do well last year). But honestly I am not sure that will matter as he probably won’t be asked to do it very often. Cauley-Stein has two jobs…be long and athletic (getting lobs a la Anthony Davis) and be an elite defender. He will do both extremely well. He is being pushed hard by Dakari Johnson and they are very different players. But ultimately Willie’s length will probably make him the starter and the key ingredient to what Kentucky wants to do defensively.
No one is talking about Alex Poythress…really no one ever does. And I am unsure why that is. He missed the scrimmages/practices during the Calipari camp due to a nagging injury, but his body is still impressive and he looks to be in tremendous shape. His battles this summer with Julius Randle were all anyone talked about around Lexington and everyone agrees that Alex stepped up his game to compete. People forget that Poythress was once projected as the NUMBER ONE PICK IN THE DRAFT. Yet for some, he is an afterthought. The best part about this season is if passive Alex makes an appearance, he will be on the bench. I expect him to have a very good year. The key will be whether he can do that while also playing with Randle. They are used to going at each other every day, but for UK to have its best lineup, they will need to play together. I am looking forward to seeing practices where this takes place, because this year Alex has a chance to show us what he did not too often last year.
Someone close to the program told me not long ago, “people don’t realize how good Dakari is…I mean he is really good. We haven’t had a talent like that around here since Demarcus.” What that means is that UK has a player who will completely dominate the low post. He gets every rebound…and I mean EVERY rebound. The physicality that Dakari shows will be the perfect compliment to Willie’s length and in some situations they will play together and there will be zero interior scoring by the other team. Dakari is a future lottery pick and if he shows off his offensive game this year, he will be a one and done. But on this team full of talent, not all of his skill will be display. I suspect more than any other player this year, he improves exponentially as the year goes on and his minutes and production increase dramatically by March.
Young is the wildcard for me. He is a great player and on virtually any other team in America, he is the go-to star. On this team however, I think he will be a secondary option more often than not. He is explosive getting to the basket and a good shooter. However he probably has the most to learn about playing on the college level and with great teammates (think about blending in Archie Goodwin with the 2012 title team). Almost everyone who watches the team comes away with the same issue with Young…he holds on to the ball too much and plays too much one on one. If he limits this and finds his role within the team, he will have a big year. He is the player who most needs to be coached to reach his potential and I think his progression will be the most fascinating during the year.
Energy guy. That is what Kentucky is looking for from Marcus Lee this season. They want to see the athletic big man who goes after every loose ball, is a force on defense and plays with reckless aggression. He is not going to be a big scorer this season, but that is not what UK needs. They need a ball of energy who does the dirty work while their stars shine. As one told me, “Marcus knows he will be in college for more than one year…so he isn’t worried about going for numbers and instead is wanting to learn and do what the team needs.” Marcus is crazy athletic and if not for Dakari, would get every rebound. I don’t expect a ton of scoring but he is another player who will be a much specimen in March than he is in November.
The above eight guys will, absent some huge change or injury, play in virtually every game. The question that remains to be seen is Hawkins. Dominique has been a pleasant surprise since arriving in Lexington and was the point guard for most of the summer. He battles Andrew Harrison every day in practice and as one person told me, “sometimes Dominique goes and gets the best of him.” His size can be limiting but he plays much bigger (and stronger) than you would think. He wants to not only be the backup point guard but to play well enough that this can mean 10-12 minutes a game. If that happens, then UK has depth to match all of the other traits and their ability to become elite is even more assured. Early in the year, you may not see a ton of Hawkins. But at some point he will get his chance and when that happens, he will be able to decide how much time he gets going forward.
Last year we loved the play of Jarrod Polson and from what I have seen this summer, he looks like the same player as a year ago. The problem is that the talent at his position has improved dramatically. I expect we will see Jarrod get some clock, especially early and be in a battle with Hawkins for the backup role. His issue, like last year, is defense. However with Cauley-Stein/Dakari/Lee behind him, he will have some ability to be protected in ways he was not after Noel’s injury. Jon Hood is healthy but faces the problem of a ton of talent at his position. I expect he will get his chances, as he has in years past, but it is up to him to come in confident and take advantage. I always feel like Hood needs one break, one game where the shots fall, to have a chance to contribute. Hopefully that comes for him this year. Derek Willis is unlikely to see many minutes this year but I have to say that he has been impressive to me. I watched him play a few times this fall and every time, he has looked like he belongs on the court with all these stars. His athleticism can be shocking and the key is to develop his skill set. Before all is said and done, I think you see Derrick make an impact at UK. I am just not sure it happens this year.
So that is my take after a month or so of seeing/talking/hearing about the team as it currently is constituted. I think the starting lineup at this point would be Harrison/Harrison/Poythress/Randle/Cauley-Stein. But it wouldn’t shock me to see Young sneak in for Poythress or Dakari for Willie. Either way, this team is going to be loaded and I can’t stress just how good I think the Cats can be. Predicting the fortunes of a team is difficult, no matter the group. While I am not yet confident enough to do as I did in 2012 and predict a title (I did that in part because of the weaker national landscape and UK’s title drought), I think this team is right there with 2012 going into the year. I can’t wait till they get started.