UK Men's Basketball

10 questions about the Kentucky men's basketball team

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has had a great deal of success while at UK, but that doesn't grant him immunity from fair comment and criticism by those in the media.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has had a great deal of success while at UK, but that doesn't grant him immunity from fair comment and criticism by those in the media. Herald-Leader

1. Of course, Kentucky has plenty of players. But does Kentucky have a truly transcendent player?

Probably not. Kentucky has an overwhelming quantity of players. And you may have heard: the quality ain't bad, either. But it's unlikely there's a first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

"In normal situations, you'd like to have the best player on the court when the game is winding down," John Calipari said.

UK's situation is not normal. Judging by the NBA Draft, a transcendent player is no guarantee of a championship. But it's a good place to start.

John Wall was the first player taken in the 2010 NBA Draft, and UK lost in the Elite Eight. Anthony Davis (2012) was the only first overall pick to lead his college team to a national title in the last 10 drafts.

Calipari cited Arkansas in 1994 as an example of quantity winning the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs did not have a first-round pick in that year's NBA Draft.

UK's 1996 championship team also used unusual depth rather than one superstar. The first player taken in the draft was Antoine Walker at No. 6.

2. Is UK Coach John Calipari likely to try to get anybody to agree to redshirt? If so, who are the best candidates?

For you youngsters, redshirting was a custom practiced by ancient basketball peoples. A player would sit out a season, more or less voluntarily, in order to gain strength or savvy. In theory, he would return the following season much better prepared to contribute.

This was a custom practiced sometime after the Precambrian and before the present one-and-done age. No Kentucky player has redshirted since Jeff Sheppard in 1996-97.

Sheppard, who received the Reggie Hanson Sacrifice Award because he agreed to sit out the season, turned 40 on Sept. 29. That says something about how outdated the notion of redshirting has become.

If redshirting was still practiced, at least one of UK's big men (Marcus Lee?), one of its forwards (Derek Willis?) and one of its guards (Dominique Hawkins?) might benefit from sitting out the 2014-15 season.

3. How can Kentucky incorporate three centers into its two-platoon system?

At first glance this has a square peg-round hole feel. But it's not really that difficult to imagine Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Karl-Anthony Towns co-existing as contributors for Kentucky this season.

Of critical importance, each of UK's "bigs" is clearly the best at a particular skill. While all three can contribute in a variety of ways, none should feel crowded out of making use of his speciality.

Johnson is the low-post anchor of an offense. Get in position on the block, demand the ball, make a move to score or get in position for a put-back.

Towns can do all that, but his perimeter shooting can provide space for Johnson (and vice versa).

Cauley-Stein protects the rim as a shot blocker. Plus, he can defend all five positions, which conjures up a blot-out-the-sun front line with Johnson at center, Towns at power forward and Cauley-Stein at small forward.

4. How well can Kentucky combat the opponents' zone defense?

John Calipari has repeatedly said he expects most opponents to try to thwart Kentucky's size by collapsing a zone defense into the lane. That's been a familiar tactic by opponents in Calipari's previous five seasons as UK coach, most memorably and effectively evidenced by West Virginia's 1-3-1 in the 2010 Elite Eight.

Kentucky has several capable three-point shooters. Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison made 35.6 and 35.1 percent of three-point attempts last season, respectively. Derek Willis is capable of seeing over and shooting over a zone. Freshman Devin Booker is billed as one of the best shooters in the high school class of 2014.

Picking his spots, freshman Tyler Ulis made nine of 15 three-point shots in the Bahamas. Karl-Anthony Towns has a soft three-point touch.

Of course, UK does not want to be solely dependent on perimeter shooting. Calipari has repeatedly stressed scoring in transition before the opponent sets up its zone.

5. Is Alex Poythress ready to be a star?

Each player evolves at his own pace.

More than half of Kentucky's 1,000-point career scorers (35 of 60) averaged less than 10 points in their first season. Most notably: Kenny Walker, Jack Givens, Tayshaun Prince and Cliff Hagan.

Sixteen didn't average double-digit points in either of their first two seasons (Ramel Bradley, Scott Padgett, Jeff Sheppard and — believe it or not — Jodie Meeks).

You only have to go back to Darius Miller (2008-2012) to find a highly regarded player who needed time to blossom. As Kentucky's Mr. Basketball, Miller led Mason County to the state championship.

The nadir of Miller's college career came as a junior when he passed up a shot in the final seconds of a close game at Mississippi. Yet, Miller was a steady senior and Mr. Clutch for a national championship the next season.

6. What player will have a surprising out-of-nowhere moment a la Jon Hood at Mississippi State last season?

A sudden starburst followed by a return to obscurity might be one of the most fascinating components of Kentucky basketball. The disparate moment and the unlikely hero come together in harmonic convergence of roundball elements.

Hood's moment came in Starkville, Miss., last Feb. 8. He had played only 11 minutes the previous three months. He would play only 11 minutes the rest of the season. But in 13 first-half minutes against lowly Mississippi State, his energy jump-started the Cats.

In 1994, lightly used Chris Harrison's two three-pointers ignited a UK rally from a 31-point deficit at LSU in a game that came to be known as the Mardi Gras Miracle.

In the 2012-13 opener against Maryland, Jarrod Polson's 10 points and point guard play helped UK win.

This Kentucky team has so many proven veterans and highly regarded prospects, it's hard to believe there will be such a stunning moment. But isn't that the point?

7. Surely some UK players will return for the 2015-16 season. How does that affect recruiting for the class of 2015?

Of Kentucky's waves of talented players on display in the Bahamas, John Calipari quipped about a reassurance for fans and an uneasiness for prospects in the high school class of 2015.

Calipari is off to a slow recruiting start for the class of 2015, but that has more to do with the players UK is pursuing than the players the Cats might have coming back. There are still 11 uncommitted recruits in Scout.com's top 25, and UK is firmly in the mix for 10 of those prospects.

Most of them are top-10 talents who have come to the realization that they'll have a guaranteed spot at the school of their choice regardless of when they make a college decision.

In that case, why not wait until the spring? That's what recruits like Jaylen Brown, Malik Newman and Stephen Zimmerman — all three attended Big Blue Madness — will most likely do.

And UK fans have no reason to panic. Calipari is likely to have a solid group of returning players and be in the discussion for another No. 1 recruiting class by next April.

8. Reader Allen Carter sent not so much a question as a declaration. "Free throws! Got to make those free throws!," he wrote in an email.

None of John Calipari's last 10 teams ranked among the top 50 in free-throw accuracy. Nine were outside the top 100, six outside the top 200 and two outside the top 300.

Yet, he's guided four teams to the Final Four in that time. A fifth team (UK in 2009-10) came oh-so-close to a Final Four (4-for-32 three-point shooting got the headlines, but 16-for-29 free-throwing didn't help any against West Virginia).

His UMass Final Four team of 1996 shot free throws with 68-percent accuracy (about average for a Calipari team). His Final Four Memphis team of 2008 ranked 318th in free-throw accuracy.

So, really, how important is it?

Quantity can compensate for lack of quality. UK shot a school record 1,146 free throws last season. That broke the record of 971 set in 2009-10. Counting the 938 in 2011-12, UK's three highest totals for free-throw attempts have come in the last five seasons.

9. Reader Ema Sapp touched close to home with her question: "How many times will sportswriters attempt to put the success of UK's basketball team in a negative light instead of suggesting other schools should attempt to improve their program to UK's level?" she asked before adding, "Coach Cal is trying to improve UK's program to even a higher level, and he should be saluted for his success."

To borrow from a noted coach, Calipari doesn't poop ice cream. He's not above fair comment and criticism. At Kentucky, the media spotlight — positive and negative — shines brightly on everyone.

During ESPNU's telecast of Kentucky's NBA Combine, Avery Johnson was asked what advice he had for the many UK players who might enter next year's draft.

"First of all," he said, "I think they have a great resource in Coach Cal."

With the blitz of political advertising this fall, the mind drifted to: "I'm John Calipari, and I approve this message."

More seriously, Calipari has spoken of this season as a possible "watershed moment." If UK can win a championship in a dominating way, a methodology will be set for everyone to assess.

Unlike Pope Francis, sportswriters do not say, 'Who am I to judge?' They judge (as columnists) or ask others to judge (as reporters).

10. If Kentucky wins the 2015 national championship, will this be John Calipari's last season as Kentucky coach?

If he cares about finding the good moment to tie up his time as Kentucky coach in a pretty bow, another national championship would be it. He'd join Adolph Rupp as the only Kentucky coaches to win more than one national championship.

In terms of win-loss, any questions about a reliance on one-and-done freshmen would be answered conclusively.

Kentucky fans, who are impossible to satisfy, would be happy (as long as Calipari did not move to another college program).

He could get off the recruiting trail. He would still be young enough (56 in February) to take on another challenge. Perhaps he'd want to prove himself as an NBA coach.

However, Calipari likes to point out that it took him 20 years to get a premier college coaching job. Six years isn't a brief fling, but it's not maximizing the good that can be done, either.

Then there's the Rick Pitino example. He left after eight seasons, a decision he's said he came to regret.

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