Kentucky season preview: 10 questions about the Cats

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 6, 2011 

1. What does the lack of a "true" center mean for the dribble-drive offense, defensive sets and rebounding? Kentucky lacked a "true" center last season and advanced to the Final Four. So the lack of a "true" center is no serious handicap. Without such a player, a path can be more easily cleared for drives toward the basket, so any dribble-drive action can be enhanced by the absence of a lane-clogging post-up man. On defense, freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, plus others, will block shots. Denny Crum led Louisville to multiple Final Fours and won two national championships with "smaller" teams that fronted the post. Those Louisville teams are the example Kentucky might follow.

2. If Marquis Teague goes down, what does UK do for a point guard? To borrow a John Calipari term, there is no point guard with "demonstrated performance" on the roster. But, if form holds, Teague will be plenty good as the starter. But who takes over if Teague misses extended time because of injury? Foul trouble in a particular game can be handled. Players such as Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones can be temporary fixes. Twany Beckham and Jarrod Polson could get UK through a stretch of minutes. Long term, UK needs Teague on the floor and steadily improving throughout the season like predecessors John Wall and Brandon Knight.

3. Is there anybody the Cats can't afford to lose? (Other than John Calipari, of course.) On UK's Media Day, Calipari likened this group to the Louisville teams of the 1970s and 1980s. Crum used interchangeable players whose versatility propelled the Cards to six Final Fours in a 15-year period. Aside from point guard, UK seems blessed with multiple options at the other four positions. But one player stands out in this cast ensemble. Jones did so many things well last season, as evidenced by 13 double-doubles, he won a media vote to be the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year this season. His combination of size, productivity and experience make him first among equals.

4. Who will take the big shots late in games for this team? Last season Kentucky had an 8-8 record in games decided by seven or fewer points. That reflects the precarious nature of close games and, perhaps, UK's lack of a dominant low-post presence, which can ensure high-percentage shots and/or free throws at crunch time. The Cats could have several low-post options this season: lobs to Davis, hooks from Kyle Wiltjer, clever moves from Jones. But there's no Jared Sullinger in the bunch. If it comes down to perimeter shooting, UK is well armed. Doron Lamb (48.6 percent) and Darius Miller (44.3) finished 1-2 in three-point accuracy among SEC shooters last season.

5. Jones burst out of the starting gate last year, much of it against lesser competition, semi-disappeared for much of the season just aimlessly wandering the perimeter and then seemed to make a comeback late. What can be expected of him this year? Jones did not simply feast on weaker competition. His double-doubles included 16 points and 17 rebounds against Washington, 27 points and 17 rebounds against Notre Dame and 11 points and 15 rebounds against UConn in the Final Four. These are monstrous numbers for a freshman. During the pre-season, Calipari has noted Jones' greater level of fitness and keener sense of purpose as a sophomore. This season, he's moved better and shown a take-charge attitude on the court. Calipari says Jones wants to be a solid lottery pick. Few would argue about that goal being achievable.

6. How long can Calipari keep up the run of No. 1 recruiting classes? During his first state-of-the-program Big Blue Madness address, Calipari set a goal of having every prospect in the country wanting to play for Kentucky. Even with the NCAA and its 13-player limit on scholarships, Calipari has seemingly come close enough to achieving that goal. Clearly, the one-and-done phenomenon helps by keeping a revolving door spinning. Each freshman departure opens up another opportunity for a prospect eyeing a fast track to the NBA. Of course, No. 1 recruiting classes are not a be-all, end-all — as Butler (2010 and 2011) and Virginia Commonwealth (2011) showed in recent Final Four runs.

7. Will Twany Beckham be of much help after he becomes eligible at the end of the fall semester? Beckham — surprise — is the oldest UK player. He turns 23 on Nov. 14. So he presumably brings a level of maturity that can help a team dependent on contributions from multiple freshmen. After finishing his high school career at Ballard in 2007, Beckham played a season at prep school. He then spent three seasons on the Mississippi State team, seeing playing time in SEC and NCAA Tournaments. He sat out 2009-10 because of hip surgery. Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury, who needed point guard help, lamented the absence. Given UK's need for a backup point guard, Beckham surely will get a chance to contribute

8. What will be UK's record against the four big-name, non-conference opponents: Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville? A No. 2 pre-season ranking would represent being underrated should Kentucky sweep these four games. In the coaches' pre-season poll, North Carolina (No. 1), Louisville (No. 8) and Kansas (No. 13) were in the top 15. It can't hurt that North Carolina and Louisville will play UK in Rupp Arena. Kansas, the pre-season pick to win the Big 12, will be a difficult opponent on a neutral court in the second game of the season. The guess here is that Kentucky loses to Kansas and North Carolina, but beats Indiana and Louisville.

9. Will Darius Miller become more assertive? Hopefully so, if for no other reason than to spare readers the chore of slogging through another story about whether Miller will be more assertive. As Calipari likes to point out, Miller was voted Most Valuable Player of the 2011 SEC Tournament. He averaged 13.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. So it's not like he's been invisible. But those numbers slipped to 6.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in UK's last four NCAA Tournament games. He made eight of 27 shots in that span. As a senior, it's now or never for Miller. He led Mason County to the state championship as a senior, so history suggests this will be Miller's time.

10. How will this freshman class compare to the past two at UK? Finishing third in this race is no disgrace. We're talking the Three Tenors. The first freshman class produced two All-Americans — not "freshman All-Americans," but All-Americans — in John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. The second advanced to the Final Four. Jon Hood said it well when asked to compare the freshman classes. "Play a round-robin tournament between those three freshman classes," he said. "That'd get more publicity than most NBA games. It'd get a ton more publicity than the Dominicans against the pro team guys."

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