In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." We'll have Five Questions with someone from each team and I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Kentucky.
1. I'll never forget it.
It was just a few minutes after the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats had finished their season -- a dominant, borderline unheard-of season -- with a national title. Like many of my fellow media members, I was crowding around Kentucky on the court at the Superdome, grabbing quick interviews and soaking it up, when the net-cutting celebration finished and the Wildcats and coach John Calipari started to walk down from the court back to the locker room. Before they got there, just as Calipari was set to disappear from the floor and into the lower concourse tunnel, a woman in a royal blue shirt leaned over the corner railing and unleashed the following:
Wooo! Coach Cal! Win it again next year, Coach! WIN IT AGAIN!
Calipari was just minutes removed from cutting down the nets in New Orleans. He had just overseen the orchestration of an insanely talented and insanely balanced team's run to a 38-2 record, a sure-handed romp through six NCAA tournament wins to the sport's highest achievement. He hadn't addressed the media yet or gone back in the locker room to spray celebratory Gatorade around; he'd barely gotten through his "One Shining Moment."
If there is a better distillation of the essence of Kentucky Wildcats fans -- of the year-round intensity with which the program's die-hard supporters approach the team -- I'm not sure I've seen it.
But then again, perhaps Calipari has himself to blame, too. After all, these are the expectations he's created: that he can, on an annual basis, turn over the most important pieces of his team -- or even all of it -- and still recruit and coach well enough to compete for a national title a year later. After three Kentucky seasons and three legitimate title runs, there's little reason to expect anything different in Year 4.
2. At almost any program except Kentucky, that fan's request would be wildly unreasonable.
This is, after all, a team that just sent six players to the NBA draft, four of which were selected in the first round. It's a team that had an otherworldly, once-in-a-generation talent at center (Anthony Davis). It had an insanely competitive-beyond-his-years leader at small forward (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). Both were so unselfish they ranked fourth and fifth in shot percentage, respectively. They were drafted No. 1 and No. 2 overall in June. For all the talk about how Calipari's success exploits the one-and-done system, the point was somewhat moot. Teams such as this don't come around every year. Insert your own lightning-in-a-bottle reference here.
So, no, the 2012-13 Wildcats are not going to be the 2011-12 team. It seems unfathomable. But what is far easier to envision is still a very good team capable of challenging the best in the country in March.
That is due to Calipari's recruiting, which saw him land the No. 2 class in the country in 2012 -- the first time in his Kentucky tenure that his class didn't rank No. 1 overall. But that's a pointless distinction because what matters is the haul. Calipari landed the No. 1 player in the country in center Nerlens Noel, a raw but intimidating force many believe is already a better pure shot-blocker than Davis.
He also signed Alex Poythress, the No. 13-ranked player in the country, a 6-foot-7 small forward prized for his athleticism and rebounding in space. Shooting guard Archie Goodwin is the 15th-ranked player, an Arkansas native who can't shake constant Joe Johnson comparisons. Goodwin's game is already well-honed, save for his shooting, but there aren't going to be many players at his position he won't be able to take off the dribble. The final addition -- center Willie Cauley-Stein -- is the No. 11-ranked player at his position and the No. 40-ranked player overall. He'll be able to provide depth and length on the block as early as this season.
And then there are the old(er) faces. Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer was essentially a spot-shooting role player as a freshman. Calipari's fearsome rotation just didn't have enough minutes for him. Wiltjer shot 43 percent from 3-point range as a freshman and could break out into a devastating offensive threat, particularly when paired with Noel (who can handle most of the bruising and rebounding) on the inside. Point guard Ryan Harrow, an NC State transfer, will give Calipari the luxury of having talent and experience at arguably the most important position in his dribble-drive motion offense. The learning curve won't be steep.
3. Is this group good enough to win a national title? I don't know!
That's kind of the point. Nearly everyone is new, so we don't quite know what they are yet. Has Wiltjer expanded his game? Is Harrow a worthy successor at the point, someone capable of breaking down defenses and spreading the ball around and maintaining Kentucky's vaunted balance? Arguably the biggest questions are about Noel, who has been the subject of some not-so-promising rumblings in the scoutosphere this summer (notably from Draft Express' Jonathan Givony, who was underwhelmed by Noel at the adidas Nations). But Noel has never been touted as either (a) a polished offensive player (he isn't, not yet) or (b) the transformative talent that was Davis. Comparisons like that are harsh. It's like asking every good wing player to be Kevin Durant.
Still, there are questions, and the questions are fair. This is a whole new team, a whole new ballgame, and before all is said and done, Calipari might have the Wildcats playing a whole new offensive style. It would hardly come as a surprise.
What I do know is this: Calipari teams always defend. Every season, he gets his group of freshmen and a few veterans together, and every season, he drills them into playing elite-level defense. We've been over this before. Per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, since 2006, Calipari hasn't fielded a defense at either UK or Memphis ranked outside the nation's 15 best. Only twice (the 2011 Wildcats and the 2007 Tigers) has his defense ranked outside the top 10.
It's a remarkable accomplishment, and it makes projecting this program pretty easy: The 2012-13 Wildcats are going to guard. It's a lock. Take it to the bank.
If you guard like UK guards under Calipari, you're going to give yourself a chance to win the title. You don't have to be a majestically balanced, beautiful offensive team -- and you don't have to have a generational basketball alien (hint: I'm talking about Davis) -- to win a championship. Which is why the 2012-13 Wildcats can be a mere fraction of their 2011-12 selves and still compete at the sport's highest level.
It's also why that fan's insane Superdome demands seem silly only at first. Knowing UK these days, they might even be realistic.