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Monday, May 7, 2012
New-look Kentucky sure to guard

By Eamonn Brennan

On Saturday and Sunday, Anthony Bennett made news. The top unsigned player in the class of 2012 narrowed his list of schools from four to two. In somewhat expected fashion, Bennett cut out Florida and then Kentucky from his list , according to ESPN Recruiting analysts Dave Telep and Paul Biancardi, leaving just UNLV and Oregon vying for the No. 7-ranked prospect's considerable services.

In the abstract, that's a ... slightly surprising recruiting coup! UNLV and Oregon outlasting Florida and Kentucky? When does that happen?

In reality, it's not all that shocking. Bennett is looking for immediate impact playing time, and he would have joined a crowded Kentucky frontcourt, one that landed the top big man in the country -- No. 1 overall player Nerlens Noel -- just a few weeks ago.

Likewise, Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, who had been considering Kentucky but chose Arizona instead, takes a possible guard addition off the board, too.

Which means, allowing for the possible exception of another incoming transfer, or a hard push for another unsigned prospect (forward Amile Jefferson being the only real option), Kentucky is almost certainly done adding players for 2012. Given that, now probably as good a time as any to take a look at what the Wildcats are going to be in 2012, a season they will enter ranked again among the top five teams in the country -- even as coach John Calipari overhauls his lineup and incorporates an entirely new group of players.

That's nothing new, of course; no coach in the country has become more adept at reloading with top talent and competing at the highest levels of the sport each and every season. The reason? The trait we once overlooked about Calipari, and one that can no longer be ignored by even the most casual of college basketball fans: defense.

For all of Calipari's strengths as a coach -- recruiting, his flexibility on offense, his ability to stage manage young players through the public rigors of playing at a place like Kentucky -- his unique ability to turn teams full of young stars into committed, cohesive defensive squads is perhaps his best. One look at Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency data tells the tale (numbers indicate national offensive and defensive efficiency rankings):


Since 2006, every single one of Calipari's teams (first at Memphis, then at Kentucky) has ranked among the nation's top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency. All but two of those seven teams -- 2011's Brandon Knight-led Final Four team and the 2007 Memphis Tigers -- have ranked among the top 10. This, in essence, was the most remarkable thing about the 2012 national champion Kentucky Wildcats: As good as they were on defense, with Anthony Davis blocking everything in sight and Terrence Jones muscling on the interior and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist locking down the opposing team's best guard on the perimeter, Kentucky was even better at scoring the ball than stopping it. By the end, the talk about Kentucky's offense -- as led by "National Kentucky's Offense is Even Better than its Defense Month" creator John Gasaway -- finally caught up to reality. The blitz through the NCAA tournament (through quality Big 12 defenses like Iowa State and Baylor) was more than enough for the non-converts. The Wildcats defended like usual, sure. But boy, could they put up points in a hurry.

As that team collected its final accolades at the White House Friday, Calipari said he "may never coach another group like this." He was referring to that team's collective spirit -- which is what allowed it to excel with such balance on the offensive end -- and in more ways than one, he's right. The 2011-12 Wildcats were a uniquely selfless bunch, particularly for a group led by one-and-done stars, but they were also an innately brilliant offensive team. The chances that 2012-13 Kentucky replicates that performance are slim.

But by now, we know Calipari's teams, and what he does to get them to defend like mad almost as soon as they take the court, and it's safe to expect a similar defensive trajectory for his new-look squad. That starts with Noel, a massive interior presence who specializes in blocking shots. Many recruiting analysts believe Noel is already a better shot-blocker than was Davis, who set all kinds of team and conference records as a freshman. Noel is a different sort of player than Davis, a more traditional big man who's been big all his life (as opposed to Davis's freakish high school growth spurt), but it's safe to expect him to provide a similar role on defense: When Kentucky's guards and forwards are beat off the dribble, Noel will be there to cover it all up.

Knowing Calipari, that will be step one in building out another defensive force. It never hurts when your best recruit just so happens to excel precisely at keeping the ball out of the basket. Handy, that.

The bigger questions are on offense, where Calipari has proved amenable to changing his system based on the needs of his current group of players. Noel is far rawer offensively than was Davis, but Calipari has a pair of talented incoming wings in small forward Alex Poythress and shooting guard Archie Goodwin, the No. 3- and No. 4-ranked players at their positions, respectively. He will also have former NC State transfer Ryan Harrow inheriting point guard responsibilities, and the lone holdover from the 2012 rotation, sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, stretching the floor with his shooting.

It's not inconceivable to think Wiltjer may become Kentucky's leading scorer in 2012-13. Though Wiltjer played just 11 minutes a game as a freshman, he took the highest percentage of his team's shots (25 percent) while on the floor, and he excels at running pick-and-pop plays designed to get him open looks on the perimeter. As SI's Luke Winn wrote in his latest power rankings, a Harrow-Wiltjer pick and pop may become UK's bread and butter play, a win-win for Calipari and his players. If Harrow can spread the floor and utilize all three of UK's weapons on the wing, he'll benefit right along with Kentucky's offense. (Pro scouts love a good pick and roll point guard, after all.)

But the offense will be a work in progress for much of the fall, into the winter, and maybe even in SEC play. There will be no immediate, obvious dominance on that end of the floor, or at least we shouldn't expect it.

What we should expect from Kentucky in 2012-13, however, is more of the same. That doesn't mean a repeat of 2012's irreplaceable team. What it does mean is more of what Calipari has done for the past seven years: He'll take a lauded recruiting class and turn it into one of the 10 best defensive teams in the country, sooner in the season rather than later.

Once that's done, Kentucky can figure out how it wants to score the basketball. But the defense will be there -- early and often. With Calipari, it always is.