College Basketball Nation: John Calipari
After a one-year hiatus, North Carolina and Kentucky renew their rivalry in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
Ol' Roy versus coach Cal.
One embraces the past. One constantly chases the future. They do things differently, but their contrasting philosophies often end with the same results.
The Tar Heels, who lead the all-time series 22-13, have a “White Out” promotion planned. Williams is too old school to go along with the theme by wearing a white suit. But that doesn’t mean he's outdated.
Perhaps that's what provoked UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath, filling in on Williams' radio show Monday, to go on a rant reminding listeners of Williams' achievements at Carolina.
"Coach obviously has done a great job, with Twitter and this kind of stuff now, it's all about self-promotion," McGrath said. "Coach doesn’t have a Twitter account, he's not going to brag about himself."
Never mind that Calipari has his own website and Twitter account while Williams would like to retire never knowing what it's like to maintain either. Or that Williams once starred on his high school square dance team while Calipari once welcomed Jay Z into his locker room. Or even that Calipari's rosters tend to turn over from the exodus of players to the pros while Williams likes to add pieces each year to build a contender. When the teams meet at 5 p.m. ET in the Dean E. Smith Center, it's not a matchup of whose style is right and whose is wrong.
Williams and Calipari will have more in common than many realize. The Heels and Wildcats have both been a bit unpredictable this season.
Carolina players are still adapting to playing without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who are still awaiting word on their eligibility. Their highs have included wins over Louisville and Michigan State, but their lows came in losses to Belmont and UAB.
UK assembled arguably the best freshman class in history, but relying on freshmen -- no matter how talented -- comes with some inconsistency. Earlier in the week Calipari said his team was so young, he had to teach them how to huddle. The Cats' losses were to ranked teams in Michigan State and Baylor, but they've still struggled to find their groove.
The team that wins Saturday will be one step closer to finding it.
They called him Goldieblocks.
Well, at least some folks on social media created the impromptu and fitting nickname for Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein against Boise State. The 7-foot center debuted his newly dyed blonde hair cut in the shape of a “Bobby Brown” style from the '80s, blocking nine shots during the Wildcats’ 70-55 win.
Cauley-Stein, who tied his career high for blocks, led a defensive effort for the No. 11 Wildcats that was night-and-day better than their performance in Friday’s loss to Baylor.
The Broncos (8-1) ranked second in the NCAA in scoring with a 91.9 points per game average coming in. Prior to the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari said they ran the dribble-drive offense better than many of his teams in the past.
Boise State kept on attacking the lane, but Cauley-Stein’s versatility and quickness eliminated many advantages it gained from penetration. He could guard on switches from the perimeter on in, which is how he got to so many shots.
As much as Calipari used the Baylor loss as motivation, he could use the Boise win as a building block. The Broncos returned all of their starters from last season and are poised to be an NCAA tournament team.
The Broncos played a de-facto zone defense the way they sagged so much in their man-to-man. That look caused the Wildcats major problems against Baylor, but UK guard James Young helped loosen up the lane with his perimeter shooting in the first half.
Young scored 14 of the Cats' first 28 points and finished with a game-high 21 points. More importantly for UK, he added nine rebounds.
Rebounding was just one of UK's shortcomings against Baylor that was corrected at home against the Broncos. Julius Randle, who scored 17 points, led the way with 11 boards as Kentucky held a plus-16 rebounding advantage. The Bears beat UK, who was without forward Marcus Lee due to a stomach illness, on the boards by 15.
Boise got its leading scorer Anthony Drmic back into the lineup after he missed last week’s game with an undisclosed illness. Drmic scored 13 of his team-high 18 points in the first half, but was held to just 1-of-8 shooting after halftime.
Boise shot just 8-of-35 in the second half en route to its first loss of the season.
UK left with some positives defensively, but its ballhandling is still cause for concern. The Cats had 19 turnovers, which helped the Broncos outscore them 18-7 in points off turnovers.
UK also had just seven assists on its 27 made field goals, which suggests it’s still relying on individual talent to score.
Nevertheless, a win against an experienced team will bode well for the Wildcats, just like a win on the road will help springboard Gonzaga.
The No. 20 Bulldogs looked to be headed to a loss in Appalachia against West Virginia. Tuesday was the Bulldogs' only true road game during their nonconference schedule, and they faced every bit of adversity before pulling out an 80-76 win.
West Virginia, like Kentucky, lost both of its marquee games entering tonight and needed a win to build some confidence. Guard Eron Harris lit up the Zags with 18 points in the first half.
Unlike their losses to Wisconsin and Missouri, in which they fell behind big early, all was going well at home for the Mountaineers against Gonzaga as they ran out to a 10-point second-half lead. When the Bulldogs had a spurt, Terry Henderson seemed to suppress it when he converted a four-point play with 8:16 left.
That’s when the Zags, not known for being defensive stoppers, clamped down.
Harris couldn’t find the same open shots he had during his hot start. He made just 2-of-5 attempts in the second half, including one 3-pointer after nailing four in the first half.
The Mountaineers shot just 37 percent, which marked just the third game this season the Bulldogs held a team to less than 40 percent shooting. That allowed them to hold West Virginia without a field goal for a seven-minute stretch and regain the lead.
Kevin Pangos, who had 18 points, hit three straight 3-pointers during a 13-0 run that gave the Zags the lead for good at 74-66 with 2:18 left.
While Pangos finished the Mountaineers off from the outside, it was the inside play of center Przemek Karnowski that powered Gonzaga throughout the game. Karnowski played perhaps his best game of the season, recording a season-high 19 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds.
Kentucky made almost half of its 3-pointers. Baylor made less than a fifth. Had you presented those conditions to anyone familiar with either basketball team before Friday night's hilariously named "Basketball Showdown" -- one that lived up to its name thanks only to the four-overtime women's contest that preceded it -- you would have been met with a consensus. Kentucky would win. Baylor would lose, and probably by a lot.
That didn't happen, and how Baylor instead left AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with a 67-62 win over the Wildcats instead says much more about where the Wildcats are right now than it does the Bears. Oh, and by the way, those things it says aren't exactly compliments.
At this point, Kentucky's flaws are versatile enough to fit any basketball predilection. Are you more of the heart-and-hustle, body-language-aficianado, these-kids-need-more-experience type? Then turn your attention to the all of the fuzzy things that make basketball fans angriest: The Wildcats' dreary energy level down the stretch in a close game, their lapsed attention spans during timeouts, their poor execution on offense, and their missed free throws (UK shot 52.2 percent).
But if you are a more analytical sort, Kentucky has plenty for you to nitpick too. Don't get me wrong: The Wildcats have played mostly brilliant offense to date, in large part because a) they have Julius Randle and b) they outrebound everyone on the offensive end. Those strengths were less drastic against Baylor, whose chief strength as a team (outside of perimeter shooting) is Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers' ability to prevent easy buckets in the paint. Kentucky shot 39.4 percent from inside the arc Friday night, which goes a long way toward explaining how they managed to make eight of their 17 3-pointers and turn the ball over on just 15.0 percent of their possessions, yet still lose.
All of this UK flaw talk risks us overlooking the performance Baylor put together Friday night. Don't forget it: Baylor, which made 55 percent of its two-point shots and scored 1.12 points per trip, was good. But Baylor was allowed to be good in some ways by a Kentucky defense that has been only slightly above average this season. The Wildcats failed to record a single steal Friday night -- no small feat, especially in a game with as much length, physicality, and sideline—margin passing as this one. Even worse, the Bears rebounded 54.5 percent of their misses. That means, in even simpler terms, that well over half the time a Baylor player missed a shot, the Bears got another crack at things a few seconds later.
Credit the Bears for doing so -- and credit point guard Kenny Chery, who turned in a dazzling 8-for-10 shooting night inside the arc, including a massive elbow jumper down the stretch. Baylor's team already looks more capable than the one that needed a reprieve to survive Dayton in Maui, and there are few teams in the country with that kind of interior length.
But credit Kentucky's young defense just as much. Box-outs? The Wildcats were just as lost before the ball went into the air, with almost zero in the way of help rotations, with Willie Cauley-Stein playing some of the worst pick-and-roll defense you'll ever see, with no one on his hip to cover things up -- the whole of UK's defense is a bit of a nightmare for John Calipari right now.
That's the most surprising thing about this UK season to date: The Wildcats just don't guard. Why so surprising? Because in the past decade, Calipari's teams have almost always defended exceptionally well. Rarely have they finished a season ranked outside the top 10 in points per possession allowed. Last season was a sudden and shocking departure from that trend, and while this campaign bears little resemblance thus far -- UK isn't that bad, rest assured -- the concerns of an ever-restless fanbase might rightfully be mounting.
After Kentucky's first loss of the season, when his shellshocked team nearly won a game it had no business winning on the sheer strength of its talent alone, Calipari reminded the media that it was a long season, that he "still had four months to get this thing right." He paused for a beat in the United Center press room and corrected himself: "Well, three and a half months now."
That clock keeps ticking. Is Kentucky getting better?
Unexpected losses can sap the machismo of any individual or team, especially those that seem untouchable. And Kentucky’s roster of future NBA standouts had that allure entering Tuesday night’s matchup with Michigan State.
The Wildcats were outplayed, outworked and outhustled. The good news, however, is that they were only playing their third game of the season. And if they excel over the course of the next four months, the blemish will mean little.
That recovery begins on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) with a matchup against a Robert Morris squad that defeated them in that embarrassing opening round matchup in last season’s NIT.
I want to see how Kentucky responds to everything it has experienced over the last week. We all know that the Wildcats will be the most talented team on the floor.
This is not the same Robert Morris squad -- three starters from last season are gone. And this is definitely not the same Kentucky squad.
But the Wildcats are now on a path to rebuild their mojo after the Spartans roughed them up in Chicago earlier this week. They’re not shattered. It was just one game.
They do, however, have some things to correct.
Youth wasn’t their only obstacle. Their lack of chemistry and communication was a problem, too.
I’d like to see if this group can use this weekend’s matchup against Robert Morris to play together. To talk to each other. To jell.
There was talk of Julius Randle and Co. going undefeated. And that wasn’t a crazy thought, considering the fact that the program lost just two games on its way to the 2012 national title. And coach John Calipari has more talent than he had then.
But that’s obviously no longer a possibility. Kentucky, however, can still be a great team that ends the season with the ultimate prize. That pursuit will demand a short memory and more cohesiveness for this program.
The Wildcats will be the overwhelming favorite against Robert Morris.
Let’s see if they’re more of a unit on Sunday.
Wow. No. 2 Michigan State upset No. 1 Kentucky 78-74 in the Champions Classic on Tuesday in Chicago. The second-ranked squad has won seven of the past eight meetings between No. 1 and No. 2 squads, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Here are five quick observations from the game:
Give Michigan State the credit it deserves: This wasn’t just a situation where a bunch of freshmen were shell-shocked, their first big stage at this level for the most talented recruiting class in NCAA history.
The Spartans were just the better team. They are the better team. Give them their credit. Gary Harris looked like a lottery pick. Adreian Payne (when he wasn’t on the bench due to foul trouble) did, too. They outhustled the young Wildcats. They were better on defense. And they were just more efficient.
Kentucky was tough down the stretch, but Michigan State was in control most of the night. Why? Because as of early November, the Spartans -- not the Wildcats -- are the best team in the country.
A healthy Gary Harris is a dangerous Gary Harris: Last season, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year was hindered by a bad shoulder. That didn’t stop him from averaging 12.9 PPG. Harris is healthy now. And in this matchup, it was clear why so many NBA execs view him as a lottery pick in next summer’s NBA draft. He was 5-for-7 with 15 points in the first half. He was also a defensive stud all night. We know he’s the best player in the Big Ten. But Tuesday’s effort tossed Harris into the “best player in America” conversation, if he wasn’t already in it.
Experience mattered: As Kentucky tried to emerge from a double-digit deficit in the first half, you could see the role that experience played in the matchup. The Wildcats were down by as many as 15 points in the first half. And they were uneasy. They weren’t communicating. They always looked lost on defense, especially in transition (Michigan State shot 58 percent from the field in the first half, 48 percent overall). At one point, Dakari Johnson appeared to look at a teammate and say, “You gotta listen to me.” No one was listening.
Entering the season, the main concern about this Kentucky team was its lack of leadership. As the game got away from the Wildcats, they needed a leader. But they were all in the same position due to their inexperience. They fought back in the second half, but that early deficit was too much to overcome. Michigan State, however, relied on juniors and seniors who helped the Spartans carve out a nice lead early and remain calm as Kentucky bounced back.
Payne (15 points, one block) was so smooth when he wasn’t battling foul trouble. Keith Appling (team-high 22 points) and Harris (20 points) were too. Branden Dawson made a multitude of plays on defense -- and a huge putback in the final seconds. The Spartans were ready for the moment. Their experience made a difference.
Too many turnovers for Kentucky: Kentucky had 17 turnovers. Julius Randle had seven of them and point guard Andrew Harrison was responsible for five. When two of the best players on any team have 12 combined turnovers, that team usually loses. I’m sure John Calipari will use this tape to scrutinize a variety of miscues by a young Kentucky squad. But those turnovers ruined too many valuable possessions that will cost Kentucky other games against elite teams in the future if it’s not more cautious handling the ball.
Don’t overreact: Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds, despite struggling in the first half. There’s no chemistry on that Kentucky squad yet. But there are a bunch of high-level players who must learn how to play together. The Wildcats couldn’t buy a 3-pointer (4-for-20) or a free throw (20-for-36). But they stormed back against an elite Michigan State squad in the second half. They could have quit. But they fought back. They just made too many mistakes. It was still a remarkable rally. No, they’re obviously not going to go undefeated. Come March, however, they’ll be one of America’s most dangerous teams. They just ran into a better team on Tuesday night.
Much has been made of the impact of the Champions Classic, of the "importance" -- for lack of a better term -- of four teams this good, this talented, and this high-profile meeting so early in the college hoops calendar. And rightfully so: Tuesday night at the United Center might comprise the best non-Final Four event in the game in a decade. Maybe more.
Then again, it might not. For all of the pre-lionization you've heard these past few weeks, in the end the Champions Classic will be remembered well only if its actual basketball manages to measure up. With all of the fuzzy hype stripped away, what should you expect Tuesday night in Chicago? Let's dig in.
Note: Part two of the breakdown -- on Kansas versus Duke -- will come later this morning.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Can Kentucky's offense do enough? Kentucky coach John Calipari and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo have spent the past week congenially faux-sparring over one key question: Which feted coach with the massively talented roster has the tougher lot Tuesday night? Is it Calipari, with his crazy-young, crazy-gifted, hard-to-scout group of McDonald's All Americans? Or is it Izzo, commanding his most complete roster in a decade, in charge of veterans with long resumes and reels of scoutable tape?
The answer matters. The answer doesn't matter. All at the same time.
Which is why this game might well come down to one question: Is the Wildcats' offense good enough?
Calipari, by his own admission, devoted most of his preseason practice to offense. He wanted his players to absorb the dribble-drive motion intuitively, to learn to unleash their individual skills without hesitation, and in their 140 possessions thus far -- in blowout wins over UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky -- Kentucky has pumped in 182 points.
That is very good. The question is whether it is beat-Michigan State good. The Spartans are not Northern Kentucky; they are not UNC Asheville. They will have the two best pure defenders on the floor, point guard Keith Appling and forward Adreian Payne. Not only that, but they are perfectly suited for Kentucky's stars specifically. Appling and shooting guard Gary Harris are excellent at preventing penetration. And Payne? That brings us to our next question ...
Can Adreian Payne shut down Julius Randle? With the possible exception of Jabari Parker, Randle has been the most impressive offensive force thus far in this young season -- and not in the ways you might expect. Billed as a low-block banger throughout high school, Calipari has rewired Randle's role in Lexington, Ky. Randle often begins UK possessions much farther away from the basket, where he can catch, drive, gain an unstoppable head of steam, spin (if necessary) and finish with contact at the rim. There are maybe three or four players in the sport that look physically capable of defending him, and that's a generous estimate.
Payne, it just so happens, is the leading candidate. Rangy and long and a constant shot-blocking threat since his arrival in East Lansing, Payne earned raves last season for expanding his offensive toolbox out to 20 feet. But nestled in that perimeter expansion was a player who could defend in space as well as at the rim, someone who could check smaller players out to the 3-point line and recover to the glass with a stride and a leap. That is exactly what you need to defend Randle: Someone who can stop his momentum early, force him to give the ball to a guard, force the Wildcats to play conventionally, and, if/when the Wildcats miss, keep Randle off the offensive glass.
In two games, Randle has been UK's most-used player and its most efficient. According to Synergy scouting data, Randle has used 20.6 of UK's possessions, averaging a team-best 1.34 points per. Sixteen of those possessions have been offensive rebounds and putbacks. Just six have been traditional post-ups. You need a unique defender to guard Randle's unique attack. You won't find a better fit than Payne.
Where experience matters. Why focus so much on what happens when the Wildcats have the ball? Because that's what they've done for the better part of a month. In this accelerated, unusual development cycle, Calipari might momentarily have delayed his traditional coaching strength -- form-fitting elite defenses from the precious freshmen metals. We know UK has the talent to put points on the board, but we don't know whether the Wildcats are ready to play total team defense against a team as smart and as cohesive and as talented as the Spartans for 40 intense minutes.
We know all that, and much more, about Michigan State. Advantage Izzo? We'll find out Tuesday night.
Before the whole thing devolved into a hilarious game of expectations limbo, Tom Izzo kind of had a point.
"[Kentucky coach John Calipari's] lucky," Izzo said last week. "Everybody says, 'Have you studied Kentucky?' What the hell are you going to study? I said, 'I've got to go back and look at high school film, and then they run different things than he's going to run, so he's got a big advantage.' You can tell him I said that. It'll probably make the news."
Surprise, surprise: It made the news. Calipari insisted that no, his team's perennial youth gave more experienced teams like Michigan State the early-season advantage; on Friday Izzo joked that Cal and his already-legendary recruiting class should just go ahead and forfeit.
With all this comedy gold flying about, it would be easy to lose sight of Izzo's original point. But it's valid, and can be applied to every highly touted freshman we've spent all offseason eagerly anticipating: Until each plays some real, recorded college basketball, we don't really know anything.
Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, the undisputed cross-cultural star of this thrilling 2013 class, made his much-anticipated debut in Lawrence, Kan., Friday night. He finished with 16 points on 5-of-9 from the field, 2-of-4 from 3-point range, and 4-of-6 from the free-throw line, with three rebounds, two assists, and three steals. In other words, he didn't disappoint -- provided you knew what to expect.
If you need Wiggins to score 35 points a game to "validate" his hype, you're on the wrong track. Instead, what every coach has said about Wiggins -- that his greatest asset, perhaps aside from his athleticism, is that there are no real weaknesses in any aspect of his game -- is precisely what he displayed Friday night. He flies around the court but also handles the ball well, has soft perimeter touch (and excellent mechanics), and is already one of the best on-ball defenders in the college game. Yes, OK, it was Louisiana-Monroe, but still: Wiggins' game is obscenely well-rounded, and he showed as much in his first game as a Jayhawk.
Kentucky freshman Julius Randle performed similarly in that he did the things every scout and recruiting guru said he was going to do when he arrived in Lexington this summer: He beasted dudes. Randle finished with 23 points (on 50 percent shooting) and 15 rebounds. That's a nice line for a 38-minute outing. Randle did in 26. And Calipari already has developed a devastating wrinkle for his best player. Rather than start Randle on the low block, he has him playing at the top of the key, where Randle can build a sufficient head of steam before flying unstoppably through the lane. Think of the sets Michael Kidd-Gilchrist saw in 2011-12, and then picture a 6-foot-9, 225-pound left-handed freight train in his place. You get the picture.
The rest of UK's freshmen were more of a mixed bag. James Young -- who has drawn as many, if not more, NBA raves this fall -- finished just 3-of-10 from the field. Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison combined to go 4-of-11, though Aaron added four steals and five rebounds and Andrew five assists. But Marcus Lee's 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting speaks to the depth Calipari could unleash on the sport this season; Lee played exactly 15 minutes off the bench.
There were other noteworthy frosh in action: Florida's Kasey Hill helped lead a depleted Gators team past a frisky North Florida 77-69, and his 15-point/four-assist/two-steal night doesn't quite speak to the speed and command he displayed offensively, particularly on the break. Kansas' Joel Embiid attempted just two field goals but went 7-of-10 from the stripe, and Indiana's Noah Vonleh struggled from the field but pulled down 14 rebounds in 22 minutes against Chicago State. Indiana blocked 13 shots, six more than their 2013 season high.
And then there was Duke's Jabari Parker, whom our own C.L. Brown saw first-hand. Parker scored 22 points, grabbed six rebounds, looked every bit as natural a scorer as he'd been sold as, and led Duke to a 111-points-in-68-possessions (yes, you read that right) win over Davidson. And let’s not overlook Aaron Gordon's 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in a win for Arizona.
All of which is ... kind of a relief! After all, we've spent the last six months telling you a number of things: That this was the best incoming group of freshmen in memory; that Kentucky's class was the greatest of all-time; that Wiggins and Parker were generational talents and future NBA All-Stars; that this was going to be an exciting, freewheeling, freshman-dominated season of college hoops. But there were no guarantees. Not when high school tape is the only point of reference. There never are.
Now, those days are officially over. The college data sets have received their first inputs. Izzo will be thankful; his tapes just got a little bit better. The rest of us can settle for "stoked."
Before, when John Calipari was still turning Memphis into an annual national title contender, he earned a weird, paradoxical reputation: To casual fans (or "haters"), Calipari was just some clever salesman who recruited talented players and rolled the balls out. In reality, the offensive system that reinforced this reputation -- the freedom-based, talent-reliant, dribble-drive motion offense adapted in the mid-aughts from then-obscure junior college coach Vance Walberg -- was totally, radically innovative. Calipari, as usual, was years ahead of his time.
And now it's back.
Calipari brought the dribble-drive to Kentucky, of course, but he never has leaned on it the way he did at Memphis. (Calipari's adaption of Walberg's system was less radical than Walberg's itself in the first place; Calipari added the "motion" himself.) The John Wall-Eric Bledsoe-Demarcus Cousins-Patric Patterson group had the right two-guard perimeter to pull it off (and often did) but was just as often better served simply banging the ball down low. The next season, with Brandon Knight at the helm, Calipari worked in even more of his traditional (both for him and for his profession) motion offense. In 2011-12, the national champs blended some of the spacing and penetration principles of the dribble-drive (as did last year's less successful edition), but just as often relied on more conventional pin-downs and high screens.
This season, though, Calipari has steadfastly promised more dribble-drive, for two very good reasons:
- He has the best talent in the country.
- He has the most dribble-drive-ready talent he's ever had at UK.
You can read more about the actual system all over the Internet, naturally; wonky primers are available here and here. In sum, the system relies on spacing two point guards or combo guards at the top, with two athletic shooters/wings in the corners, and a dominating, skilled presence on the low block.
That group alone is frightening to conceive. The interesting part is the frontcourt, and how Calipari ends up balancing minutes for Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, freshman center Dakari Johnson, and preseason SEC POY Julius Randle. Calipari has been putting Randle at the free-throw line for many of his possessions in practice, which provides an interesting wrinkle; Calipari probably will play Cauley-Stein and Randle together pretty frequently.
The more conventional motion wrinkles Calipari has run in recent seasons still will be present, dependent on the personnel on the floor at any given time. But with all of that skill and all of that length and all of those options, Calipari can open things up, spread his lineups out and give his players freedom to simply be better than their opponents -- which is exactly what the dribble-drive is designed to do.
It won't be Walberg's system in toto; it won't even be Walberg's system distilled. But what UK does in 2013-14 will be more dribble-drive-oriented than at any time in Calipari's years in Lexington. For opponents, this should be terrifying. For the rest of us, it sounds like a lot of fun to watch.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Kentucky. Obviously.
It is always tempting, writing a series like this, to intentionally eschew the obvious. It is especially tempting in the 2013-14 SEC.
Last week's media days in Birmingham, Ala., revealed a league, and a press corp, doing some understandable introspection. Last season, the SEC sent just three teams to the NCAA tournament. Florida was its lone national title contender. Kentucky was down. The league as a whole contained much mediocre dross even among its tourney-bid hopefuls, to say nothing of its cellar. It was probably the seventh-best league in the country — which not only stood in stark contrast to ESS EEE SEE FOOTBALL WOOO, but, for a putative member of the "power six," was just plain awkward. For a hoops nerd who spends most of his January, February and March thinking about scheduling, the ensuing questions — Would the SEC's collective scheduling push help? When is a down year just a down year? — were fascinating.
So are many of its least-obvious teams. At full strength, Florida is national title-talented, but the Gators don't remotely resemble "full strength." Missouri, full of fresh faces, is led by a coach who just narrowly escaped potentially career-ending NCAA trouble. Ole Miss has Marshall Henderson; maybe you've heard of him. LSU, already much improved in 2012-13, adds one of the most exciting freshman in the country. Tennessee should (repeat: should) be really good.
There are stories here, in other words. But to spend this space on them would mean to ignore the gigantic royal blue elephant in the room, and hey, guess what? Giant blue elephants are obvious.
Let's just be real: The one thing you've got to see in the SEC this season is Kentucky.
This is frequently true, especially since John Calipari arrived in Lexington. But at the risk of digging myself into an end-of-history fallacy, Calipari's entire tenure has been building toward 2013-14. How so? Over five years, Coach Cal has managed to mold the rational self-interest of constantly feted 18-year-old stars into system-level buy-in, and he's messaged the whole thing so well that the cycle — recruit top kids, get them drafted, win along the way, recruit more top kids — is practically self-sustaining. This season, Calipari didn't just land top players at every position (ho-hum). He managed to convince players who would compete against each other (and Kentucky's returners) to sign up anyway. Calipari's always been a good recruiter, but this is something else.
The upshot, in 2013-14, was the greatest recruiting haul of all-time. Five of the top nine players in the stacked 2013 class committed to Kentucky. With power forward Marcus Lee accounted for, make that six of the Top 25. Julius Randle, UK's star freshman power forward, has already been named preseason SEC player of the year; he might be the best candidate to unseat Andrew Wiggins at the top of the 2014 NBA draft. NBA scouts are likewise raving about small forward James Young. The Harrison Twins are a devastating backcourt combo. The whole thing is just … I mean, it's crazy.
Back at SEC media day, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said Kentucky would be the "best team he's ever coached against." And he hasn't even played them yet. Such are the stakes for this Kentucky group: Not just an SEC title but a dominant one, not just a national title but a 40-0 campaign. Meanwhile, 2012-13 reminded us that Calipari's cycle is far from infallible. Nothing feels guaranteed.
Which is how we go from first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris to open talk of an undefeated season. It's how Calipari can vacillate from humility to "We don't play college basketball — we are college basketball" at Big Blue Madness. Kentucky has a chance to be one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled. It may fall short, and maybe drastically so. Either way, you're buying a ticket on that ride.
You could blame it on basketball's second-fiddle status in SEC country, or the down 2013-14 expectations for many teams. But the more likely cause -- Kentucky having its own media day earlier this week -- kept most of the Wildcats faction home.
Don't let the cognitive dissonance fool you. All eyes remain very much focused on Kentucky.
This is usually the case, but never more so than this season. Just a few months after a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris, and two seasons after a dominant national title run, Kentucky coach John Calipari has reloaded with what most believe is the best group of freshmen ever. Nor is Calipari interested in keeping expectations in check. Many coaches would never come close to mentioning even the remote thought of the possibility of the inkling of going undefeated. On Tuesday in Lexington, Ky., Calipari was happy to discuss it.
But that doesn't mean he's predicting an undefeated season. Indeed, the outsized hype surrounding the Wildcats was belied by many of Calipari's comments Wednesday. Though he cited the huge number of NBA scouts at UK practices this fall -- over 40 to date, he said -- he just as quickly admitted that he is still installing the bare-bones basics of his offensive scheme. Forward Julius Randle, selected by the SEC media as the preseason player of the year, is playing slightly out of position in practice; the whole team is still adjusting to the system's improvisational imperatives. The process is intense enough that the topic of defense -- where Calipari has been the most consistently effective with his young teams in the past decade -- hasn't even been broached.
"The practices have been pretty good," Calipari said. "Very competitive. High energy ... We're not a good defensive team right now. We're not a good rebounding team. We haven't worked on it.
"We're scrimmaging three-quarters of our practices right now. It's controlled, but it's scrimmaging. What I'm saying is 'fail fast.' It means, play uncomfortable. Go harder, so we can correct you, so you can feel what works and doesn't work now. ... We're all offense, because I'm trying to build their confidence. No defense. And it shows. No rebounding stuff right now, and it shows. But they pick [things] up."
The result of Calipari's unconventional developmental process is almost as much of a question as what kind of league the Cats will be attempting to win when SEC play begins in January.
The 2012-13 season was nobody's idea of a banner season. Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency metric tracks and ranks conferences based on overall, pound-for-pound strength; last season the SEC ranked seventh, behind its traditional power conference brethren and the Mountain West. It earned just three tournament bids.
Those struggles caused no small measure of soul-searching in the league's Birmingham offices this offseason. When Wednesday's media day queries didn't revolve around Kentucky's incoming class or Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson (which was rare), they focused on the current state of the SEC.
One measure designed to alleviate the SEC's at-large issues last season is this summer's collective agreement, spearheaded by commissioner Mike Slive and consulted on with former NCAA basketball operations VP Greg Shaheen, on nonconference scheduling. Collectively, the league is working with coaches and administrators on scheduling tougher in November and December in the hopes of boosting everyone's RPI come March.
"It's a responsibility for all of us," Calipari said. "We can all be about our own programs and we'll all go down one by one. Or we can be about each other. You gotta bury the jealousy. Let's go."
Most coaches seem to be in favor of the effort, at least where applicable. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said it's important that members realize the impact they have on each other, but wasn't totally convinced SEC coaches needed to start scheduling like Long Beach State.
"I told this to an administrator the other day: 'If your team is bad, you're bad,'" Stallings said. "All conferences have ebbs and flows to them. Last year might not have been our best year, but don't be surprised if this year is dramatically, dramatically different than that. If we get six or seven teams in the tournament this year, which will not surprise me in the least, nobody will be talking about that anymore."
However strong the rest of the SEC ends up being, Kentucky is sure to improve. The question is how much better the Wildcats will be, whether Calipari's high expectations -- his "dream" of coaching an undefeated team before he retires -- make the man at the center of it all look prescient, or silly.
It all began back on Sept. 27, at Michigan State's Midnight Madness event, when students in attendance tweeted a choice fire 'em up line from Izzo about the team's practices to date: "We're working to kick Kentucky's [butt]." Considering the Spartans' only game before the Nov. 12 matchup with UK is a home warm-up against McNeese State (2012-13 KenPom rank: No. 308), this was a pretty innocuous thing for Izzo to say. Of course that's what Michigan State was doing. With all due respect to McNeese State … well, come on.
But John Calipari being John Calipari, it didn't take long for Izzo's otherwise ho-hum declaration to catch on. In a luncheon for UK's Greater Louisville Alumni Club Monday, Calipari gently fired back, but really spent most of his time on the topic spinning Izzo's five-word admission into another ingenious way to sell his program:
And let me say this about this team: Our third game is against Michigan State. That’s going to be hard. They’re already a veteran team. They’ve already made comments that their practices are about beating Kentucky. But I say this to you: If I ask my team when we play Florida, they’re not going to know. North Carolina (they don’t know). I’m going to do it today, because as I thought about it, they don’t know. You think they know when we’re playing Louisville? They don’t know. They want to know if there is a meal tonight. They don’t know. Now, I ask you this: Does everyone on our schedule know when they’re playing Kentucky? Oh, they know. And it’s on their locker, it’s on their ceiling of their bedroom. You’ve got to deal with that. That’s part of being at Kentucky. You know what I tell them? Not only do they want to beat Kentucky, they want to beat you as individual player. You want to know why? They wanted that scholarship that you got and they want to prove they’re better than you, not just their team is better than Kentucky. So that’s the challenge that we have. But would you want it any other way? I don’t. Bring it. Let’s go – as long as I’ve got a good team. (Laughter). Bring it, let’s go.
See what I mean? He's a genius.
I know, I know: It gets really old reading that. But what else are you supposed to say? The same guy who has turned the one-and-done rule into his personal annual NBA talent showcase, who coined "players first" and repeated it approximately once every five minutes for four years straight, who got Drake and Jay-Z on board with a program from Lexington, Ky. -- this is a man who knows marketing.
And so when Izzo says his team is working on beating Kentucky in its first non-cupcake game of the season, it's not merely a chance to say "well, good for them; we're doing the same." Oh, no. No, no, no. This is a branding opportunity, a chance for Calipari to sing from the high heavens about how prestigious Kentucky hoops is (it is) and about how teams circle their Kentucky date in bright red ink because a) it's Kentucky, and b) scholarship envy, or something. Do Adreian Payne and Gary Harris sit around thinking about their once-upon-a-time offers to play at UK? Doubtful. Is Kentucky Michigan State's second game of the season? Again: yes.
But in Calipari's world, no chance at a positive spin may go wasted. Dude is never not on-message. Which is precisely why he's so good.