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Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Summer Buzz: Kentucky Wildcats

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Kentucky Insider. Up next? Louisville.

Tuesday, I spent much of the Duke post using the word "change." At the risk of getting repetitive ... ladies and gentleman, your 2010-11 Kentucky Wildcats!

John Wall is gone. DeMarcus Cousins is gone. Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton are all gone. Each was taken in the first round of this summer's NBA draft. And that's exactly how John Calipari likes it.

Brandon Knight
Brandon Knight has some large shoes to fill at Kentucky.
Either by design or by accident, Calipari is forging a new talent strategy at Kentucky. That strategy doesn't mind recruiting one-and-done players. In fact, it actively encourages it.

The difficult part of this strategy is knowing just how good Kentucky is going to be. The 2009-10 Cats were easier. Wall was always going to be a force and Patterson was a star under former coach Billy Gillispie. Bledsoe had the combo-guard skills to start alongside Wall; Cousins was, at the very least, going to rebound. (He ended up doing much more than that.)

The 2010-11 team is much more difficult to predict. Can new point guard Brandon Knight lead as intuitively and seamlessly as Wall? Will Enes Kanter replace the rebounding and interior defense of Cousins? (Related question: Can Kanter get eligible in time for it to matter?) Can new guards Doron Lamb and Stacey Poole give Kentucky some measure of outside shooting? Is Terrence Jones, the most indecisive UK commitment of all-time, good enough to replicate Patterson?

All of that seems doubtful, which is why the Wildcats aren't likely to be as dominant in the SEC as they were in Calipari's first season on the job. There is reason to think this team can be awfully good, though, and the reason is Calipari.

Coach Cal is often maligned as a master recruiter who lacks the X's and O's ability of his successful contemporaries. There might be some truth to that. (The decision not to foul in the 2008 Kansas-Memphis title game might haunt him the rest of his life.) But since the coach hit his elite-level stride at Memphis in 2005-06, Calipari's teams have always been good at two things: Chemistry and team defense.

The former alleviates concerns about mixing in new talent. It also points to a simple fact that some Calipari haters oftentimes forget: The dribble-drive offense. His system works because it reduces responsibility and makes the game simple. In 2009-10, the style of the Cats dictated a slower tempo, but Kentucky's new blood will be running again in 2010-11. Freshmen might take a while to learn college hoops, but it doesn't get much easier than learning it Cal's way.

The latter in that equation -- team defense -- is where Calipari's teams are always underappreciated. Take a look at the defensive efficiency of his last five teams (stats, as always, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy):
You get the idea. Calipari's teams can play defense. So can a lot of other teams, right? So what?

The reason why this is so important for Kentucky is because of Calipari's recruiting style. All of the teams mentioned above featured a bevy of young players. A portion of those players were elite one-and-done talents.

Coaches often complain that AAU and high school basketball is so easy for the best players in the country that they learn bad habits, and those bad habits manifest themselves in poor team defense. "Everybody knows how to score, but not everybody knows how to play basketball." How often do you hear college coaches say that?

Not Calipari. He manages to take the best talent in the country and unleash it on the college hoops world, but he doesn't just do so by playing to that talent's desire for stardom or scoring or high-flying alley-oops. It's easy to picture teams with so much young talent lapsing into lazy summer league defense. Instead, Calipari makes them buy in. On both ends. The result is teams that combine those dribble-drive-created offensive flurries with stifling, harassing team defense. It's just what Calipari teams do. There's no reason to expect the 2010-11 Cats to be any different.

There was simply too much turnover in Lexington this summer to know much about the 2010-11 Wildcats. We don't know how they'll respond to adversity. We don't know whether Brandon Knight can be John Wall. We don't know if they'll rebound, especially now that Cousins isn't hoovering everything in sight on the offensive end. We don't know whether this is an Elite Eight team or a No. 6 seed. We don't know how good they'll really be.

What we do know is that Kentucky will play incredibly efficient defense. We'll see if the rest, as it so often has for Calipari, can take care of itself.