2011-12 RTC Class Schedule: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by zhayes9 on September 14th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Recruiting rankings are a tricky science. For every Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Tyreke Evans that rightfully hold fort among the upper echelons of nearly every recruiting publication, there’s a Gerald Green, B.J. Mullens or Lance Stephenson that fades into the abyss rather than catapults into the spotlight. Scouts spend countless hours on the recruiting trail and still whiff just as often as they discover the next diamond in the rough. When rankings, lists, stars or other overly effusive praise is heaped upon immature 16 or 17-year olds, throwing caution to the wind is usually a good strategy.

If the recruiting gurus have it right this time around, then the incoming class debuting at Kentucky this fall may be the best of John Calipari’s coaching career.

No, Marquis Teague has not directed his first half-court set. Anthony Davis hasn’t dunked over SEC-caliber big men. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t defended an explosive scorer on the wing, nor has Kyle Wiltjer had to fight for a rebound against 270-pound centers. But there’s a reason why the most respected in the recruiting world have these four incoming freshmen all placed in the top three at their respective positions, and surely we’re going to see those reasons sooner than later on Rupp Arena’s hallowed hardwood.

Throw in another future lottery pick in Terrence Jones, the purest of pure shooters in Doron Lamb, a do-everything senior starter on the wing in Darius Miller and a coach that patches together top-10 defensive teams year in and year out despite absurd turnover, and there’s plenty of reasons why most have Kentucky one line under North Carolina as the 2011-12 season approaches.

Of course, it’s only a ranking, a number, a list. What really counts begins in November.

Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas represent the lone seniors for Kentucky

Team Outlook: Kentucky is loaded with talent and, unlike last season, blessed with depth. Whereas Josh Harrellson, not exactly a model for prime conditioning, had to play upwards of 35 minutes per game deep into Kentucky’s run to the Final Four a season ago, Calipari has the luxury of shuffling Davis, backup center Eloy Vargas and even the 6’9 Wiltjer at the center position. Davis’ upside is nearly unlimited, drawing Kevin Garnett comparisons because of his versatility, mid-range capabilities and rebounding instincts. Calipari also has a plethora of capable wings at his disposal. Kidd-Gilchrist is the most complete incoming freshman in the country and the sophomore Jones is a future top-ten pick who showed glimpses of stardom before fading in the second half of his debut season. Doron Lamb shot a remarkable 49% from three despite the consensus that freshmen struggle to make shots and he’s almost an afterthought given the incoming freshmen and Jones’ return. The real test will be whether rookie Marquis Teague can continue Calipari’s point guard assembly line. There may be headaches and learning moments early, but given Calipari’s track record, Teague should prove himself more than capable.

Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 8. Possibly engrained in his line of thinking from days at UMass and Memphis where non-conference duels often provided stiffer tests than in January and February, Calipari has always scheduled aggressively and this season is no different. It’s a perfect storm for a predominantly young Kentucky squad with both North Carolina and Louisville, two teams most consider top-10 outfits, traveling to Rupp. Their SEC/Big East Challenge opponent is also at home against a likely-overwhelmed St. John’s team. The possible road/neutral tests: Kansas in NYC, Old Dominion in Connecticut and a true road game at Indiana. Although the Hoosiers appear to be making slow strides back to relevance on the floor and major leaps on the recruiting trail, I suspect Kentucky will dispatch the upstart Hoosiers in similar fashion to their contest two seasons ago.

Cupcake City: Major props should be extended to Calipari for testing his team regardless of their youth, but, like any other coach from a blue-blood program, buy games are part of the equation. Out of the schedules I’ve seen thus far, the order of Kentucky’s slate is the most appealing from a strategic standpoint (unlike, say, Michigan State, who opens with some teams named North Carolina and Duke). Kentucky welcomes Marist as a warmup for Kansas. They mix in Radford and Portland before St. John’s, UNC and Indiana. They take their foot off the gas to avoid burnout before the intensity that Louisville provides. It’s precisely how I’d structure my schedule as a coach of an elite program with sky-high expectations.

Toughest Early Season Test: It’s the game of the century. Okay, maybe that’s ridiculous hyperbole, but barring an unforeseen upset, Kentucky will welcome North Carolina to Lexington for a possible national title preview that will feature as many as nine first-round draft picks, two coaching celebrities that manage the most recognizable programs in the nation and a national TV audience on CBS. Keep an eye on how the wily veteran Miller handles the daunting task of defending Harrison Barnes and if Davis can hold his own down low against Carolina’s length.

Hardest SEC Stretch: The contenders in the SEC this season after Kentucky will likely be Vanderbilt, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi State. During the last three weeks of the season, UK has their home and home series against both the Commodores and Gators while also traveling to Starkville on February 21. Although home dates with Ole Miss and Georgia will act as brief reprieves, Kentucky’s season finale in Gainesville against Florida’s loaded backcourt is quite the challenge. Vanderbilt returns nearly every important piece from a core that snatched a #5 seed and won 23 games, while Mississippi State aims to capitalize on a full season from Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney.

Easiest SEC Stretch: Given Tennessee’s fall from grace, Georgia’s early entry gutting and slow rebuilding processes around the league, it’d be surprising if the SEC managed more than five bids to the NCAA Tournament this season, and even Mississippi State is no lock by any stretch given last year’s turmoil. Because of their back-loaded schedule, UK should ease into conference play. Their toughest road game before a February 11 visit to Vanderbilt could be Tennessee, Georgia or South Carolina. It’s difficult to separate teams from the muddled mess at the bottom of this conference.

Best Individual Matchup: Terrence Jones vs. JaMychal Green. The Alabama big was solid in last year’s first meeting in Tuscaloosa (18 points on 7-15 FG in 35 minutes), but was largely ineffective in the rematch at Rupp. Many people strongly believe Green has the skill level to explode this season in the SEC. Jones’ mobility and versatility will certainly test Green defensively, while the Tide big man is more adept down low in the post.

Most Challenging Road Test: Many prognosticators tripped over each other sprinting onto Vanderbilt’s bandwagon after Jeff Taylor and John Jenkins elected to return to Nashville, but their defensive efficiency rated just 88th in the nation and for the last two seasons embarrassing first round defeats have marred each campaign. Kentucky’s season finale at Florida could very well prove more taxing. Marquis Teague is going to be a fine player, but Florida has the edge at the all-important point guard position with Erving Walker, who drastically improved his shooting efficiency as a junior. The Gators can also match Kidd-Gilchrist with a refined freshman of their own in Bradley Beal. Whether Patric Young develops a respectable offensive repertoire to prevent defenses from stacking the perimeter could determine Florida’s fate not only for their series with Kentucky, but also deep into March.

Most Anticipated Home Date: Normally this spot is reserved for battles that will decide the conference title, but North Carolina takes the cake in a route. I can envision it now: Big Blue Nation camped out in tents days before the game, a dark shade of blue surrounding the wooden court like an island, a delirious crowd riding on every game-changing moment and the sporting world transfixed on college basketball months before the selection committee gathers in a small Indianapolis conference room.

Upset Watch: I firmly believe Mississippi State is going to experience a bounce-back season, although Renardo Sidney not joining the Bulldogs on their European swing and the quick dismissal of freshman D.J. Gardner isn’t exactly the most advantageous beginning. UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie (16.8 PPG, 11.2 RPG during their trip) along with Sidney in the post could be a forceful tandem. Bost and his exorbitant assist rate is the engine, while freshman Rodney Hood is an impact scorer.

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