College Basketball Nation: Archie Goodwin

1. Syracuse wasn’t the only newcomer the ACC took care of in scheduling. Notre Dame has a tremendous first-year schedule in the league with home games against North Carolina and Duke. Three Big Ten nonconference games are also on Mike Brey's daunting overall schedule, two of which were out of his control. It was Notre Dame’s turn to play Indiana in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis, and the Big Ten-ACC Challenge gave the Irish a road game at Iowa. Notre Dame had already scheduled the Gotham Classic in Madison Square Garden against Ohio State. “We’ve got three Big Ten teams on the schedule but I don’t want our fans to think we’ve joined the Big Ten,’’ said Brey. The Irish will also play three potential postseason teams in Delaware, Bryant and North Dakota State in the Gotham Classic in leading up to the Ohio State game Dec. 21 in NYC. Santa Clara and Indiana State, two other teams with postseason ability, come to South Bend. “Our fans are going to be spoiled by getting Carolina and Duke coming to South Bend,’’ said Brey. “We’ve got BC, Georgia Tech as our repeat games and Virginia and UNC too. Having Duke and Carolina coming here in the first year in the ACC is knocking it out of the park. We’re fortunate.’’ Brey considered playing a road game against Baylor in Dallas to start the season but then decided against it and wanted to get a home game for new point guard Demetrius Jackson. “He’s a key guy for us so I want to him to play 20-something minutes at home,’’ said Brey. “With the schedule we have, we’ve got enough games on the road and neutral.’’

2. Washington State coach Ken Bone said Idaho coach Ron Verlin agreed to move a game against the Cougars on Dec. 7 so Wazzu could participate in the Jud Heathcote event -- an event celebrating Heathcote's legacy at the four schools where he has either coached or -- in the case of Gonzaga -- has a passion for. Washington State will play Montana in the undercard while Gonzaga will host Michigan State at Spokane Arena on Dec. 7. Heathcote lives in Spokane where he coached high school basketball at West Valley High. He’s a regular at Gonzaga games. He also coached at Montana and Washington State before winning a national title with Magic Johnson at Michigan State in 1979. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo served under Heathcote before replacing him. Gonzaga coach Mark Few has become extremely close with Heathcote, as well.

3. Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, Alex Len, Nerlens Noel and Anthony Bennett all will be unable to participate in next week’s NBA draft combine in Chicago on Thursday and Friday (live coverage on ESPNU 10 a.m. to 2 p.m./ 2-3 p.m. ESPN2 each day). That means there will be ample opportunity for even more players to shine in what has become a wide-open draft. At each of the five listed positions, there is at least one player who could really benefit from the lower numbers. Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, who is being discussed as a first-round lock, has a real shot to move up among the point guards. This will be a critical few days for those watching Kentucky’s Archie Goodwin among the shooting guards. The same is true of Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas with the small forwards, BYU’s Brandon Davies with the power forwards and Kansas’ Jeff Withey with the centers.

3-point shot: Kentucky's next steps

March, 21, 2013
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1. Kentucky cured any hangover from the Robert Morris loss by getting a commitment Wednesday from Julius Randle. The Wildcats will have as heralded an incoming class next season as they did in John Calipari's first and third seasons in Lexington. But there will have to be scholarship discussions in the coming weeks. This is nothing new -- and Kentucky is hardly alone in this type of scenario. Players who don't turn out as expected can see coaches recruit new talent for their roster spots, especially at elite programs -- thus creating scholarship issues. Of course, the Wildcats have a few players -- like Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin -- who could be drafted based on potential. But the only player on Kentucky's roster who could contribute next season in the NBA is a healthy Nerlens Noel. No one else. Don't be surprised if there is some natural attrition on this roster. Any time a team underachieves and reaches the NIT instead of the NCAA, roster changes are possible.

2. Boise State lost to an unheralded La Salle team in the First Four on Wednesday night. But the Broncos were way ahead of schedule this season. Boise State coach Leon Rice said earlier in the week on ESPNU that he told the administration in the preseason he had no idea how good this team would be by season's end. The Broncos' appearance in the NCAA tournament could be akin to Colorado State's a year ago. The Rams popped up a year early and are back again this season. The Broncos now have to ensure that this season was hardly a fluke -- with the added expectations of repeat NCAA appearance. Rice has done wonders in making Boise State relevant in hoops. There's no reason to believe he won't continue to do so.

3. Two of the biggest winners in this alignment game will ultimately be the fan bases at Creighton and Butler. Just think about the change on the schedule for these two programs. The Bluejays are going from hosting Bradley or Evansville to having Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova come to Omaha, Neb. And within two years, Butler will have gone from hosting Youngstown State to welcoming Georgetown to Indianapolis. Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said that this will be a challenge for the coaching staffs, which now have to learn new systems and styles on the fly. Butler had to try to figure out the Atlantic 10; now, within a year, the Bulldogs will be in another league, playing a true round-robin schedule.

Observations from Thursday night

March, 8, 2013
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John Calipari has tried numerous tactics in recent weeks to light a spark within his Kentucky basketball team. One afternoon, he even staged an impromptu dodgeball game to loosen the mood and improve chemistry.

Nothing has worked.

Thursday’s 72-62 loss at Georgia marked the fourth defeat in the past seven games for the Wildcats, who will probably need to beat Florida in Saturday’s regular-season finale to have any shot of making the NCAA tournament.

Center Willie Cauley-Stein shrugged his shoulders when he was asked what Kentucky could do to turn things around.

“Have faith?” he said. “Go to church? Maybe that’s what we need to -- go to church as a team and pray for each other.”

Even divine intervention might not be enough to help the Wildcats at this point. If Kentucky can’t beat Arkansas and Georgia, there is no reason to believe it can get past a Florida squad many pundits have tagged as a Final Four contender.

The Gators defeated Calipari’s team 69-52 in Gainesville on Feb. 12. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky’s best player, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in that contest and UK hasn’t been the same since. Granted, even before Noel’s injury, the Wildcats weren’t very good. Kentucky’s résumé includes very few quality wins -- and a bunch of bad losses.

“I’m mad,” guard Archie Goodwin told reporters after Thursday’s loss. “There’s no way we should lose to Georgia. There’s no way we should lose to Arkansas.

“When we play like we’re supposed to, there’s not anyone in the country we can’t beat. When we play like this, when we play soft as a team, anyone can beat us.”

Calipari, to his credit, said he is to blame for his squad’s collapse.

“I’m so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team,” he said Thursday night. “I’ve never had a team not cohesive at this time of year. Every one of my teams ... cohesive. Every one of them had a will to win. Every one of them had a fight.

“If this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me.”

[+] EnlargeJosh Scott
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJosh Scott and Colorado outmuscled an Oregon team that could've nabbed a share of the Pac-12 title.
Here are a few other observations from Thursday’s games:

1. Does anyone want to win the Pac-12?

UCLA and Oregon entered the week tied for first in the conference standings with two games to play. Somehow, though, UCLA lost to last-place Washington State in Pullman on Wednesday, which meant Oregon could’ve clinched at least a share of the league's regular-season crown by beating Colorado on Thursday.

The Ducks responded by losing 76-53 in Boulder. And the Buffs didn’t even have Andre Roberson, who missed the game with a viral illness. Each team has one game remaining. UCLA plays at Washington on Saturday; Oregon takes on Utah in Salt Lake City the same day.

Whatever happens, no one can argue that the parity in the Pac-12 is greater than any conference in the country. Next week’s league tournament should be fun.

2. I loved the shot of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo jumping up and wrapping his arms around the neck of 6-foot-10 forward Adreian Payne during a timeout in the Spartans’ 58-43 victory over Wisconsin. Payne had just taken a hard fall under the basket after missing a dunk, but he eventually popped back up. Izzo loved seeing that toughness and resiliency -- not just from Payne, but from his entire team.

Michigan State entered the game toting three consecutive losses, all by single digits and all against ranked opponents. But by winning Thursday, Michigan State put itself in a position to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. Indiana sits atop the conference standings at 13-4. Three other teams (Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State) are 12-5.

If Michigan defeats Indiana on Sunday in Ann Arbor, four teams will finish in a tie for first. That’s assuming, of course, that Michigan State and Ohio State take care of business in their regular-season finales against Northwestern and Illinois, respectively.

Whatever happens, Michigan State should feel good about itself entering the Big Ten tournament following Thursday’s dominating victory over an excellent Wisconsin squad.

3. I’ve got to think Northwestern’s loss to Penn State on Thursday marked Bill Carmody’s final home game as the Wildcats’ head coach. Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament and it won’t get there this year under Carmody, who is in his 13th season. Losing to the Big Ten’s worst team on Senior Night is about as bad as it gets. Duke assistant Chris Collins has been mentioned as a possible replacement. Another coach who would be a good fit: Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew.

4. Michael Snaer’s ability to come through in the clutch continues to amaze me. The Florida State guard scored on a left-handed runner in traffic with 4 seconds remaining to propel the Seminoles past Virginia 53-51. Snaer was fouled on the play, and he made the ensuing free throw.

The game winner was the fourth for Snaer this season and his sixth over the past two.

Virginia, which had fought back from an 11-point deficit to take the lead, has now lost four of its past six games. The Cavaliers are on the NCAA tournament bubble.

My Saturday afternoon observations

February, 16, 2013
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Just last week, NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Bobinski hosted the first of a handful of teleconferences heading toward Selection Sunday. It was just a day after Nerlens Noel tore his anterior cruciate ligament, so naturally Bobinski was asked how the loss of Kentucky’s best player would affect the Wildcats’ chance at an NCAA tourney berth.

Here’s what he said:

“The reality is we have about 4 1/2 weeks of basketball left to be able to watch Kentucky play and see how they perform without him in the lineup now, and that will really tell the story I think of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky."

Well, here’s what the committee saw:

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsA rocky road got worse Saturday for John Calipari and defending-champion Kentucky.
Tennessee 88, Kentucky 58. Tied for the fourth-worst loss for UK in the past 80 years. John Calipari's worst loss since Feb. 18, 1989. That was a lifetime ago, in his first season at Massachusetts, when the Minutemen lost to Duquesne by 31. He didn’t have quite as many McDonald's All Americans on that roster.

If this were an audition for the tourney bracket, the director would be yelling, "Next!"

Just barely on the bubble to begin with -- Kentucky has zero top-50 RPI wins now that free-falling Ole Miss has dropped to 51 -- the Wildcats were quickly dumped to the First Four Out by Joe Lunardi on Saturday afternoon (remember, even before Noel got hurt, UK was getting essentially run out of the gym by Florida).

There is no question that losing Noel is a huge blow, but it is not just in terms of X's and O's. That Tennessee loss -- and give the Vols credit for playing a near-flawless game (especially point guard Trae Golden) -- exposed the real crux of the problem for Kentucky sans Noel.

For most of the season, he has been the only one playing with a combination of consistent ferocity and passion. The rest of the team tends to disappear frequently, lollygags on defense often and shows such dispassionate body language at times that you have to wonder whether the players are clock-watching.

In Noel’s absence, his freshman classmates Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin combined for 13 points, 13 fouls and nine turnovers.

A year after coaching one of the best collections of hard-working, unselfish players, Calipari has a group he cannot cajole, bullwhip or beg into cohesion. It has gotten so bad that the coach spent the week before the Florida game talking about his team’s need to find love. Not the Valentine kind, but the bromance of basketball.

Thanks to the cottony soft bubble, Kentucky isn’t dead yet. But the Grim Reaper is standing by. The Wildcats have six regular-season games left -- four that can only hurt them (against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia) and two that will mean everything (visits from Missouri and Florida).

Noel, of course, won’t be there for any of them, but for Kentucky right now, it’s more about channeling the way he played.

Some other observations from Saturday afternoon:

1. Opportunity knocked ... And North Carolina answered. Oklahoma couldn’t unlock the door. Stanford didn’t hear the doorbell. In what might go down as an ACC bracket-buster game, the Tar Heels topped Virginia, 93-81. That doesn’t officially seal either team’s fate, but certainly it’s a feather for UNC and a glancing blow for the Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, in the Big 12, Oklahoma blew an 11-point lead and lost 84-79 in overtime at Oklahoma State, which has won seven consecutive league games for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s a body blow for the rival Sooners, who have a confusing NCAA résumé -- an RPI of 20 but a 3-5 record against the RPI top 50.

As for Stanford, Bill Walton quite naturally put it best. Somebody, the analyst said, needs to start watering the roots of the Tree. Just two weeks ago, the Cardinal looked like the team that promised to capitalize on its NIT run from last season, winning three games in a row, including one against hot Oregon. Now, Stanford has lost three of four, blowing show-me opportunities against both Arizona and now UCLA.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiFreshman Marcus Smart scored 28 in OK State's rivalry win, the Cowboys' seventh in a row.
2. Pay attention to Marcus Smart: The Oklahoma State guard might be the most unheralded player in the country right now. Seriously. The reason might be that on their own, none of his numbers jumps off the stat line -- he averages 14.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.0 steals per game -- but then go back and look at that list collectively.

He’s good at everything. Offense, defense, scoring and sharing, he is the consummate individual player and the consummate teammate. In the victory against the Sooners, he had 28 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Just another day at the office. He's also the reason the Cowboys are poised for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2010. Oklahoma State has won seven in a row. In that stretch, Smart is averaging 19.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.4 steals.

3. What would happen if ... Arkansas and Missouri played on a neutral court? Would the game ever end? Or better yet, would it ever start? Would both teams be turned into pillars of salt, frozen in fear by the unfamiliar, away-from-home surroundings? Give the Hogs credit -- they're now 15-1 at home after squeaking past Mizzou, 73-71. But neither team can win on the road, which is something the selection committee kind of likes to see every once in a while.

4. Can a player win national player of the year and not make the NCAA tournament? It has never happened with a Wooden winner, but Doug McDermott might be on the verge of rewriting history in a decidedly twisted way. McDermott is continuing to put up huge numbers -- he is averaging 23 points per game and just eclipsed the 2,000-point plateau -- but his team isn’t doing much to prove it belongs in the field of 68.

The Bluejays rallied from a double-digit deficit to win 71-68 at Evansville and end their three-game skid. Feel free to celebrate the end of the losing streak, but then realize that Evansville is 14-13 overall and just 7-8 in the league, so skating to a three-point win doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence, does it?

In the latest player-of-the-year straw poll of actual voters, collected by Michael Rothstein, McDermott was second behind Michigan’s Trey Burke. He had 118 points and 21 first-place votes to Burke’s 136 and 30 (the poll is done every two weeks), and the next-closest vote getter, Mason Plumlee, wasn’t even in the neighborhood, with 35 points and only four first-place votes.

Numbers matter in player of the year ballots, but don’t think for a minute winning isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a factor. If Creighton doesn’t right the ship well enough soon, it will be interesting to see whether McDermott is part of the collateral damage.

5. Watch out for Providence: No, I’m not joking. Done in by injuries and down to five scholarship players early, the Friars appeared destined for their annual bottom-third-of-the-Big East finish. Not so fast. Coach Ed Cooley has talent -- Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts, Vincent Council and Kris Dunn -- and now he's getting something out of it. Providence has won four consecutive Big East games for the first time since 2004, including wins against Cincinnati and today's 71-54 victory over Notre Dame, which snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Irish.

I’m not sure whether the Friars are good enough to keep that streak going -- they go to Syracuse next -- but after too many lean years to count, Cooley has this team headed in the right direction. In a confusing Big East -- explain Villanova, please? -- Providence is good enough to make things even more confounding.

What's the matter with Kentucky?

January, 23, 2013
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Last season, in many ways, Louisville and Kentucky held the college hoops consciousness hostage.

For denizens of the Bluegrass State in areas both urban and rural, this was nothing new; UK and UL wage an intense year-long rivalry with immense cultural implications. For the rest of the country, the Final Four meeting in New Orleans offered the best possible glimpse: A rivalry game on the greatest stage, a duel between nemeses Rick Pitino and John Calipari, a battle between an unstoppably talented Wildcats team and a quirkier, less obvious Cardinals group.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Matt Cashore/US PresswireCoach John Calipari and Kentucky are at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament.
These teams were also at the fore of what appeared to be the rise of a new college basketball nexus in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky -- what our own Dana O'Neil, in touring all three states this fall, called "the intersection of past and present that has turned the area into a basketball autobahn."

That isn't going to change anytime soon. Louisville and Kentucky are high-performance autobahn-ready machines. Even if, in the short term, both are suffering some degree of mechanical failure.

The situation is obviously less drastic at Louisville. On Saturday, the Cardinals suffered a brutal home loss thanks to the impressive late work of Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams (and the brilliant first-half work by Brandon Triche, which kept the Orange in the game in the first place). Then, Tuesday, the Cardinals traveled to 11-7 Villanova, a rebuilding and mostly mediocre outfit these days (forget a blog post: "What happened to Villanova?" could be a multi-part "Frontline" series) and lost, 73-64.

Last night, when I cited last season's 90-59 Louisville loss at Providence on Jan. 10, I said that if "I'm a Cardinals fan, I'm not panicking." The response I got to this was surprising: As far as I can tell, Louisville fans are actually panicking. At the very least, they're not happy. That's understandable, but road losses in the Big East happen. Games like the one Louisville lost to Syracuse -- close, hard-fought contests that boil 40 minutes down to one possession, maybe two -- can go any way, especially in January. As long as Louisville scores at an even average rate (it didn't Tuesday night, posting just .85 ppp in Philly), its defense will hold it in good stead.

Kentucky, of course, has much more pressing concerns. We keep waiting for the Wildcats to turn it on, to come together, to play the sort of defense we've come to associate with John Calipari-led teams, even those that rely so heavily on freshmen. But each new UK game seems to bring with it new obstacles. For much of the nonconference season, for example, freshman swingman Alex Poythress impressed, while 2012's top-rated recruit, Nerlens Noel, largely disappointed. Now Noel is unquestionably the best player on this team: His ability to create blocks and steals is unparalleled in college hoops, he rebounds well, and his shaky offensive game has started to come around. (I've already filed Noel away for next year's fantasy basketball draft. He's going to be a sneaky steals/blocks beast.) Now, Poythress is struggling -- he finished UK's 59-55 loss at Alabama with five fouls in 15 total minutes -- and point Ryan Harrow, despite all his recent improvements, is still not the player Calipari needs him to be. (Harrow went 3-of-11 for six points and two assists Tuesday night). Even Archie Goodwin, the one reliable presence throughout November and December, has swooned in conference play.

All of which would be fine, were this a normal Kentucky team going through a slight midseason slump. As it stands, UK is at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats were a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's Tuesday morning bracket before the Alabama loss, which might not hurt but certainly doesn't help. With the way the SEC is this season, UK has just a few chances to make an impression: two games against Florida, one against Missouri, and one against Ole Miss. The rest of the schedule (LSU, Georgia, Auburn, Mississippi State, et al.) is full of potential slip-ups and RPI hits. And we can't tell if Kentucky as a whole -- as something more than its talented young parts -- is even getting better.

We expected Louisville to be good, and for the most part it has been. Very good, even. We expected Kentucky to be good because Calipari's teams, no matter how young, almost always are. To see this team struggle more than any other since he began his remarkable run of success in Lexington has been jarring, even for impartial outsiders. To UK fans, elated with the 2012 national title but perpetually in search of another, preparing to spend the rest of the season on the bubble must be disorienting.

Freshman Rankings: Who made the cut?

December, 20, 2012
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Every other week in these parts, we'll unveil our list of the nation's top 10 freshmen. As with first-year players, this list is bound to be fluid throughout the season. So if you don't see your favorite player on these initial rankings today, check back with us for later editions. Or you can just leave us an angry comment in this one.

Without further ado, here are the choices (followed by a notable player from the past who put up similar numbers as a freshman):

[+] EnlargeAnthony Bennett
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Bennett's size and perimeter ability break the mold of the traditional power forward.
1. Anthony Bennett, UNLV -- 19.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 54.7 FG pct
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2005-06)

As the most consistent and most prolific freshman in the nation, Bennett has distanced himself from the pack. He’s the top freshman scorer (19.4) and ranks fifth in rebounds (8.6). His 19-8 averages were achieved by only four freshmen over the previous 10 seasons: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Kris Humphries and Carmelo Anthony. Pretty good company. Forget freshman honors, Bennett’s in the conversation for national player of the year.

2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State -- 12.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.6 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jason Kidd, California (1992-93)

Statistically, the last freshmen to fill up the score sheet like Smart were Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway. On top of lockdown defense, he’s averaging 12.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals. Arguably the top freshman in November, Smart’s production has waned a bit this month. His turnovers are high and he’s shooting only 35 percent from the field on the season. With those caveats aside, there’s really no one like him.

3. Jahii Carson, Arizona State -- 17.9 PPG, 5.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jerryd Bayless, Arizona (2007-08)

Three of the top 20 recruits in the nation enrolled at Arizona this year, but there’s little question that the most impressive freshman in the state plays in Tempe. Carson (17.9 ppg) trails only Bennett is scoring, while also ranking in the top five in assists (5.3). It has been 16 years since a freshman averaged 17 and 5 (Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway in 1996-97). On a team picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12, it’s no surprise that the Sun Devils are leaning heavily on Carson. If he turns ASU into a conference contender, he might lock up this award. But keep in mind that the last USBWA Freshman of the Year to miss the NCAA tournament was Eddie Griffin in 2000-01.

4. Ben McLemore, Kansas -- 15.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky (2004-05)

Kansas is the only team in the top 20 with a freshman leading the team in scoring. McLemore (15.9 PPG) is on track to break Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record, while joining Brandon Rush as the only freshmen to lead the Jayhawks in scoring over the past 30 years. An interesting side note: Both McLemore and Carson are redshirt freshmen, who were ineligible last season. They were ranked back-to-back (at 49th and 50th, respectively) in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2011.

5. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky -- 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.4 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyreke Evans, Memphis (2008-09)

Goodwin is putting up numbers eerily similar to another John Calipari freshman sensation, albeit from his pre-Kentucky days. Like Goodwin, Tyreke Evans was pressed into point guard duty for Memphis in 2009, finishing the season at 17.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 3.9 APG. Through 10 games, Goodwin is averaging 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.4 APG. Just like John Wall and Brandon Knight did as freshmen, he leads the Wildcats in points and assists.

6. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – 10.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.9 BPG, 2.8 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyrus Thomas, LSU (2005-06)

In the span of a month, Noel went from overrated to overlooked. That’s what expectations will do for you. Maybe he won’t be the next Anthony Davis, but his numbers on the defensive end are worthy of praise. Noel leads all freshmen in steals (2.8), ranks second in blocks (3.9) and fourth in rebounds (9.0). He’s the only player, regardless of class, ranked in the top 50 in steals and blocks. Even if his offense doesn’t come around, Noel will remain among the most impactful freshmen.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsUCLA's Shabazz Muhammad has been stellar since becoming eligible this season.
7. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA -- 17.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Rashad McCants, UNC (2002-03)

While Muhammad missed the first three games of the season, Jordan Adams exploded out of the gate. But Muhammad has been the Bruins' most consistent player since becoming eligible. He’s up to 17.8 ppg, the fifth-highest scoring average among freshmen. A week ago, he wouldn’t have been on this list. But after totaling 46 points over the past two games, Muhammad is coming on strong. Apart from Kevin Love, no one has been a bigger threat to Don MacLean’s school freshman scoring record (18.6 ppg).

8. Semaj Christon, Xavier -- 14.7 PPG, 5.2 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Dominic James, Marquette (2005-06)

Cramps limited Christon to 23 minutes against Cincinnati, blocking him from a potential statement game. On a team that lost its top six scorers, he has thrown the Musketeers on his back with the fifth-highest usage percentage of any freshman. He’s on track to be Xavier’s second-leading freshman scorer of all time behind Byron Larkin (17.0 in 1984-85). All that’s missing is the deep threat. Christon is 2-for-11 from 3-point range.

9. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke -- 12.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.6 RPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: E’Twaun Moore, Purdue (2007-08)

While most of his brethren dominate lesser competition, Sulaimon is getting it done against the nation’s elite. With 17 points against Ohio State and 14 against Louisville, he’s a big reason that the Blue Devils are unbeaten and No. 1 in the nation. He doesn’t have the flashiest numbers, but Sulaimon is third on Duke in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

10. Nik Stauskas, Michigan -- 13.2 PPG, 54.7 3-pt FG pct
Freshman Statistical Comparison: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt (2009-10)

The least heralded recruit on this list, Stauskas was ranked 76th in the ESPN 100 coming out of St. Mark’s in Southborough, Mass. But the Canadian has been just the deep threat that John Beilein needed at Michigan, shooting 54.7 percent from 3-point range. That puts him on pace to break Jay Edwards’ 25-year-old record for 3-point percentage by a freshman (53.6).

Just Missed: T.J. Warren (NC State), Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Jordan Adams (UCLA)
Rising: James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Jakarr Sampson (St. John’s), John Brown (High Point)
Falling: Brandon Ashley (Arizona), James Woodard (Tulsa), Dewayne Russell (Northern Arizona)


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Quick thoughts from Notre Dame's 64-50 victory over No. 8 Kentucky, the program's fourth straight win over a top-10 team:

Overview: For the first five minutes, as UK's highly touted young players carved up Notre Dame's less touted veterans, it appeared as if sheer talent might be enough to carry this group through its first true road test as a team. That notion ended quickly and without ceremony. The Irish turned their 3-for-8 shooting in the first five minutes into a tidy 15-for-27 first half, working for good shots and making most of them, all the while containing Kentucky on the other end of the floor.

By the time the half was over, ND led 36-25, and UK looked a bit lost, content to take bad shots, unable to get free on its basic dribble actions, forcing wild shots in a congested lane. The story didn't change in the second half. The Irish opened a 53-35 lead with 11 minutes, 35 seconds remaining thanks to a clock-countdown heave of a 3 from ND guard Jerian Grant. With no offensive burst left in them, and facing a Notre Dame coach whose teams happen to specialize in extending possessions and burning clock, the young Wildcats were essentially done.

Turning point: It would be tempting to look at Alex Poythress' second foul, at the 14:38 mark, when UK held a 12-6 lead, as the game's obvious turning point. It would also be facile. Poythress' absence was noticeable, no doubt, but Notre Dame was simply better for more of the game, including when Poythress was involved. Everything the Irish wanted to do -- pick-and-rolls with Jack Cooley and Eric Atkins, corner 3s for Grant and Cameron Biedscheid -- they did, while Kentucky failed to find anything remotely easy on the other end.

Key player: Atkins. Grant hit big shots, as did Biedscheid, and Cooley led the way on the boards (as usual), but Atkins was the steadiest and most efficient presence for the Irish. He shot 7-of-11 from the field, dicing UK's defense along the way.

Key stat: Kentucky shot 19-of-47 from the field (a season-low 40.4 percent. The Irish were good offensively, and they deserve plenty of credit for physical play on the offensive end, but the obvious key is UK just didn't make any shots. (This was true even of good post moves for Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. UK has some things to work on, but it won't shoot as badly as this again for a while.)

Miscellany: There was a particularly weird moment in the second half when UK guard Julius Mays dribbled the ball off Noel's foot. It immediately went out of bounds ... but no one on the floor but Mays noticed. He stood there, angry, then realized he had a chance to sneak the ball back into play. Notre Dame fans freaked out, the refs turned and saw the play and the ball was called dead. Then the ref reprimanded an ND cheerleader, apparently for yelling at him during the play. It was a thoroughly unusual 30 seconds of basketball. ... In the second half, veteran Irish forward Scott Martin made a nice step-back move on Cauley-Stein that caused the UK forward to turn all the way around. By the time Cauley-Stein recovered, Martin had already sunk his 3-pointer. So much for Notre Dame as the boring utilitarian, huh? ... Ryan Harrow, Kentucky's mysteriously absent guard, shaved his flat-top and got minutes, though they were limited, and he was largely ineffective. Harrow's limits have forced Archie Goodwin into the point guard role, and while Goodwin has handled the transition well to date, he did not look at all comfortable in the Joyce Center. ... In the arena, Notre Dame's black-on-black-on-black uniforms looked pretty awesome. Judging from my Twitter feed, they were not so warmly received on TV. ... According to ESPN Stats & Info, UK's 50 points were its fewest-ever under Calipari and the fourth-fewest of any Kentucky game in the past 15 years. The 14-point loss was also the second-most lopsided in the Calipari era.

What's next: Notre Dame has some time off before a Dec. 8 home game against Brown followed by a Dec. 15 matchup with Purdue. Kentucky, on the other hand, has exactly two days to cure what ails it, as a talented but struggling Baylor team comes to Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Finally, college basketball is here. The 2012-13 season kicked off Friday with some great finishes, high drama and even a pair of cancellations. More on those later.

Here’s a snapshot of the action from Friday night:

Connecticut 66, No. 14 Michigan State 62: The pageantry surrounding college basketball’s opening-day matchup in Europe elevated the first high-profile game of the 2012-13 season. MSU and UConn played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, home to more than 17,000 servicemen. A year after kicking off the season by playing basketball on a ship, college basketball’s creative minds raised the bar by sending a pair of perennial powerhouse programs overseas. (You know we’re about five years away from a “Let’s play on the moon” conversation.)

The Spartans and Huskies entered this game under different circumstances. Michigan State lost former All-American Draymond Green but regrouped with a talented recruiting class and returning standouts such as Keith Appling and Derrick Nix. Connecticut was banned from postseason play due to subpar Academic Progress Rate scores during the offseason. Then, Jim Calhoun retired and left the program to Kevin Ollie, who has essentially been given seven months to prove that he’s worthy of a long-term contract. They can’t compete for the national title, so what’s their motivation?

And yet, the Huskies played like a determined squad and the Spartans looked flat, going 13-for-33 from the field in the first half. They committed eight turnovers. The Huskies exploited the opening and took a 34-18 lead with 7:46 remaining in the first half after making 11 of their first 12 shots. Michigan State chipped at the deficit and eventually took a lead in the closing minutes.

But the Spartans couldn’t overcome their 15 turnovers or the production of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier (14-for-28 and 38 points combined). That backcourt duo will challenge any defense. It’s not doomsday for the Spartans, who lost their first two matchups in 2011-12 but finished the year with 29 wins. They clearly need more time to develop chemistry. The game means much more for UConn. The Huskies competed like a team that’s still focused, despite its situation. Ollie’s “10 toes in” philosophy worked Friday. The Huskies came to play in Germany.

No. 3 Kentucky 72, Maryland 69: Earlier this week, former Xavier standout Dez Wells was cleared to play after the NCAA reversed its decision on his initial eligibility. Wells was expelled from Xavier following sexual assault allegations and transferred to Maryland. He lost his first waiver request but won an appeal. That decision enhanced the buzz leading up to Maryland’s matchup against the defending national champions at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Here’s the thing. Wildcats coach John Calipari has found success year-after-after with the same formula. He convinces multiple high-level prospects to compete together. They play good defense and score at will. That’s why he’s achieved so much during his time at Kentucky. The group he’s assembled for 2012-13 is very similar to past teams he’s assembled at Kentucky. They’re young but dangerous and deep. Former walk-on Jarrod Polson scored 10 points and came up with a crucial steal and big free throws down the stretch. The Wildcats seem to have it all. Again.

With Nerlens Noel’s shot-blocking (three swats), Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointers and Archie Goodwin’s penetration (16 points), the Wildcats amassed a 53-38 lead midway through the second half (Maryland started the game 2-for-11). Game. Set. Match. Nope.

Maryland bounced back with a 15-0 run that suggested it’s not going to be a pushover in the ACC. Alex Len looked like a lottery pick (23 points, 12 rebounds). Wells (2-for-12), however, struggled. But the Terrapins were tougher than Kentucky (23-12 edge in offensive rebounds). And there multiple moments when the Wildcats looked like a young, inexperienced team. But they were mature enough to hold on for the win. Kentucky led 70-69 with 7.7 seconds to play before Polson hit two free throws. Maryland’s Pe’Shon Howard missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Nice game. Jay-Z should be proud.

Here’s what we learned: Len and Wiltjer are stars. Their respective teams will count on their continued production all year. And if they produce at a level comparable to their efforts on Friday, then both programs will thrive. Len takes a lot of pressure off his teammates with his effectiveness inside. Wiltjer is 6-foot-10 with range (4-for-6 from 3-point-line line). How do you guard that?

The aircraft-carrier cancellations: Games on boats make a lot of sense. Until they don’t. This year’s Carrier Classic between Ohio State and Marquette seemed like a great idea. Michigan State and North Carolina started the 2011-12 season on a ship. Why not do it again? And why stop at one ship? The Marquette-Ohio State matchup on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., was one of a handful of scheduled games on watercrafts.

[+] EnlargeCarrier Classic
AP Photo/Mic SmithCondensation on the court aboard the USS Yorktown made things unsafe for Ohio State and Marquette.
But a condensation problem turned the court into an ice rink. The chaotic scene played out on NBC Sports Network as players, coaches and servicemen used towels to dry the floor. But they couldn’t stop the moisture from resurfacing. Citing the potential safety risk, game officials ultimately canceled the game. It will not be rescheduled.

It was an important matchup for both squads. There are major questions for each team. Marquette lost so much talent from last season and earlier this week, Todd Mayo was deemed academically ineligible. Ohio State was set to compete for the first time with a new nucleus sans Jared Sullinger and William Buford. But now they’ll both wait to play their first games of the year on Sunday, when Marquette plays Colgate and Ohio State faces Albany.

And that was just the first game of the night that was canceled due to condensation. Georgetown’s matchup against No. 10 Florida was called after halftime (the Gators led 27-23) because game officials had similar issues with a slippery floor aboard the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, Fla.

We might have just witnessed the end of the game-on-a-ship era. So if you like outdoor basketball, make sure to savor Syracuse-San Diego State on Sunday.

A few more observations from games that actually did happen on Friday ...

  • During No. 19 Baylor’s 99-77 victory over Lehigh in Waco, Texas, Bears freshman Isaiah Austin, a 7-1 center, scored 22 points in 17 minutes before he was sidelined with an ankle injury. He was 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, too. After the game, coach Scott Drew said the injury wasn’t as severe as it initially appeared. That’s great news for a Baylor team that looked like a legitimate threat to Kansas in the Big 12. Cory Jefferson had 26 points and 13 boards. Pierre Jackson had 12 assists. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum tried to keep the Mountain Hawks alive with 36 points, but Baylor was too much. The Bears are legit.
  • Last season, No. 25 Florida State beat South Alabama by 41 points. On Friday, the Seminoles lost by five, 76-71, in the biggest upset of the night. The Noles, last season’s ACC tournament champions, lost multiple starters from its 2011-12 team. Yes, they’ll need time to come together with so many new faces joining the program. But a home loss to a Sun Belt squad in the season opener? Wow. FSU committed 17 turnovers (the Jaguars had 19). All-ACC guard Michael Snaer struggled in a 2-for-11 effort. South Alabama’s Antoine Allen scored 21 off the bench. This weekend’s practice should be fun for Florida State.
  • South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters scored 30 points, but they weren’t enough to hold off Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Jackrabbits led 29-16 with 4:14 to go in the first half. They controlled the game. But a late 11-0 run helped the Crimson Tide regain their footing by halftime. Bama slowly found its confidence and momentum late in the second half, when Trevor Lacey nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal the come-from-behind victory. Good effort from SDSU. And a nice comeback for Alabama.
  • Sean Woods won his first game for Morehead State in a 77-74 victory over NEC favorite LIU-Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. Woods took the new gig after leading Mississippi Valley State to the NCAA tournament last season. Senior forward Milton Chavis scored 24 points in the win. Nice start for Woods’ program.
  • Other results of note: Nice start for Doug McDermott and Creighton as the All-American contributed 21 points and 11 rebounds in a duel with fellow NBA prospect Tony Mitchell of North Texas. The Bluejays won by 20. ... Huge for George Mason to not only get Virginia to come to Fairfax, but also for the Patriots to pull off the 63-59 victory over a program they'd never beaten before. ... Two other CAA rivals weren't as fortunate: Old Dominion was surprised at home by Holy Cross and league favorite Drexel fell in overtime at Kent State. ... Everyone remember Lehigh beating Duke last season, but few remember that the Mountain Hawks didn't even win the Patriot League regular-season title. Bucknell did. And the Bison opened the new season with a 70-65 win at Purdue. That's going to be quite a conference race in the Patriot.

3-point shot: Time for Calhoun to decide

September, 11, 2012
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1. Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun has earned the right to decide when he’s going to retire. He also should be given his space to recover from surgery to repair a fractured hip. But he also is well aware that practice starts in a month. His staff needs to know if Calhoun is going to coach UConn this season sooner than later. His athletic director Warde Manuel also needs to be told what Calhoun wants to do. None of that had happened through Monday. Calhoun sounded like someone who was definitely coming back shortly after the bike accident in early August. But his tone apparently has changed a bit since, according to those close to him. No one is quite sure what he’s going to do for this season. The indecision needs to stop. The players and staff deserve to know this close to the start of practice if he’s going to coach.

2. Kentucky coach John Calipari loves to toss out platitudes of his newcomers before practice stars. He’s very impressionable and more times than not his hype sticks. He raved about Doron Lamb's potential last summer and ultimately Lamb proved to be as vital a part of the national title run as any other player not named Anthony Davis. Well, the latest to receive the plug is freshman guard Archie Goodwin. Calipari said that Goodwin has a motor like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That’s high praise since MKG’s motor was one of the reasons he was selected in the top 10 in the NBA draft. Goodwin is one of four freshmen (Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley, Alex Poythress) expected to play major minutes this season.

3. The NCAA said that 346 teams will count in the RPI this season, 345 full Division I members. Northern Kentucky is a provisional member of Division I this season but counts in the RPI. There are 10 programs not eligible for the NCAA tournament due to either APR or NCAA infractions penalties (UConn, UNC Wilmington, Towson, Central Florida, Toledo, UC Riverside, Jacksonville State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Mississippi Valley State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff).
Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on the SEC, click here.

Five freshmen to watch in the league ...

Nerlens Noel, Kentucky: He is the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country, the early favorite for 2013's No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, and the centerpiece of another massive talent haul for coach John Calipari and the Wildcats. He is purportedly one of the best shot-blockers we've seen enter the college stage in years -- including predecessor Anthony Davis. If Noel is even 75 percent as good as that, the Wildcats will be a defensive force yet again.

Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, Kentucky: I didn't want to make this entire list Kentucky's recruiting class, nor did I want to exclude Poythress and Goodwin, both of whom are worthy of your attention next season. Poythress will bring athleticism and rim-attacking rebounding from the wing. Goodwin is a polished, multifaceted scorer. Both will start, and both will be crucial to Calipari from the outset.

Devonta Pollard, Alabama: The No. 28-ranked player in the Class of 2012, Pollard has drawn rave reviews from scouts, and comparisons to Travis Outlaw, for his end-to-end athletic ability. He'll have to round out his offensive game, but he'll be a tremendous cog in Anthony Grant's defense-first system.

Braxton Ogbueze, Florida: Four-year guard Erving Walker graduated, and conveniently enough, Florida coach Billy Donovan has the No. 7-ranked point guard in the 2012 class signed up to fill the spot. Ogbueze could see starter's minutes right away, or he could fill in behind Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin. Either way, the Gators' backcourt is in fine shape.

Jordan Price, Auburn: After a rather brutal 15-16 season, Auburn coach Tony Barbee desperately needed an infusion of talent. Price and forward Shaquille Johnson, both top-100 players, will help immediately.

Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on SEC, click here.

Five offseason storylines in the SEC ...

1. Life is good in Lexington: At any other program, with any other coach, when you win a national title and send your six best players to the NBA draft, you are not supposed to compete for a national title 12 months later. But this is not any other program, or any other coach. This is Kentucky as led by John Calipari, a finely tuned college hoops machine.

After harnessing the insane talents of Anthony Davis and the team-first ethos of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- the NBA draft's No. 1 and No. 2 overall selections -- Calipari has cleared the "one-and-dones can't win a title" hurdle, if it existed in the first place. So now what? Naturally, Calipari reeled in another talented recruiting class -- the No. 2 class in the country, according to RecruitingNation, the first time in four years Kentucky hasn't been ranked No. 1 -- that includes the No. 1-ranked player in the class, center Nerlens Noel, and top-15 recruits Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin. Sophomore power forward Kyle Wiltjer, a top-20 recruit in 2011, will take on a much larger role, and former NC State transfer Ryan Harrow will step in at point guard.

Is Calipari's latest refresh as good as Davis & Co.? Doubtful. Then again, few teams are. What's certain is that the Wildcats will again be ranked in the top five to start the season, will defend like crazy and are a clear threat -- if not the outright favorite -- to repeat as national champions. Indeed, the state of Big Blue Nation is strong.

2. Missouri and Texas A&M deepen SEC hoops: Few realignment moves have driven as much discussion (read: vitriol) as Texas A&M and Missouri's respective decisions to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC. The 2012-13 season will be the first for both under the new banner, and the Tigers are more likely to make an immediate impact. In addition to returning guards Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey, a big-time breakout candidate, coach Frank Haith has assembled a transfer-heavy team (Alex Oriakhi, Jabari Brown, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross) that should compete for the SEC title right away. Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy has a more protracted rebuild on his hands, but if A&M continues the program growth it experienced in the past decade, the SEC -- where basketball has always been football's little brother -- will be much stronger for it.

3. South Carolina lands … Frank Martin. Huh? South Carolina is not a basketball school, but the Gamecocks made the best -- and most surprising -- hire of the offseason when they persuaded Kansas State coach Martin to leave his budding program behind. Martin has relentlessly denied rumors that his departure stemmed from untenable disagreements with K-State athletic director John Currie, particularly involving senior Jamar Samuels' NCAA-imposed ineligibility debacle in March. For his part, Martin sounds sincere when he says he felt embraced by South Carolina and that he relishes the chance to build something from scratch in Columbia. It will take a while, but Gamecocks fans have every reason to be thrilled.

4. Other new faces in new places: Martin wasn't the only offseason coaching change in the SEC. At LSU, Trent Johnson -- whose final three seasons never came close to his debut 2008-09 campaign -- was replaced by former North Texas coach Johnny Jones. Meanwhile, after two turbulent seasons that capped a 14-year career at the school, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury retired. Former Purdue and Clemson assistant Rick Ray, who was an applied mathematics major and Chicago-based actuary before deciding to take a chance on coaching, gets his first crack at a head-coaching gig in Starkville.

5. Vanderbilt starts fresh, to say the least: Did any team in the country lose as much this offseason as Vanderbilt? The Commodores waved farewell to their top six players, including all five starters: All-SEC guard John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Lance Goulbourne, Brad Tinsley and backup forward Steve Tchiengang. That's the entire core of coach Kevin Stallings' excellent four-year run in Nashville. With few proven reserves waiting in the wings, the 2012-13 Commodores are the biggest mystery in the league.
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.
Nerlens Noel Mark L. Baer/US PresswireNerlens Noel gives Kentucky the top-five recruit that marks a typical John Calipari class.


Kentucky is Kentucky, and UCLA is back.

Those are the two immediate takeaways from Wednesday night’s big college hoops recruiting announcements, when the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the Class of 2012 -- center Nerlens Noel and small forward Shabazz Muhammad -- announced their decisions within an hour of each other live on ESPNU.

The final result? Muhammad chose UCLA. Noel chose Kentucky. Life in Westwood immediately got brighter. Life in Lexington remained almost unfairly good. And despite all the anticipation and hype, in the end, neither of these decisions was particularly surprising.

UCLA coach Ben Howland was long the favorite to land Muhammad. The Las Vegas native never revealed his intentions, but the recruiting rumor mill -- I’m hearing UCLA, it’s definitely UCLA, that sort of thing -- always seemed to peg Muhammad as a future Bruin. Even after Howland endured the most embarrassing moment of his career this spring, thanks to Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann’s evisceration, Muhammad’s family didn’t discount the program or wave it off. Indeed, the Bruins’ recent downward spiral was apparently an attraction.

“Knowing how bad they were the last two years, it’s a challenge to get them back up to the top,” Muhammad said.

That’s good news for UCLA, because he is right: The Bruins and their head coach are indeed desperately in need of a massive, wholesale turnaround in production and perception in the years to come. After disappointing, disjointed seasons in two of the past three years, fans openly revolted against the program in 2012.

Now, with Muhammad and fellow top-five recruit Kyle Anderson on board, as well as the Wear twins and still-promising, still-frustrating forward Joshua Smith, the Bruins have a legitimate chance to make a run at the Pac–12 title in 2012–13. In the meantime, athletics director Dan Guerrero will unveil a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, hoping this influx of talent can revitalize a fan base that tuned its beloved Bruins out for much of the past three seasons.

“Hopefully we can sell out Pauley Pavilion,” Muhammad said.

The kid gets it. The stink of recent Westwood frustration won’t dissipate overnight. But with his talents on board, Howland can still change his program’s dire narrative while he still has time.

John Calipari has no such problem. You saw the Wildcats in March: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague were each the top players at their respective positions in the Class of 2011, and as they mixed and congealed with sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones (and senior Darius Miller), Calipari morphed them into one of the most dominant national title teams of the past 20 years -- and easily the most dominant in the one-and-done era.

That was a special talent haul, one that can’t easily be duplicated. But Calipari remains on a roll: He landed the No. 1 class in the country in 2011, the No. 1 class in the country in 2010, and the No. 1 class in the country in 2009, when John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe paved the way.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesShabazz Muhammad appears eager to help with UCLA's desperately needed image repair.
At this point, you can write it in ink each and every spring: Calipari will have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, or something very close to it. As such, it wasn’t even remotely surprising to see the top player in the country, Noel, commit to the Wildcats on Wednesday night. By the time Noel revealed his choice on the ESPNU set -- with the added flair of the UK logo shaved into the back of his now-famous high-top fade -- much of the social media world and those who follow such things were convinced the choice was Georgetown.

Silly people. Did you really think Coach Cal was going to go 0-for-2 tonight? Come on now.

Calipari was already off to a great start on the recruiting trail this year -- top–20 players Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress signed on last fall -- but he was still missing the elite, top-five talent that has become a regular fixture in his classes since his days at Memphis. The search is over.

Noel’s commitment is not only crucial in a vacuum -- he is a massive and athletic center who specializes in dominant interior shot-blocking -- but it rounds out UK’s on-court balance, too. Noel will anchor the post. Goodwin and Poythress will star on the wings. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, a top–20 recruit who barely cracked the rotation in 2012 (as good an indication of the Wildcats’ talent as any), will take on a much larger role. And NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, the No. 10-ranked point guard in the Class of 2010 who left the Wolfpack after Sidney Lowe’s firing last season, will take over the all-important on-ball role.

Noel’s proclivity for swats will immediately invite comparison to the departing Davis, and Noel may well be a better shot-blocker than the Unibrowed One. But beyond that, the comparisons may be a little too eager. Davis was a physical freak who gained his physicality late in his high school career, when he sprouted 8 inches but somehow maintained his guard skills and agility. He was transcendent on both ends of the court, almost from Day 1.

By contrast, Noel is a lifelong big man, one whose offensive game remains very raw. (Though he shares at least this much with Davis: In a world full of 6-foot–10 prospects determined to play small forward, Noel is more than content to play as close to the rim as possible.) Likewise, for as promising as Poythress and Goodwin are, it’s clear there is no Kidd-Gilchrist -- whose combination of NBA talent and selflessness set the tone for UK’s special 2012 season -- to be found here, at least as far as we can tell right now.

Not that Kentucky fans will complain. Just a week after the program’s eighth national title, UK fans just watched live as the top recruit in the country committed to Big Blue Nation. A repeat of 2012’s dominance is too much to ask. But with another batch of talent arriving in Lexington this summer, Calipari’s unique ability to transform disparate freshmen into coherent, disciplined teams and a wide-open 2012–13 landscape, a repeat national title run is hardly out of the question.

At least one thing is clear: With Noel on board, the state of Big Blue Nation remains strong. And very, very talented.

It’s true: Life is good in Lexington.

In fact, it only seems to get better.

Archie Goodwin defends UK choice

September, 23, 2011
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Archie Goodwin is a highly touted recruit. He chose to play basketball at Kentucky. In and of itself, this is neither unusual nor controversial.

Arkansas fans might not agree. After all, Goodwin is the best recruit from his home state of Arkansas. Razorback basketball fans are entering a new era: Mike Anderson is back, a highly touted class is arriving this fall, and Nolan Richardson's old "40 Minutes of Hell" system is about to wake up the mid-90s echoes once more. (At least, that's the plan.) At the time of his commitment, ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep asked Goodwin what he would say to disappointed fans in his own neck of the woods. To Goodwin, picking UK was nothing more than good business:
"That's one thing that is the toughest," Goodwin said Wednesday. "Growing up here and with so many expectations to go there, it's been a lot of pressure. Arkansas is a great school and I love Coach [Mike] Anderson and his staff. I love my state, but it's a business decision and this is best for my career and my family."

You can see what Goodwin means; Kentucky coach John Calipari sends a prodigious quantity of players to the NBA seemingly every year. In terms of exposure and national title opportunities, UK was the much safer choice.

That doesn't mean Arkansas fans are all that pleased with the explanation -- and they've been informing Goodwin of their displeasure on Twitter. (Ah, Twitter, where you can pester a high school senior for reasons why he didn't choose to attend your preferred school. Technology sure is great!) Goodwin's response was likewise filtered through the tweet tubes:
Ill always rep ARK. I got it tatted on my chest!! But I had to do what i Had to do. Point Blank Period

Has that squashed the beef? Not quite. Though the folks at Arkansas Expats understand (they would), some of their commenters don't. And judging by some of Goodwin's Twitter work in recent days, it seems like Arkansas fans are still being a little too uproarious on the Internet.

Eventually, that will die down -- at least until Goodwin takes the court against his home state's beloved team. Until then, as Goodwin wrote Wednesday, it's "Shoulder shrugs To the haters" [sic].

Kentucky gets started on 2012 class

September, 21, 2011
9/21/11
11:40
AM ET
A few weeks ago, a concerned Kentucky fan asked me whether it was time to start worrying about John Calipari's 2012 recruiting class. After all, other schools had begun to rack up top commitments. Kentucky's 2012 recruiting class page was empty. Was Calipari in for a rare down recruiting year?

The answer was the same then as it is now: No. When you land the No. 1 class in the country three years in a row, you deserve the benefit of the doubt. Besides, more and more elite recruits are waiting until the last second to choose their schools, and Kentucky is one of the few schools in the country that can disproportionately focus its efforts on landing elite players. Calipari would be fine, I thought, and I didn't see this as a particularly provocative position. (It's not.)

A few weeks later, UK has added its first piece to its 2012 class. That piece is Archie Goodwin, a Little Rock, Ark. native ranked No. 13 overall in the class. Yes, that's the same Archie Goodwin who dissed Baylor's green and gold uniforms when asked why he turned his attentions away from the Bears. Apparently blue and white are more to Goodwin's liking.

Anyway, Goodwin is the No. 4-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2012, a talented scorer with a range of offensive gifts, and it was up to him to start the ball rolling in Calipari's quest to create the next big talent haul at Kentucky. As Goodwin told ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep, it might as well start with him:
Goodwin took a measure of pride in being coach John Calipari's beacon for the rest of the class to follow. "He told me he wants me bad and I'm a top recruit for him," Goodwin said. "No matter what, he wants the ball in my hands and he feels like me committing will probably get the ball rolling for the rest of the class. It's got to start somewhere."

Goodwin's decision was impressive in at least one regard, as he told Telep that he didn't expect any playing time that he couldn't earn on merit. That may be one reason some players are eager to wait it out on Kentucky this season: You just never know what could happen with Calipari's current batch of insanely talented underclassmen. If all goes as planned, Michael Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague (not to mention sophomore Terrence Jones) will all enter the NBA draft next spring. But what if the lockout is unresolved? What if the NBA and its players add a year to the age limit in the new collective bargaining agreement? What if the immediate playing time isn't there?

It behooves the top recruits to wait and see. But that doesn't mean Kentucky won't have a top class when all is said and done. It just means it might take Calipari a bit longer to put together.

In the meantime, all those top recruits -- including the No. 1 player in the class, Shabazz Muhammad -- are still planning on attending Big Blue Madness, while Goodwin's commitment has already moved UK up to No. 22 in ESPNU's 2012 class rankings. Rest easy, Kentucky fans. Your 2012 class is going to be just fine.

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