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Kentucky Breathing Rare Air

Fri, 03/30/2012 - 7:00pm

Kentucky will travel to New Orleans with one acceptable outcome; cut down the nets, or bust. But even if they go bust during the Final Four, they're likely to make history a few months later.

Anthony DavisAnthony DavisThat's because all five starters for the Wildcats are ticketed for the first round in June's NBA draft. Freshman phenoms Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd Gilchrist could be the first teammates to be selected 1-2 in draft history. Kentucky also has an outside chance of topping its own 2009 team and producing six first-rounders. In terms of overall talent level and athleticism, this Kentucky roster is breathing rare air.

Who are these sensational six?

The journey of 6-foot-2 freshman Marquis Teague has been inundated with peaks and valleys, but his ever-improving polish at the controls has propelled Kentucky to another level. A 23-point-per-game scorer in high school, Teague arrived at UK with a shoot-first mindset. He struggled to find the appropriate balance between running the show, finding his own offense and creating for others. Five months later, his growth as an orchestrator has been readily evident, averaging upwards of five assists per game in March.

In terms of physical skills, Teague is a powerfully built guard with an explosive first step. He gets to the bucket at will when isolated in space, and his strength allows him to slash and finish through contact. His jump shot needs work, though. Right now he's limited to layups and three-pointers, making little use of the court area in between where many high-percentage looks are available.

Projection: Late first round

Off-guard Doron Lamb carries himself like a seasoned veteran, but he's just a sophomore. His composure and unflappable on-court demeanor have worn off on his inexperienced teammates. His most valuable contribution to the Wildcats' cause, however, is his sweet shooting stroke. Lamb is a 47 percent three-point shooter and floor spacer, punishing defenses that shrink up and collapse into the paint.

He's highly adept at working off the ball and utilizing screens to get open, but also capable of breaking down his man 1-on-1. The mid-range game has always been a staple of his silky, smooth repertoire; perhaps too smooth at times, as he lacks the aggressive nature to carry the load. The 6-foot-5 Lamb is fundamentally sound defensively with excellent length.

Projection: Late first round

Michael Kidd Gilchrist, also known as MKG, inhabits the wing for Kentucky. Always the apple of scouts' eyes, he's now a full-blown media darling as well. With his fearless style and versatile skill set, it's not hard to imagine why. He is the heart of the Wildcats.

Combining a relentless work ethic with elite athleticism, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound small forward is the prototype matchup nightmare. While still raw offensively, he is constantly in motion off the ball. He can take you off the dribble, slash, post up smaller defenders and attack the offensive glass. His versatility defensively, in tandem with freakish physical gifts and natural instincts, only adds to the tremendous intrigue. His jump shot mechanics and ball handling creativity are a work in progress.

Projection: High lottery

In early December, it looked like Terrence Jones made a big mistake returning to school for his sophomore campaign. He was passive, "floating" on the court and set back by injury. That slump is now a thing of the past. There is no doubt Jones has returned to full beast mode and is playing, arguably, the best basketball of his career.

A solid, but not jaw-dropping athlete, the southpaw certainly has no paucity of tools at his disposal. At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, he possesses a legit handle, face-up skills and court vision. For the betterment of the team, however, he's taken his game down into the trenches where he's been a wrecking ball on the glass and a shot-blocking menace. He's been playing with a chip on his shoulder and it's suited him well. His movements aren't particularly smooth, but they are effective.

Projection: Mid-first round

Anthony DavisAnthony DavisAnd now, the man in the middle, Anthony Davis. The impact Davis has on the defensive side of the ball is so massive it's borderline immeasurable. He has every opponent on the court, 1 through 5, peeking for him out of the corner of their eyes, on every possession. There is no shot he can't disrupt and no opponent's psyche he can't crack. Davis decimated the SEC freshman shot-blocking record previously held by Shaquille O'Neal, and is now just eight shy of Hassan Whiteside's national freshman record of 182.

His growth spurt from a 6-foot-3 guard to a 6-foot-10 power forward has been well-publicized, and the agility he's retained has been remarkable. He's displayed a greater willingness to take his jump shot during the NCAA tournament, with efficacy as well. Knee tweaking aside, he runs the court like a gazelle and his lift off the floor is effortless. Sermon over.

Projection: No. 1 pick

Last, but not least, we have the senior citizen of the bunch, sixth-man extraordinaire and old reliable, Darius Miller. The lone remaining holdover from the Billy Gillespie regime, Miller has been an integral piece to this youthful puzzle.

Standing 6-foot-8, he's yet another Wildcat with ridiculous length to go along with inside/outside adaptability on both ends and consistent marksmanship from distance. He's considered by many as the top shooter on the team (Kyle Wiltjer and Lamb included). He's seen his draft stock soar dramatically in recent months, to the point where he's now being mentioned in late first-round conversations. His 13 points per contest and 59 percent shooting in the tournament won't dampen the positive mojo.

Projection: Late first/early second round

How does this group compare to the 2010 Wildcats class?

The 2009-10 Kentucky team had five players selected in the first round. For the moment, no other college basketball team in history can make that claim. However, this current core of Wildcats is likely to inhabit that prestigious territory in short order.

Aside from the immense athleticism and size present on both rosters, the similarities are few and far between. The 2009-10 team was point guard and post-play dominant, with John Wall freelancing at the controls and DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson overwhelming opponents on the interior. The current roster is more unified and versatile, with the strengths of each player emphasized within the team concept.

Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are immensely talented, but both can score and impact the game in a myriad of ways without demanding the rock. The presence of a reliable outside shooter in Lamb is a major point of separation. Two years ago, Eric Bledsoe, whose game is best suited for attacking off the dribble, was forced to attempt desperate long-range bombs because opponents packed their defense within eight feet of the hoop. There was no consistent shooter, thus there was no floor spacing.

This year, Lamb takes controlled three-point attempts, in rhythm, within the structure of the offense. The 2009-10 roster also lacked a multi-faceted, jack-of-all-trades weapon like Jones, a player who can facilitate offense, score in the post and get out in transition. All in all, production from the third to fifth options, flexibility and the intangible factor is what sets these two loaded starting fives apart.

How does their talent stack up?

The Wildcats are two wins away from a historic campaign. They may lack the experience of past champions, but player for player, they stack up favorably against any of college basketball’s champions over the past 25 years:

2006-07 Florida Gators (35-5): Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Marreese Speights

2004-05 North Carolina (33-4): Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May, Marvin Williams and Jawad Williams

2000-01 Duke (35-4): Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Duhon

1995-96 Kentucky (34-2): Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty, Tony Delk and Derek Anderson

1990-91 UNLV (35-5): Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt

1990-91 Michigan (30-7): Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson

If they complete the task at hand, the Wildcats will have earned their standing among the elite. And for Kentucky's crop of talented youngsters, this will be but the opening chapter in their basketball journey.

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