SEC Transition Basketball: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by Brian Joyce on August 2nd, 2012

It’s hot out there, and to many of us, college basketball is the last thing on our minds. But here at the SEC Microsite, we’re going to be rolling out mid-summer resets of each of the (now) 14 basketball programs in our league. We’re calling it Transition Basketball, and you can expect we’ll cover three or four teams a week until we’re done. By that time, we’ll actually start to be turning the slight corner into the fall, and from there it’s a smooth slope down to Midnight Madness in mid-October. Today’s update: Kentucky.

State of the Program

The Kentucky Wildcats’ 2011-12 season was nearly perfect. Kentucky finished at 38-2, with an unblemished 16-0 conference record on its way to the SEC regular season championship. Anthony Davis was awarded the 2012 Naismith Player of the Year award as the nation’s best player. He won quite a few other awards including National Freshman of the Year, National Defensive Player of the Year, 2012 NCAA First Team All-American, SEC Player of the Year, SEC Freshman of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and First Team All-SEC. John Calipari hasn’t exactly won over critics (he probably never truly will), but impressively snagged his first national championship in just his third year with UK. The Wildcats’ offense was a thing of beauty. At times, their defense was even better.  Fans couldn’t have asked for more than that.

Kyle Wiltjer hopes to make this pose a lot this season. (Photo from kysportsbuzz)

Unfortunately for Wildcats fans, this season could be John Calipari’s biggest rebuilding project yet. In 2009-10, he had junior Patrick Patterson to steady a young group of Wildcat studs. In 2010-11, senior Josh Harrelson came out of nowhere to lead UK’s improbable run to the Final Four. In 2011-12, unsung hero Darius Miller had been through it all, surviving the roller coaster years before Calipari’s arrival to return for his senior year ready to lead his team on a championship run. But in 2012-13, Calipari doesn’t have a single player who has started for his program in the past. He is lacking someone who has made meaningful contributions or played significant minutes in his system, a junior or senior leader who can show the younger players what to expect. This season, Calipari is starting over. He always does to a certain extent, but in years past, he had at least one or two veteran players to bridge the gap. Next season, he needs sophomores Kyle Wiltjer and Ryan Harrow to step into that role.

Recruiting Reset

Reloading an NBA depleted roster has become an annual rite of passage for the Cats. Calipari needed an impressive haul to replace 93 percent of the Wildcats’ scoring, 94 percent of rebounds, 95 percent of blocks, 96 percent of steals and 96 percent of their assists from last season. Of course, Kentucky ushers in another who’s who of high school talent with overall top prospect and blocking sensation Nerlens Noel, 6’8″ forward Alex Poythress, 6’4″ guard Archie Goodwin, and 6’11” center Willie Cauley-Stein. Most know how good Noel, Poythress, and Goodwin will be, but Calipari had praise specifically for the less heralded Cauley-Stein when he spoke to ESPN’s Andy Katz earlier this summer. “He’s so skilled, real skilled,” Calipari said about the big man. “I was stunned how good he was.”

Also new to Lexington this year are transfers Julius Mays and Harrow. Mays is entering his senior year playing for his third team. He played for NC State for his freshman and sophomore years before transferring to Wright State for his junior season. With the Raiders, he averaged 14.1 points, 2.5 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per game with an impressive 42.4 three point field goal percentage. Mays is eligible immediately to play in the backcourt. Harrow sat out last season after averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 assists per game at NC State. He will be eligible next season to start as the next in a long line of outstanding point guards under Calipari. Harrow needs to improve his shooting, however, as he shot just 39 percent from the field and 22 percent from beyond the arc in his freshman year with the Wolfpack.

Breakout Player

6’9″ forward Kyle Wiltjer will have his chance to lead after sitting behind all the frontcourt talent in Lexington last year. Wiltjer has never been shy about hoisting the ball toward the rim, shooting 25 percent of the Wildcats’ shots when he was on the floor last year. He was extremely effective too, with a 54.6 percent effective field goal percentage and 42.5 three point percentage. Expect to see him as a major component in the Kentucky offense, most likely coming off of a pick and pop situation with Harrow as Calipari ran many times last season with Marquis Teague and Wiltjer at the four spot.

Wiltjer’s defensive skill set is where he needs the most growth. He averaged just 1.7 rebounds per game with a defensive rebounding percentage of 9.9 percent. The sophomore lays claim to Kentucky’s worst stop percentage and defensive rating over the course of last season, according to A Sea of Blue. As coach Calipari points out, a lot of his difficulties were simply as a result of a lack of physical strength. “Just stronger, more mature,” Calipari said about his expectations for Wiltjer in his second year. “The funny thing is, he hasn’t started shaving yet. My (15-year-old) son’s started to shave. Kyle Wiltjer is very young for his age. His dad’s almost 7 feet tall; wouldn’t it be nice if we all turn around and we look at him and say, ‘You’re still growing,’ and then to still have the skill set that he has?”  In order to play significant minutes in Calipari’s system, Wiltjer must rebound more consistently and play more effective defense on opposing big men.

Three Questions With A Sea of Blue’s Glenn Logan

Glenn Logan is a small business owner in Louisville, Kentucky. That is, of course, when he’s not busy as the head honcho and managing editor of the Kentucky Wildcats’ SB Nation online community, A Sea of Blue. He was willing to sit down with Rush the Court to share his thoughts on the upcoming college basketball season for the defending national champions. For all the Wildcat news you can handle, follow Logan and the ASoB guys on Twitter @aseaofblue.

Rush The Court: The Kentucky and Indiana series, or the lack thereof, made a lot of headlines this summer. What’s the big stink? Doesn’t the benefit of playing in neutral site arenas to simulate the NCAA Tournament experience far outweigh the emotionally driven desires of continuing the series with IU or does this rivalry have too much history to ignore?

Glenn Logan: Honestly, this was always a tempest in a teapot. The biggest reason the fans consider it so valuable, aside from the fact that IU is our longest-running non-conference opponent, is that it is one of the few marquee games in the season ticket package. The game was played at semi-home sites for a long time, then reverted to home-home when Louisville had a conflict with Kentucky’s date in Freedom Hall. The contract got renewed home-home for whatever reason, and neither Calipari nor Crean were willing to give on the venue for a renewal. Perhaps they will have a change of heart next season, who knows? I like neutral sites better, no matter where they are, because this game, to me, is more exciting when you have both sides in roughly equal numbers. I was fine with the home-home as well, although the behavior of the IU fans in the most recent game certainly gave me concerns, and provided cover for Calipari to insist on neutral sites. How long that lasts is anybody’s guess.

RTC: Last year, Kentucky relied very little on the three point shot, only accumulating 21.8% of its points from beyond the arc. Without the presence of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or Terrence Jones on the inside, I imagine that will change. How much do you think that number will go up this season and how much should we expect Calipari to change his offense to accommodate for the strength of his team?

GL: I don’t think it will go up much. Kentucky has firepower on the perimeter, but the 2012-13 team is built to slash more than it is to spot up. That will naturally lead to some spot-up opportunities, but I expect this team to play very similarly to last year, as it has a pretty similar makeup — a lot of length, a lot of quickness, but not a lot of bulk. You might see points from three go up to 23-25%, but more than that would surprise me. Only one of Calipari’s teams at Kentucky has used the three-point arc for more than 23% of their points, and that was 2010-11 with Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller all playing major minutes. Calipari’s Memphis teams consistently got more of their points from outside, but with a team that looks like 2012-13, I expect about 23-25% of the points to come from outside.

RTC: Kentucky fans enjoyed Anthony Davis’ shot-blocking abilities, Michael Kidd Gilchrist’s hustle, and Darius Miller’s leadership in the clutch, just to name a few of the highlights. If you could bottle up one characteristic, attribute, or playmaking ability from last year and give it to the 2012-13 Wildcats, what would it be?

GL: Self-confidence. Last year’s team was confident in their ability from Day 1 until April 2, and that’s the biggest reason they won the national title. Kentucky was a tough defensive squad and had some good moments of all the characteristics you mention, but to me, the confidence they had in themselves, and each other, was what made them special. Another thing was that they really got along well. Last year’s team was as close as any team has been at Kentucky, and even though I don’t think that is absolutely critical to a team’s success, it can be a benefit at times, and I think it was a benefit a couple of times last year, particularly at the end of the season when they collectively shrugged off the loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament final.

RTC: Okay, we’re having fun. Can we do a bonus question? There are 23 current Wildcat players in the NBA. There was a post on A Sea of Blue asking readers who they would select for an all Kentucky NBA starting five. Who are your five?

GL: Assuming you mean as of today, it would probably be (in a close one):

  • C/F: DeMarcus Cousins
  • PF: Anthony Davis
  • SF: Tayshaun Prince
  • SG: Jodie Meeks
  • PG: Rajon Rondo

Twitter Style 2012-13 Outlook

This may be John Calipari’s biggest test at Kentucky yet. The Wildcats have to replace a lot of scoring and rebounding, but they have the talent to be amongst the nation’s best yet again.

Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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One response to “SEC Transition Basketball: Kentucky Wildcats”

  1. […] – Hell, while we’re already talking about Kentucky, I might as well drop you a line about Rush The Court’s offseason report on the reigning National Champions […]

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