Repeating as champions is very difficult to do, evidenced by the fact that only two schools (Florida and Duke) have done it since John Wooden left the sidelines of UCLA. It gets even harder when you lose your entire starting lineup to the NBA draft, including the top two overall selections and your only true veteran leader. However, that was the situation the University of Kentucky found itself in coming into this season. Was it an enviable position? Probably not, but any coach in the country would have gladly taken it if it meant they had won the title the year before.
If any coach was suited to take on the task, it was John Calipari and his staff, consisting of Orlando Antigua, John Robic, and Kenny Payne. After all, Coach Cal is a master of recruiting highly skilled players and turning their stellar freshman years into team success (and NBA contracts). He’s been lauded for years for playing an offensive style that draws players to him and then getting them to become excellent defensive units. Entering the season, most UK fans accepted that this team wouldn’t be like last year’s team, which was one of the more special teams in recent memory. However, even as Cal repeatedly warned that this team wasn’t going to be as good, people still trusted that the coach would turn this batch of highly rated recruits into winners. There was so much faith put in him that many outlets had Kentucky ranked as one of the top three teams in the country. Little did the country know that this group of players was nothing like any of the teams Kentucky has had since Cal took over.
Calipari’s claim to fame is his ability to put point guards in the NBA. This overlooks the fact that he has an excellent track record with big men, too. However, he has produced the likes of Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Marquis Teague, who were all first round draft picks. This year’s team lacks that stellar floor general. Cal passed on recruiting a point guard and instead took on Ryan Harrow, a transfer from N.C. State. Coach Cal is extra tough on his point guards and Harrow has struggled to retain his confidence. Prior to the season, Cal said he would ride Harrow hard because he wanted him to be the best layup shooter in the SEC, which meant he’d have to learn to play through contact. Harrow, who weighs in at a rail-thin 170 pounds, has been averse to probing the lane this season, much to his coach’s chagrin. Even when running the pick and roll he tends to back it out to the perimeter, which takes away drive and dish opportunities. He was playing so poorly that Coach Cal benched him in favor of former walk-on Jarrod Polson. Harrow, at the behest of his teammates, went to his coach and asked to be reinserted into the starting lineup despite playing 18 minutes while failing to record a single positive statistic against Tennessee. He was back in the starting lineup against Vanderbilt, where he played much better.
Harrow isn’t the only guard having a disappointing year for the Cats though. [player: Archie Goodwin], the 6-5 guard from Sylvan Hills, Arkansas is leading Kentucky in scoring but has frustrated the coaching staff more than anyone else. He’s a talented driver, but when he gets in trouble his natural tendency is to lower his head, drive hard into the paint, and throw a shot up while hoping to be bailed out with a foul. He seems reluctant at times to trust the system and his teammates which stagnates the offense and results in awkward drives to the rim or charging fouls. After a recent game in which Tennessee dominated Kentucky from start to finish, Calipari even said that this team has some guys that "aren’t very coachable" and it was even reported that he told Goodwin on the bench that "I can’t coach you."
Add to that [player: Alex Poythress], another highly touted prospect who has been up and down this season, and you start to see why the Cats have struggled. Kyle Wiltjer can only take you so far. Poythress has the ability to be a 12 and 10 guy on a consistent basis but he disappears at times. At 6-8, 240 pounds he is a bit of a tweener and he plays like he hasn’t figured out himself what position he plays. Part of that is because he’s spent time playing alongside Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein where he’s more of a "3" but then has to play more of a power forward role offensively when Wiltjer comes in. His skill set seems to be more comfortable playing as a 4. He disappears enough that NBA personnel have begun to question if he indeed is a lock to be a first round pick. Though his performance in their win against Missouri was a good sign.
Cauley-Stein has been a pleasant surprise for the team, as they didn’t expect the former seven foot wide receiver to be as good as he has been, but he’s been prone to foul trouble. He is one of the best pick and roll defending big men in the game and can block shots (although not nearly at the same clip as Noel) For those that like metric stats, Cauley-Stein is second on the team to only Noel in player efficiency rating. He’s been brought along very slowly and therefore is raw offensively, and that limits what the Cats can do with him at this point. Last year’s team could have utilized him by sneaking him behind defenses and lobbing the ball to him but this year’s squad struggles to throw the lob primarily because they lack a player that is skilled at driving and dishing- Goodwin, Harrow, and Poythress drive looking to score on their own.
The team was far from great prior to Noel going down, but he truly was the bright spot on this team. Noel was raw offensively but could score from the post when needed. He also led the team with 4.4 blocks and 2.1 steals per contest. He looked to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft after this season. He still looks like he could be a contender for one of those top spots. As you probably already know, he tore his ACL while blocking a shot in the game against Florida. He was, along with Aaron Craft and Victor Oladipo (two totally different type of players) one of the premier defensive players in college basketball. Unfortunately for Coach Cal and the Wildcats, Noel won’t be pulling a Willis Reed and coming to save the day. He’s likely played the last game of his college career. He was the glue that held this team together and now that he’s gone, the team will have to find other ways to pull together.
This group of Wildcats may miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in the Calipari era and first time since the dreaded Billy Clyde Gillispie days. They aren’t out of it yet, but they’ll likely have to win two of their final three games (including a tilt against Florida in Lexington) or be forced to win the conference’s automatic bid come tournament time. Yes, missing the tournament would be problematic in the Bluegrass state, but the real question is how would that affect the future of Calipari’s one-and-done factory in Lexington?
In the short term, it likely wouldn’t damage Kentucky too much and the reason is that Coach Cal and his staff have a dominating recruiting class already coming in next year. Because the team doesn’t have a lot of scholarships accounted for long term, (Julius Mays and Twany Beckham will graduate, Noel will likely leave early, Polson, Sam Malone, and Brian Long were told their scholarship would be on a year-by-year basis) Cal could bring next year’s class in to join this year’s. Assuming nobody else transfers or leaves early, the Cats would have 6 scholarship players in Jon Hood, Goodwin, Harrow, Cauley-Stein, Poythress, and Wiltjer. Joining them would be star guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, along with James Young, and big men Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, and Derek Willis. That would result in 12 scholarships being accounted for, allowing for either Julius Randle, Andrew Wiggins or Aaron Gordon to be able to attend if they so choose. That is counting on the fact that nobody leaves, which is unlikely. It should be noted that Gordon coming to UK looks increasingly unlikely and Wiggins has been considered a Florida State lean lately, but all three are still considering the Cats. UK landing one of those three was decreased by the Noel injury as it has muddied the waters on who is staying or going, but it’s possible those players had little chance of landing at UK regardless. It could make for an interesting decision by Calipari. Should he push some of these guys out the door in order to create more time and opportunity for these younger guys or allow them to stay and compete for playing time?
Ryan Harrow is in the toughest position. He’s already transferred once, and he’s nowhere near NBA ready and seems to have lost his status as a likely future pro. If he stays, he stands little chance of playing major minutes behind the Harrison twins, especially if Goodwin opts to stay in school. If Cal does push Harrow out the door early, he risks hurting the "player first" reputation he has cultivated in his time at Kentucky. He has a tendency to play a short bench which could complicate things for him if he doesn’t push players out, but having a team with that many future pros on it has been done before at Kentucky. The Untouchables in 1996 had 9 future pros and depending on who stays next season’s Cats could challenge that.
Goodwin and Poythress have benefitted by the brand name accross their chects but one has to wonder if they would be perceived as one and done guys had they gone to another school, say Tennessee. They were seen as lottery picks at one point in time but a dud season has put a damper on those outlooks. Willie Cauley-Stein, while good enough to go pro, could also benefit by returning for another season. I’ve said multiple times this season that I feel bad for any NBA team that spends a first round pick on Goodwin, but one likely will. Meaning he will probably leave early. He has the most pressure to leave of the three with players considered better than him (Harrison Twins and James Young) at his position coming in. Poythress has had enough impressive games that it’s pretty likely that a team will see enough potential to justify spending a mid to late round pick on him, meaning expect him to leave (especially if the Cats find a way to lure Wiggins or Randle to play for them).
So, is Cal in trouble if his one and done train gets slowed down? The answer is yes-and-no. A one year hiatus from having a mass NBA exodus could actually help him because he could top his total of 6 players taken in a single draft. If that were to happen, it could actually be a silver lining to a terrible season. However, that isn’t likely. What is likely is Harrow finding a new home for next season, while Goodwin and Poythress move on to avoid having to cede minutes and notoriety to the incoming freshman class. Cauley-Stein could go or stay despite being the top prospect on the team right now not named Noel. The top talent in the country will still see the Cats as their quickest route to the fame and riches that the NBA has waiting for them and if they don’t want to come to Kentucky because they don’t think they can beat out a hard-headed Goodwin and a lethargic looking Poythress, they probably don’t have the mind set and confidence to play at Kentucky anyway.
Now, if Cal has back to back years where he struggles the way the team has this season, then top recruiting classes could soon become history. If he can bounce back from this rough 2012-2013 campaign and continue his winning ways then the aberration that is this season will be forgotten. It will be up to him and the players he brings in what his legacy at Kentucky will be.
Repeating is hard to do in college basketball. John Calipari and the Wildcats have to hope repeating the results of this season in 2013-2014 will be every bit as difficult as repeating as champions has been for this squad.