Mike DeCourcy, college basketball columnist for The Sporting News, says ranking Kentucky No. 1 in a preseason poll was not difficult, even thought the Wildcats will depend on a freshman class that includes six McDonald’s All-Americans to rebound from last year’s NIT season.
“I think coach John Calipari has shown he can handle young talent, and they have extraordinary talent,” DeCourcy said. “It should be a fun year for Kentucky again.”
DeCourcy shared these insights on the upcoming UK season:
Question: Is it even realistic to think that a team as young as Kentucky could go undefeated in the Southeastern Conference play, less undefeated for the season?
DeCourcy: “I compare it to the 2012 (Kentucky) team and what they faced and went 38-2. They only made it to 10 games before they lost on the road (at Indiana) and then they lost (a) game they didn’t pay much attention to in (the) SEC tournament championship game.
“This team has a much more difficult road. This team could become better, and that’s not an easy task, because the 2012 team was a terrific team. It’s not out of the realm of possibility this team could be better.
“Looking at Michigan State, that’s a veteran team that has been together, played together and knows how to win, and Kentucky will be playing almost its first real game and has to play that team. That’s a much more difficult game than what the 2012 team faced in the Champions Classic (against Kansas).
“They play at North Carolina, which has not lost a non-conference home game since 2005. They are looking at Florida on the road to close it out. If they are undefeated going into that game, can you imagine that atmosphere?
“All these things make it much more of a challenge for this team to go undefeated than what the 2012 team faced. I think it is interesting that John would even allow that conversation to intersect so closely with this team. That says something about what John thinks about this team.”
Question: So will Kentucky be an underdog against Michigan State on Nov. 12 in Chicago?
DeCourcy: “The public may favor Kentucky to win; the smart money may favor it. But I also think you will see the Wildcats favored by the (Las) Vegas books.”
Question: What would be your one biggest concern about the Cats going into the season?
DeCourcy: “I think it starts with the Harrison brothers and the challenge that Andrew (Harrison) has to master the point guard position. We have seen the success and failure of John’s teams over the last six or seven seasons is really correlated to how long it takes the point guard to master the position.
“The 2009 Memphis team floundered until he figured out Tyreke Evans was his point guard. The 2011 UK team struggled until Brandon Knight got a handle on what he brought and John got a handle on what worked for Brandon. That is big part of it. How does it work for (Andrew Harrison)?
“Last season failed because nobody was able to master the position. Andrew’s responsibility and play, and his ability to master that position is the No. 1 thing for this team. I have seen him play, but have not been around him that much. People want to see the (Harrison) twins connect to their teammates.
“It didn’t help that they were not available to connect in the summer when they weren’t at Kentucky, but they can cover a lot of what they missed before UK’s season gets going.
“I just think those guys are the key. For Aaron (Harrison), this is a team that does not have much proven shooting. They need some to win. If he can make shots, it will really help the team, too.”
Question: What is one underrated part of this team?
DeCourcy: “I think it is the veteran core. I have heard a lot of people try to make the case that when Kyle Wiltjer decided to transfer to Gonzaga that this team now lacked leadership. I like Kyle and like his talent, but he wasn’t going to be a leader on this team.
“I think having Jarrod Polson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein back is big. I like Jon Hood as a presence. He is a good kid. You are talking about him being a leader even though he is not playing, and that’s what role Kyle would have had.
“Jon can do that. He has been on every one of Cal’s teams at Kentucky. He knows what to tell the freshmen to do on and off the court. How much will they listen to him? No more or less than they would have Kyle. Kyle would not have been a big factor with this team.
“I think the real leadership has to come from Willie and Alex if he has mastered his position, and I think he will. I think Alex, in terms of on-court direction and ‘do what I am doing,’ he can do that from a leadership standpoint.
“Kentucky is bringing back more people than they are being given credit for this year because of the failure of last year. Willie and Alex are both first-round (NBA draft) talent. The idea that because Kentucky failed last year they don’t have talent is ludicrous. Last year they just did not have a point guard, had chemistry issues and then had a major injury (to Nerlens Noel).”
Question: Who will the team’s most important player be?
DeCourcy: “(Julius) Randle is such an immense talent. I remember 2008 when Chris Douglas-Roberts was an All-American at Memphis for John, but in the end Derrick Rose was the most important player because he was the greatest talent. The team’s success was rooted in whether Rose could enforce that talent, and he did.
“Whether or not UK wins the title this year could come down to how great Julius is and is able to become in his year at Kentucky.
“I think it starts with size and athleticism. His is a very rare combination of those two qualities. He is 6-10, long, physically powerful, extremely mobile and skilled. He is as good a package as you can find.
“He is not LeBron James, who is best example of what a player’s body could be. But he is in the top 5 percent of all basketball players across world when you look at him and see what he brings to the table. It is extraordinary. And he brings confidence and energy.
“I don’t know whether he has the personality Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had. Very few have, or will ever have, what he did, but what Julius has is the ability to take over a game.
“It is easier to take a power forward than a point guard out of the game. If you double him on the block, he can take you outside. If you play him for his shot, he can bounce past you. If leave him open, he can make a shot. There are a lot of ways he can beat you.
“Defensively, he is a great presence. He will have to learn to play team defense, but with the great qualities he has he will be a terrific defensive player and also a very good offensive and defensive rebounder.”
Question: Did Calipari learn anything from each of the last two seasons that could help him this year?
DeCourcy: “The first thing he learned last year is not to make a mistake at point guard. He has clearly invested a lot in making sure Andrew Harrison is the right guy and has to make sure it works for Andrew.
“All his point guards have been different players. John Wall played more above the floor and Derrick Rose used his physical strength. Brandon Knight was a shooter, Tyreke Evans a driver. He made it work for all of them, but it can take time to find the right formula.
“He has to be patient with Andrew, but at the same time forceful and make sure he knows what is expected of him. He can’t let it get away like he did last year.
“The success he had with Marquis Teague (on UK’s 2012 championship team), who was probably the least accomplished individually of anybody up to Ryan Harrow last year, says that John needs to have talent there, but he also needs a point guard to manage the expectations on him and make sure he understands that winning solves a lot of problems. Remember, Marquis got drafted in the first round, too.”
Question: Why do you think Kentucky could win the title but it will be more difficult to win this year than in recent years?
DeCourcy: “There is a wider field of good teams than in 2012, but in 2012 we did not pick UK to win. North Carolina was loaded and had more experience. I think North Carolina still would possibly have won it all if Kendall Marshall had not broken his wrist.
“There will not be a singular challenge as imposing this season, but I would not rule out Louisville, Duke, Michigan State and Kansas. With that collection of teams, maybe the road to the title is harder.
“Look at the road UK had in 2012. They beat Indiana, Baylor, Louisville, teams that did not win their leagues, in the NCAA. This time they may face two or three teams that were champions of significant leagues.
“I am not taking away anything from the 2012 team, but I just think this field of title contenders is wider. I think there are more teams capable of winning this year than in 2012.”
Question: Will Kentucky-Michigan State or Kentucky-Louisville have a better chance of being a Final Four preview?
DeCourcy: “We have Kentucky No. 1 and did in May or June. Our UK pick has been solid. I really like Michigan State a lot, but in the long term, you have got to have a solid point guard. Can Keith Appling get Michigan State there? He won the Big Ten, but he has yet to prove he is a national championship point guard.
“Kansas will have five new starters. Duke one to four is as good as anybody, but who plays in the middle, and can you just get by at center with this many good teams in the field? I think they want to have somebody they can really trust in there, but right now that is not there. There are questions about all the other teams, including Louisville.
“Kentucky’s questions are the same every time. They have proven they can win despite being young. They just have to find the right chemistry, which they didn’t last year, and outside shooting. The rest they have covered.
“If Andrew Harrison gives over to coaching, they should be fine, and every point guard who has done that has flourished under John by being part of successful teams and getting drafted high. There’s no reason for him to fight it.
“It may not work immediately, and that won’t be unusual. In 2009 and 2011 are good examples of teams he had that took him a while to figure out. But once he figured it out, one team went to the Elite Eight and the other one to the Final Four. That’s why I am pretty confident he’ll figure it out this year, too, and this team will be fine.”