10 questions about the UK men

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 3, 2013 

Aaron Harrison, left, and Andrew Harrison were introduced together during Big Blue Madness. How well the twins will play while not on the floor together is a key question going into the season.

MARK CORNELISON — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

1. Has John Calipari become a prisoner of his own system? Must UK continue to rely on freshmen in order to enjoy standout teams?

Birds gotta fly. Fish gotta swim. Coaches want the best players. The best players want to go to the NBA. The so-called "system" is nothing more than dealing with this reality ... robustly.

The NBA Players Association opposes any new restriction on when players turn pro. Perhaps a new executive director replacing Billy Hunter might change that, but that doesn't seem likely.

So top prospects will continue to view playing for Kentucky or any college as a temp position.

Presumably, the recruitment of Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins signals a shift to adding veteran savvy to another heralded freshman class down the road. They can provide ballast in future seasons.

For now and the foreseeable future, Calipari's boffo success and UK fans' notable lack of patience mean the one-and-done is here-to-stay.

2. Can so many players coexist and prosper in an era of five-star labeling and instant gratification?

This Kentucky team calls to mind something Billy Packer said before the 1995-96 season. Kentucky, he said, was the type of team that could use an injury.

Sure enough, a knee injury sidelined Jared Prickett and (coincidentally?) eased congestion in the rotation.

This UK team seemingly has standout players at each position in duplicate, if not triplicate. Not everyone can play as prominent a role as they'd like.

Calipari has a trump card should a player worry about whether coming off the bench might affect his NBA stock: Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton played complementary roles in 2009-10, and they were one-and-doners and first-round picks.

3. Where's the three-point shooting going to come from?

More than once this pre-season, Calipari predicted that UK's opponents will play zone defense. Kentucky's abundance of talented and athletic players makes for a team well-suited to the dribble-drive offense.

He called this his best attack-the-rim team since his Final Four Memphis team of 2007-08.

Yet it's a mystery as to which UK players can counter zone defenses with perimeter shooting.

The departed Julius Mays, Kyle Wiltjer, Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow accounted for 158 of UK's 184 three-point baskets last season.

The most prolific returning three-point shooters are Alex Poythress (14-for-33), Jarrod Polson (6-for-21) and Jon Hood (6-for-15).

Of the freshmen, only James Young is billed as a perimeter shooter.

4. How long will it take for UK fans to gripe about how this team could use Kyle Wiltjer?

In a Newport minute (or, if you prefer, a New Castle minute or New Haven minute).

Within the first minute of the unveiling of Billy Gillispie's first UK team at the 2007 Big Blue Madness scrimmage, a fan was heard grumbling that it looked like "Tubby Ball."

So it should only take a three-point miss or three before someone laments Wiltjer's transfer to Gonzaga. Never mind that he made only three of 23 shots from beyond the arc in the last seven games of 2012-13. In the misty memories of UK fans, Wiltjer filled it up.

5. How well will either of the Harrison brothers play when the other one is not in the game?

Surely, each will play better when the other is on the floor. Down to their chromosomes, the twins bring a deeper meaning to the rather vague concept of player chemistry.

However, top-five prospects should not be dependent on the presence of someone else.

When the twins played on separate teams at the 2012 Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va., Andrew excelled as a point guard in the all-star format.

And Aaron showed independence during his senior year of high school. When a hamstring injury sidelined Andrew for several weeks, Aaron carried the team.

6. How will UK cope if foul trouble, an ankle sprain or worse removes Andrew Harrison from a game?

There's been much talk this pre-season about the Harrison twins being interchangeable. If and when Andrew Harrison can't be on the floor, that premise might be put to the test.

If not Aaron Harrison, who is billed as a shooting guard, UK's next two point guards are senior Jarrod Polson and freshman Dominique Hawkins.

Polson had a personal breakthrough last season. He completed the transition from lovable fan favorite whose appearances signaled a victory well in hand to viable floor leader.

In the pre-season, Calipari touted how well Hawkins fared against the Harrisons. The UK coach couldn't resist adding, "but the twins are good."

7. Who will lead the team?

Two freshmen — Julius Randle and/or Andrew Harrison — will lead.

That's presuming a strong personality cloaked in pre-season anonymity will not emerge.

In a bit of a surprise (and perhaps by default), Julius Mays filled the role of elder statesman and floor leader last season.

This season's graybeards, Polson and Hood, bring the necessary work ethic and charm that can be valuable assets to leadership.

But unlike last season, there doesn't appear to be a void at leader.

By all accounts, Randle possesses the kind of elite skill and determination that compel teammates to follow. After all, the label "alpha dog" says it all.

Much the same is said of Andrew Harrison, who as point guard will be cast in a lead role. Both seem well-suited to — as Calipari likes to say — take ownership.

8. If everybody plays well, is this the best UK team ever?

"Ever" is a long time, especially when counting in UK basketball years. Will this team be more endearing than Rupp's Runts or Pitino's Bombinos? Not a chance, because they can't be the lovable underdog in a David-and-Goliath scenario.

Nor does it have the homegrown flavor of the Runts and Bombinos.

Will this team boast a National Player of the Year (Anthony Davis) and a player blessed with remarkable intangible gifts (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) like the 2011-12 national champs? Maybe, but certainly not a sure thing.

There's no argument that this team will not have a wealth of experience to enhance its athletic gifts like UK's championship teams of 1977-78 and 1995-96.

And we haven't even mentioned the Fabulous Five and the unbeaten Cliff Hagans/Frank Ramseys of 1953-54.

That said, an unbeaten record and national championship would be unprecedented, even by UK standards.

9. What must happen for UK to win the national championship?

With few exceptions, a national championship season requires several NBA-caliber players, good coaching, the avoidance of key injuries and luck.

Of course, you don't have to be Chad Ford to know UK has the players. Calipari is a national championship coach.

As for injuries, last season's game at Florida reminded UK fans how the arc of a season can be dramatically altered in an instant.

Assuming the basketball gods won't frown on Kentucky two straight seasons, that leaves the unknowable factor of fate.

One remarkable individual performance can mean defeat (think Dontae Jones of Mississippi State in the 1996 SEC Tournament finals).

If that unstoppable performance comes in the NCAA Tournament, the season abruptly ends.

UK's latest reliance on freshmen conjures memories of 2010, when a recurrence of poor three-point shooting caused the Cats to panic in an Elite Eight loss to West Virginia.

10. Does even Calipari believe all that he says?

During a question-and-answer period at the Lexington Rotary Club this fall, a Rotarian asked Calipari for an assessment of Randle. Then the Rotarian added a qualifier: Answer as if he and Calipari were chatting at Wheeler's Pharmacy, a regular breakfast haunt for UK basketball cronies. To which, Calipari said, "If I was at Wheeler's, I'd probably be really honest."

Draw your own conclusions.

Once a marketing major, Calipari seems capable of everything short of a Jedi mind trick in closing a deal. Or as he says in Marty Dobrow's history of UMass basketball, "I think anything you do in life is about selling."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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