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Mark Story: Compelling stories will make for another year of great hoops in Kentucky

2010-11 was good, but 2011-12 might be better

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 6, 2011 

  • Pre-season Kentucky college all-state teams

    MEN

    Terrence Jones, F, Kentucky: Because UK lost, people forget Jones had 11 points, 15 rebounds and four steals against UConn in the 2011 Final Four.

    Chane Behanan, F, Louisville: Freshman wide body (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) is being compared by old-timers to Rodney McCray.

    Anthony Davis, F, Kentucky: Lethal combination of length (6-10), athleticism and skill could make Davis the No. 1 overall pick in next NBA Draft.

    Doron Lamb, G, Kentucky: Sweet-shooting sophomore could be sitting on a huge year.

    Peyton Siva, G, Louisville: As a junior, has chance to emerge as national-level star.

    Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, Kentucky

    Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky

    WOMEN

    Monique Reid, F, Louisville: All you need to know about the senior from Fern Creek is that her Big East Conference scoring average (16.3 ppg) was higher than her overall (15.5).

    Samarie Walker, F, Kentucky: The 2010 McDonald's All-American and UConn transfer will be counted on to help replace Victoria Dunlap's production once eligible after the first semester.

    Alex Jones, C, Eastern Kentucky: The 6-1 junior, the daughter of ex-U of L big man Charles Jones, almost averaged a double-double (14.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg) as a sophomore.

    A'dia Mathies, G, Kentucky: Can the highly capable UK junior take the proverbial next step and become the Wildcats' star now that Victoria Dunlap is gone?

    Shoni Schimmel, G, Louisville: Sophomore point guard has a flashy game and a knack for coming up big under the brightest lights.

    Player of the Year: Shoni Schimmel, Louisville

    Coach of the Year: Jeff Walz, Louisville

    Mark Story

As entertainment, college basketball in Kentucky last season earned boffo reviews.

The University of Kentucky men returned to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

Morehead State scored the biggest win in school history when Kenneth Faried, Demonte Harper and Co. stunned Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

Until it ran into Morehead, U of L had enjoyed an over-achieving season of the kind Rick Pitino built his coaching reputation upon.

Pikeville won the NAIA Division I national title, and Bellarmine claimed the NCAA Division II crown.

On the women's side, UK won an NCAA Tournament game in back-to-back years for the first time in school history.

Louisville unveiled a star in flashy point guard Shoni Schimmel and advanced to the NCAA round of 16.

Kentucky Christian won its fifth straight National Christian College Athletic Association title.

Moving forward, it will take a lot for the 2011-12 season to match the thrills and chills of last season. The good news is, it looks possible that it will.

Here are 10 storylines that promise to make the 2011-12 college basketball "show" in Kentucky compelling.

UK's 'old guys'

Having sent five "one-and-done" freshmen to the NBA in the past two years, Kentucky basketball has become known for its high-voltage freshmen. In Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, this season's incoming class could boast three more such players. Yet last season's Wildcats did not gel until veterans Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson stepped forward. This year, senior Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb could be the key to Kentucky's NCAA title hopes.

Replacing 'Queen' Victoria

Matthew Mitchell has taken UK women's basketball in the past two years to heights not seen at Kentucky since the days of Valerie Still. The main reason was do-it-all forward Victoria Dunlap. With the star now lost to graduation, we'll start to see if Mitchell has built a program or simply a good team. It isn't fair, but many will expect Connecticut transfer Samarie Walker, a 2010 McDonald's All-American who is eligible to play after the first semester, to be "Kentucky's next Dunlap."

Super freshmen?

Kentucky may be the school now identified with first-year stars, but Louisville's incoming class carried pretty fair hype, too. But when will the full class be able to show itself? Rick Pitino got good news after practice had started when highly regarded freshman guard Wayne Blackshear out of Chicago was cleared by the NCAA eligibility center. Only days later, though, Blackshear suffered a shoulder injury. Another well-regarded freshman guard, Kevin Ware, was ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester, but there is hope he might be able to enroll for the second semester. There are no questions about forward Chane Behanan. The Bowling Green High School product is being likened by Louisville old-timers to Rodney McCray.

The WKU 're-set'

After two seasons of mediocre basketball by Western Kentucky University standards and rumors about the head coach's personal life, many thought WKU would part ways with Coach Ken McDonald after last season. However, with one of the most highly touted recruiting classes in recent school history coming on board, Western chose to retain McDonald rather than risk losing its incoming class. WKU officials are calling this a "re-set." It will be interesting to see if the lauded freshmen, led by shooting guard Derrick Gordon and forward George Fant, can help McDonald win enough to hang on to his job.

Championship repeats?

Of Kentucky's two men's reigning small-college national champions, Bellarmine and Pikeville, which has the best chance to repeat? On paper, it would appear to be Coach Scott Davenport's Knights. The defending Division II champs got a huge break when the NCAA granted All-America guard Jeremy Kendle two more seasons of athletics eligibility. Ex-Scott County star Richie Phares, a 6-foot-8 forward, is now eligible after transferring from Louisville.

At Pikeville, the Bears were ranked No. 1 in the NAIA pre-season poll, but Coach Kelly Wells returns only one starter from last season's champs. Sharp-shooting forward Trevor Setty, the ex-Mason County standout who was MVP of last season's NAIA national tourney, will need lots of help from transfer guards Chris McHenry (Miami of Ohio) and Jamar Board (Mountain State) if the Bears are to make a realistic title defense.

Replacing 'King' Kenneth

Kenneth Faried left Morehead State with the modern NCAA career rebounding record, All-America status, his jersey in the rafters and two NCAA Tournament wins on his résumé. How does Eagles Coach Donnie Tyndall replace the NBA first-round draft pick (not to mention standout guard Demonte Harper)? He doesn't. But the crafty MSU coach will try to keep the Eagles' heads above water by rebuilding around last season's role players, including guards Terrance Hill and Ty Proffitt and forward Drew Kelly.

Movin' on up?

The job as Murray State head men's basketball coach has been a path to the big time. Steve Newton (South Carolina), Mark Gottfried (Alabama), Mick Cronin (Cincinnati) and Billy Kennedy (Texas A&M) have all ridden success at MSU to bright-lights coaching positions. Now it's time for former Alabama basketball manager Steve Prohm to try his hand. The first-year Racers coach will try to get off to a good start behind returning standouts Ivan Aska and Isaiah Canaan.

The pressure of the point

John Calipari is on an amazing run of point guards — Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis, followed by John Wall and Brandon Knight at Kentucky. Next in line is Marquis Teague. The Indianapolis product, whose father played for Rick Pitino at Boston University, broke the hearts of Indiana and Louisville and chose to be the next link in the Calipari point-guard chain. In Lexington, he faces the challenge of living up to Cal point guards of the past while quarterbacking a team UK fans expect to battle North Carolina for national supremacy.

A female Pistol Pete?

The current Kentucky college basketball player with the most engaging game is female. As a freshman last season, Louisville point guard Shoni Schimmel showed a flair for the dramatic. She dropped 26 points and six assists on UK in an 78-52 U of L rout. In an NCAA Tournament second-round upset of Xavier, Schimmel had 33 points. Schimmel plays with panache, having step-back three-pointers and behind-the-back passes in her repertoire. This season, it will be fascinating to see what she has in store for an encore.

Cal vs. Ricky P.

Coaching antagonists John Calipari and Rick Pitino provided much pre-season entertainment by sniping at each other through the press. Once the basketball actually starts, Kentucky's Calipari will again have one of the most talented rosters in the sport. The UK coach can't eclipse archrival Pitino's UK legacy by winning multiple NCAA titles until he wins his first. This could be the year. Meanwhile, down I-64 in Louisville, you just know that Ricky P. would relish it if, after all the Kentucky hype, it is U of L that ends up playing on this season's final weekend.

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