College Basketball Nation: Kyle Wiltjer

#Top10Thursday: Matchup nightmares

November, 20, 2014
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You don’t sleep well when you know you have to deal with these guys the following night.

It’s difficult to stop any elite Division I player. These athletes, however, are nightmare matchups for any individual or team in the country.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using the hashtag #Top10Thursday.

1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke

OkaforAP Photo/Michael Conroy
What can you do with him? Okafor (17.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 blocks per game) has been one of the most dominant players in the country, regardless of seniority. He’s tough to front and he can score with layups, dunks, baby hooks and the occasional jumper. Okafor is a problem for every team outside Durham, North Carolina.

2. Georges Niang, Iowa State

Oklahoma State/Iowa StateNelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports
He’s never the fastest player on the floor. The Iowa State star doesn’t play above the rim. But the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward can score from outside (33 percent from the 3-point line last season), bring the ball up the floor, lead the break, collect from midrange and score in the post.

3. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

Montrezl Harrell Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports
When he wasn’t shattering high school backboards this offseason, Harrell was reportedly working on his range. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound monster forward is 3-for-7 from beyond the arc in Louisville’s first two games this season. Harrell hitting 3s is like the Incredible Hulk learning how to fly. It’s just not right.

4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

Karl-Anthony TownsAndy Lyons/Getty Images
He’s both mentally and physically mature for a freshman. The 6-foot-11 center has range and he’s tough in the paint, too, which is why he’s such a hot pro prospect. But Towns is also a handful because you have to find a way to score against him. And that’s not easy to do against the guy who is the top shot-blocker (2.3 blocks per game, 22nd in block percentage, per kenpom.com) on a Kentucky squad that’s swatting everything.

5. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

Frank KaminskyRobert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports
Frank the Tank is 7 feet tall. That always helps in basketball. But unlike the bulk of the 7-footers who’ve excelled, he’s capable of hitting 3-pointers and jump shots. So whom do you put on this Wooden Award candidate? Kaminsky (37.8 percent from the 3-point line in 2013-14) sets hard screens that create chaos for defenders. If you help a teammate on the pick, you’ll lose him. And that’s not good. Ask last season’s NCAA tournament field.

6. Myles Turner, Texas

Myles TurnerChris Covatta/Getty Images
The 6-foot-11 forward was the No. 2 prospect in the 2014 class, per RecruitingNation. His size and skill could help Texas compete for the Big 12 crown and possibly a national title. He’s comfortable outside the lane. But he can also run the floor and exploit defenders in transition. Hard to stop a guy with that length and agility.

7. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

Arizona/OregonScott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports
The sophomore could be a star for Sean Miller’s squad this season. He has already produced some impressive highlights. He has a quick first step, he’s long, he’ll soar over anyone in his way and he’s a good rebounder. You’ll need an energy drink and a cup of coffee to track Hollis-Jefferson all night.

8. Ron Baker, Wichita State

Ron Baker Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The Wichita State wing is a true combo guard. Baker (18.5 PPG through two games this season) is dangerous from the perimeter. He can take you off the dribble and slash. He can score with a hand in his face. And he’s a solid and shifty ball handler, too. Off a screen, you can’t do much with him, either.

9. Keifer Sykes, Green Bay

Keifer SykesMary Langenfeld/USA TODAY Sports
The 6-foot, 180-pound point guard is one of the quickest guards in the country. But don’t let his size fool you. He’ll catapult in a second and dunk on the biggest man on the floor. That’s what makes Sykes such a challenge. His stat line last season was just ridiculous: 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 81 percent from the free throw line.

10. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga

Kyle WiltjerAP Photo/Young Kwak
He didn’t really fit in with Kentucky’s fleet of talented big men. But Gonzaga is the perfect spot for Wiltjer. The Zags have one of America’s best offenses. You can’t just zone them because they’ll shoot the lights out. And you can go man-to-man if you want, but you’ll have to deal with the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer and his appetite for the arc.

Position battles: Centers

May, 16, 2014
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CHICAGO -- Julius Randle is gone, but he wouldn't mind watching the Kentucky big men battle in the fall.

"Yes, there's going to be some competition," Randle said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. "But Coach [John Calipari] will figure it out."

Randle wasn't going to return next season. He was a one-and-done player from the moment he arrived, looking like a chiseled NBA veteran. He was the one big man who didn't need seasoning. But the rest did. Toss in newcomer Karl Towns Jr., and the Wildcats have as many bigs as any team assembled recently.

Randle's favorite to replace his low-post ability? He's leaning toward sophomore to-be Dakari Johnson.

"He's very good in the low post," Randle said. "He's got a nice touch. It's hard to move him down there."

Randle should know. He had to tussle with Johnson in the low block in practice every day. Now, Johnson will take Randle's role as the player whom the others try to knock off in the post -- for position and, possibly, playing time.

ESPN.com is examining position battles this week. Here are some center battles to keep an eye on:

Kentucky: Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee versus Karl Towns Jr.: Yes, there are veterans -- three of them -- returning against the young pup. Calipari could figure out how to play all four of them at some point during a game. Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Lee all had their moments in which they shined. Johnson has the best chance to be in the low post, Cauley-Stein can be the top shot-blocker and Lee is a bit of an X factor among the group. Now, enter the newcomer. Towns can do a bit of everything, but he doesn't need to be the primary option. That's key for him and rare for a high-profile Kentucky player. This isn't even mentioning Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress, who are more positioned to play smaller forward positions next to the bigs. This team is loaded.

North Carolina: Kennedy Meeks versus Brice Johnson. Meeks is much more of a physical specimen. He can be immovable at times in the low post. Johnson has more finesse to his game. The two of them can play together, but they could take turns sharing the focal point in the middle, depending on the opponent or the flow of the game. They have a chance to both average double figures and nearly seven or eight rebounds per game. If that happens, the Tar Heels could be a force in the ACC and beyond.

Texas: Cameron Ridley versus Myles Turner. Ridley made himself into a real threat last season. He was nearly a double-double player (he averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game). Ridley could progress even more next season. The Longhorns nabbed a late-recruiting season coup in Turner. Turner is too good, too effective to not be on the court. The key for coach Rick Barnes will be whether he can play the two as a tandem. If he can't, then who is on the court when the game matters most is more of a competition than the overall minutes. Regardless, both players can help Texas take a huge leap next season.

Gonzaga: Przemek Karnowski versus Kyle Wiltjer. Karnowski is the traditional post player. He can be difficult to move around, and his offensive game continues to develop. Wiltjer can certainly play with Karnowski because he's slender and is much more of a face-up player. The two can be an effective high-low tandem, but if there is a need to see who is on the floor late, then that is also, like with Texas, where the real competition begins. Wiltjer had a year to get stronger, but he won't turn out like Kelly Olynyk. Wiltjer is still going to be skill first, strength last. Karnowski needs to be the opposite for the Zags to find the right balance.

LSU : Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey versus Elbert Robinson. The Tigers have a chance to make the NCAA tournament because of the decisions of Martin and Mickey. The two were effective double-figure scorers last season playing with Johnny O'Bryant III. Now, toss in the newcomer Robinson. He'll need to find minutes as well. Coach Johnny Jones can't play all three together, but the minutes will need to be divided up. These are good problems to have, and with 15 fouls to expend among the three, the Tigers are one of the few teams in the SEC with the numbers to hang with Kentucky's frontcourt.

Arizona: Kaleb Tarczewski versus Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country last season. Give him another summer and he should really be a regular to score in the post. But he has to command the ball even more next season without the presence of Aaron Gordon. Ashley is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of the Pac-12 season. He will play with Tarczewski, but if there is any question who would demand more minutes, then that can be a highly competitive battle in practice. It might be moot for coach Sean Miller since the two can coexist, but dividing up the frontcourt minutes will still be an interesting decision for the staff.
1. Not all redshirt transfers are created equally at Gonzaga. And that's why it would be unfair to expect Kyle Wiltjer to come back as thick and strong as Kelly Olynyk -- an All-American and the No. 13 pick in the NBA draft -- after Wiljter redshirts next season. "The similarities are the size and skill package and feel for the game," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "Both came to the conclusion part way through their careers that they needed to make a change in what they were doing.'' Wiltjer transferred from Kentucky after his sophomore season and will sit as a third-year player. Olynyk played two seasons at Gonzaga and then sat out one before playing again as a fourth-year junior. "But they're going to be different. Now it's our job to provide the means and guidance. Hopefully for both parties, Kyle will reap the rewards of making this change and putting in the hard work and hopefully Gonzaga will too,'' Few said. Wiltjer has the advantage of playing with Zag Kevin Pangos on the World University Games Canadian team in Kazan, Russia. So the teammates won't be all foreign. But it's clear Wiltjer needs to get stronger and improve his back-to-the-basket game just like Olynyk needed to do when he sat two years ago. The Zags had two players sitting out last season -- Providence's Gerard Coleman and Louisville's Angel Nunez. Coleman will be eligible to play in the fall while Nunez has to wait until December. But the expectations for the redshirt year to turn a player into an all-American weren't there with these two like it was with Olynyk and will be with Wiltjer. "It all comes down to the guy being properly motivated,'' said Few. "How willing is the guy to really, really make this all about him to get better for a year?'' That's what Gonzaga will find out about Wiltjer next season.

2. Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said he is confident Tennessee transfer Trae Golden can get eligible immediately. Gregory said as important as when he will play, is what he brings to the program next season. "He adds value to our team because he brings experience,'' said Gregory, whose Yellow Jackets need to start climbing upward in the 15-team ACC. "Currently he's the only perimeter player who has more than one year of playing experience and proven scoring ability. In this league, you need high quality guards and multiple ball handlers who can handle pressure, score and create. Trae's versatility should help address that need.''

3. USA Basketball is capitalizing on the fantasy camp marketplace this week by hosting a three-day $7,500 adult basketball camp with all-star coaches. The camp coincides with USA basketball's minicamp in Las Vegas and the coaches participating are a who's who from college basketball. According to the USA Basketball website, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Kentucky's John Calipari, Florida's Billy Donovan, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Villanova's Jay Wright, Miami's Jim Larranaga, Washington's Lorenzo Romar and Grand Canyon's Dan Majerle are the coaches with former college and NBA coach and current ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo serving as camp director. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a highly successful adult fantasy basketball camp and other coaches are getting into the mix as well. There is a market out there for this and USA basketball has found its spot to potentially get a piece as well. The camp does cut into a few days of the last recruiting period, but with the camp in Las Vegas the college coaches can simply stay in the city and evaluate at the various high school tournaments.
When Kyle Wiltjer announced his plans to transfer, he -- actually, stop right there. The most notable thing about Wiltjer's 10-day-old summer transfer decision is that it wasn't actually a decision at all. Remarkably, when the rising junior forward wrote a letter to UK fans through Kentucky's athletics web site, he included plenty of qualifiers, and he made it clear that while he was exploring his options, he wasn't dead-set on leaving Kentucky.

This news was quickly followed by a blog post from his coach, John Calipari, that was at equal turns supportive and hopeful that Wiltjer would recommit himself to the Wildcats in the weeks to come. The only thing more unusual than the non-announcement open letter was how peaceful the whole thing seemed.

Despite all that, it still felt like Wiltjer's departure was a done deal. After all, other than heading off Internet rumor, why announce that you're considering transferring if there's even a small chance you might come back? Even the tone of Wiltjer's text felt less predicated on genuine uncertainty than a desire to hedge; the uses of "might" and "possibly" almost read like they were tacked on by a wary editor. (For what it's worth, my editor agreed. And he would know.)

When Wiltjer's list of potential destinations -- all but one of which, Texas, lies on the West Coast, much closer than Lexington, Ky. to Wiltjer's native Portland -- the whole foregone conclusion thing seemed official. After a campus visit, Gonzaga rumors abounded. The kid was transferring, right?

Well, maybe. But also maybe not.

That's what Wiltjer's father, Greg Wiltjer, told the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers this weekend, anyway, and while it isn't a departure in any meaningful way from where we were before, there is more detail on the thought process underpinning Wiltjer's desire to look around. Perhaps most surprising? Returning to Kentucky for one year remains a totally viable option, and might actually fall in line with what Greg is hoping his son will eventually chose to do:
"Kyle is midway through the college process," his father says. "The reason he chose Kentucky was a chance to win a national championship, play with the best players in the nation and be in position to have an opportunity to play beyond college. Now he's looking at what lies in front of him.

'Kyle has a great relationship with Calipari, but he's not a stereotypical Calipari player. If he were at Duke or some other place, they'd be running him off screens, but that's not the Kentucky system. And now he has all these thoroughbreds coming in. Kyle's biggest challenge is his body. He needs to get stronger and quicker, to get help with nutrition, strength and agility."

[...] "The biggest time in Kyle's career lies in the 14 to 16 months ahead," Greg says. "I'd 100 percent like him to devote the next year to working on his body, but it's his decision. He feels vested in Kentucky. It has been his life the last two years. And Kyle is a very competitive kid. He is always trying to prove people wrong."

In short: Wiltjer is understandably concerned about a lack of playing time at Kentucky in 2013-14, and he may not fit Calipari's system to a T. But he is also emotionally invested in Kentucky, and the possibility of redshirting at UK might provide the same benefit -- sitting out a season and getting shredded, essentially -- as a transfer move.

This isn't news in the strictest sense; Wiltjer still hasn't decided to do anything concrete. But it is worth noting the soft-pedaled nature of his announcement wasn't simply lip-service. From the outside, anyway, the UK forward genuinely does seem torn. And however idiosyncratic the announcement may have been, the really interesting part is what comes next.

(Oh, and just because I was curious: According to Synergy scouting data, in the last two seasons just 34 of Duke forward Ryan Kelly's 608 total possessions were initiated as the recipient of screen action. Coach K doesn't really run bigs off screens. I'm not sure how many coaches actually do.)
1. If Kyle Wiltjer does leave Kentucky and sit out next season at another school he has a real shot to be a major player in the sport in 2014-15. The schools that are going to pursue him in seeking a release are Gonzaga, Portland, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Texas, as reported by ESPN.com. The Zags will lean heavily on the example of Kelly Olynyk, who worked out well as a redshirt. Olynyk used his redshirt year to bulk up and change his body and game. He became a potential lottery pick because of his redshirt year. That might be too generous for Wiltjer, but he needs a full year to work on his strength and conditioning. He already has the skill set. Wiltjer would fit in well at a number of those schools on the West Coast. All could use his face-up game and none are immune from the need for a big man. Kentucky will miss having another upperclassman and shooter but can absorb the loss next season more so than a year ago when they lacked overall talent.

2. The Playing Rules Oversight panel approved what the rules committee had already recommended: to use instant replay in the final two minutes of regulation on out-of-bounds plays, in addition to determining if a shot is a 2 or 3-pointer. While there is a chance this could slow the game down a bit, getting the possession calls right is worth any delay. This was a change that the game had to make to avoid any more controversy. There will still be disagreements and hard to discern plays, but this is a step in the right direction to use technology correctly.

3. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said Monday he was told by Louisville that the Cardinals would wear the new "A" logo for their one season in the conference in 2013-14 before moving to the ACC. He said he wouldn't be surprised if they were also using the logo on athletic competition fields of play. He said he hasn't heard from Rutgers yet on what the Scarlet Knights would do before they move to the Big Ten. But Aresco said both schools have been warm to the league, even with their pending departure. Both schools will be representing the league in all their athletic competitions and any advancement into NCAA play would mean their postseason units would stay with the American and not go with them.
Kyle WiltjerPaul Abell/US PresswireKyle Wiltjer shouldn't be lacking options on schools if the forward decides to leave Kentucky.
Here's what we know: Yes, Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer is considering a transfer. No, he's not totally sure if he's going to actually transfer. Yes, he announced the possibility in an open letter to fans on UK's website Monday evening. No, he did not definitively announce his transfer. Yes, coach John Calipari has already weighed in with his support on his personal home page. No, this is not an elaborate joke. Yes, you read that headline correctly.

Confused yet? Join the club.

At 5:26 p.m. ET Monday night, Wiltjer posted his "Letter to BBN [Big Blue Nation]" on UKAthletics.com. He thanked his coach, teammates and fans, and reflected on his accomplishments in two years in Lexington. And then he wrote the following:
During this next year, I will be working on my body so that I am able to compete the way I know I can. I want to find a situation that will help me do this as well as play a more significant role, wherever that may be. Even though I might physically leave Lexington, I will never forget the support and kindness that everyone has shown my family and me. It is difficult to put into words how hard it is to possibly leave BBN, yet I am confident that whatever I choose, I will give it my all. Regardless, I will always bleed blue and will never forget these amazing last two years at Kentucky.

All of which sounds like the young man's mind is made up ... save the words "might" and "possibly," which imply the opposite. Meanwhile, after discussing Wiltjer's strengths, weaknesses and accomplishments as a player to date, Calipari's typically thoughtful blog post on the matter makes clear how much he'd like to see the rangy Canadian back in UK blue by the time fall rolls around:
Kyle’s choice to explore options at another school disappoints me, but it’s his decision at the end of the day, and I fully support his decision. I would love for him to go through this process and return to us, but I will support him and help him in any way I can. He’s a terrific young man, a great student, a tremendous basketball player and an excellent teammate. If he does choose to go somewhere else, that school will be very lucky.

He's also sure to let UK fans know that Wiltjer's decision wouldn't impact the school's Academic Progress Rate ...
I want our fans to know if Kyle does indeed leave, his academics are high enough that his transfer will not hurt our university. We all need to understand that he’s leaving on his own terms. We all want him back, but it’s not what we want; it’s what he wants, and that’s OK.

... before finishing with this:
The end goal – the only true goal – is success: reaching your dreams. Anytime a player doesn’t feel like he can achieve those dreams with us, I feel like we’ve failed him, not that he’s failed us.

I told Kyle I’ll play whatever part he wants in his transfer, whether that’s being involved and calling other schools on his behalf or not being involved in any way. He expressed to me that he needs my help and advice, which I will give. Whatever Kyle chooses – and I still hope he ends up back with us – I wish him and his family the best of luck.

It's hard to overstate how unusual this is. In college sports, transfers are almost always handled as 100 percent closed-door affairs. That is especially true of a player's initial decision to transfer. The scramble of recruitment that ensues after that first decision is made is frequently open to the public, not unlike a high school recruitment. But that doesn't happen until the player has absolutely decided to leave, and the school he's leaving has issued its perfunctory statement wishing the player the best of luck with his future.

This is not that. It's strange, and it comes with its fair share of questions. Why announce before Wiltjer leaves, in case he comes back? Is there any reason to parse these statements for subtext indicating some perceived difference in the likelihood of his return? Just how small is that chance, anyway?

This is also, in its own way, refreshing. Rather than dumping the news with a stern statement and nothing more, Calipari has allowed Wiltjer to pre-emptively address his desires in an open letter to Kentucky fans, and followed it up with about as supportive a missive as any coach could probably ever muster for a player who has decided to transfer. Calipari's backing means everything for the public perception of UK players; what he says resonates with UK fans in a lasting way.

You could also argue that pre-empting the news undercuts the wave of rumor and innuendo sure to spring up as soon as the rumblings -- heard third-hand and distorted by the massive game of telephone that is modern Internet fandom -- began to creep outward from Lexington in the weeks to come. The announcement also gave Calipari a chance to lay out more of his recruiting and development philosophy, which is on some serious "I am the nucleus" next-level stuff at this point. In this case, maybe transparency is a win-win?

It's pretty confusing stuff, unusual in both tone and execution, and really only one thing is for sure:

Whatever Wiltjer decides, there are going to be plenty of teams interested, and many more fans waiting anxiously to see what happens next.
1. Memphis coach Josh Pastner had former Missouri guard Michael Dixon on campus Tuesday for a face-to-face visit. Dixon's case is complicated, as ESPN.com's Jason King reported, and there is plenty he must do to become eligible. There are a few issues at play here for Pastner. One of the downsides of social media is that Dixon's arrival was well-chronicled, and his supposed commitment put out for the world to see before it was actually done. Pastner had no time to make a decision before it was presumed to have been made for him. Now, suddenly, his timeline is pushed up because of the assumption that a commitment has been accepted, whether or not an offer was extended. Pastner doesn't need to take second-chance players. He did once with Geron Johnson and it worked out. And while there is no guarantee that newcomers Kuran Iverson and Rashawn Powell will be eligible, according to a source, it's also unknown whether Dixon will be, either. Pastner has done a fantastic job under the shadow of John Calipari and has the Tigers ready to move to the American Athletic Conference next season on an upward trajectory. He was investigating Dixon on his own, but the visit got exposed before any firm decision was made. Now Pastner has to make a public choice of whether to waste his time on taking a player who is searching for an opportunity that not every program may be willing to give him for one year.

2. The U.S. World University Games team will have its hands full with Canada during the competition, set for July 6-17 in Kazan, Russia. The Canadian roster, released Tuesday, isn't as loaded but boasts plenty of major-college talent. Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, the ACC freshman of the year, is joined by headline players Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Dwight Powell (Stanford), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Laurent Rivard (Harvard) and Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State). Each of these Canadians will have a significant role on his respective team, with all of them starting the season in position to make a run at an NCAA bid. Ejim may be the most intriguing of the lot, with a real shot to be even more of a breakout player in the Big 12. Pangos will have more scoring next season. Powell led the Cardinal last season. Rivard will be a fixture on a stacked Crimson. Wiltjer has to adjust his role with the newcomers at Kentucky but can still be a matchup problem. Heslip must be more consistent. Bachynski has to absorb some of Carrick Felix's numbers after his departure. And Hanlan will be responsible for leading the Eagles higher in the ACC.

3. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has taken plenty of transfers his first few years in Ames. He has had success stories mixed in with quality newcomers. I'll be very interested to see if he can maximize the talent of DeAndre Kane, who was a disappointment for Marshall after starting last season with such promise. Kane was essentially asked to leave Marshall by coach Tom Herrion; they weren't going to mesh for one more season. Now Kane has to be in step with Hoiberg if his final year in college is going to be productive. Kane originally was looking to go to Pitt, but that didn't work out, either. He pursued Iowa State and the Cyclones were receptive. It's in everyone's best interest that this works for next season so the Cyclones can be relevant come March for a third consecutive season.
Cauley-SteinAP Photo/Dave Martin
Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Kentucky Insider. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

Remember when Kentucky freaked everyone out?

It wasn't hard to figure out why. To the untrained eye, Kentucky's 2011-12 national title was the product of nothing more than John Calipari's immense recruiting advantage over everyone else in the sport. To many, the dominant triumph of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist proved that all Calipari had to do every year was get the best players, coax them into playing his typically stifling defense and let the talent do the rest. He had cracked the code. The sport would never be the same.

A year later, as the Wildcats ended their season in Moon, Pa., in the first round of the NIT, losing to a Northeast Conference team (Robert Morris) that has lost more games in its history than it has won, the noise diverged. Suddenly, Kentucky couldn't recruit; it had missed on Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin; only pre-ACL tear Nerlens Noel panned out as planned. Or: Maybe you can't win a national title relying on talented freshmen after all! Maybe 2012 was just luck! Ha!

All of this stuff misses the point.

Kentucky 2011-12 wasn't the best team in the country because it comprised only talented freshmen. The freshmen UK did have were special, but just as important were Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. None was a freshmen. Jones would have been a lottery pick had he left during the lockout uncertainty. Miller was a fourth-year senior who came off the bench.

The 2012-13 team didn't have any of these things. The freshmen, particularly Poythress and Goodwin, disappointed. But save the inconsistent Kyle Wiltjer, there were no veterans, let alone veteran leaders, to provide any semblance of core consistency, confidence or backbone. When Noel tore his ACL at Florida and UK lost 88-58 at Tennessee, you could just see it. There was nothing there, particularly on the defensive end, where a team's cohesion and heart shine brightest. And the Wildcats were hardly impenetrable with Noel in the lineup, either.

The lesson in all this exists on neither extreme of the rhetorical continuum. Calipari didn't lose his touch or totally whiff on recruits last season any more than his 2011-12 team changed college basketball forever.

The lesson here is something more fundamental about the game itself, and it's true whether you're playing in your pickup game or in the NBA: Talent isn't everything. Championships don't just happen. Personalities matter. Intelligence matters. Defense matters. Veterans matter.

That's why, even as Calipari prepares to bring the best recruiting class in college hoops history into the fold, Kentucky can't merely hope to glide by on glimmering talent. If UK is going to upend the reigning national champs at Louisville and avoid challenges from every corner, the Wildcats will need the scattered returners to step up, too.

None will be more important than Willie Cauley-Stein.

With Goodwin and Noel off to the NBA and Ryan Harrow having transferred to Georgia State, Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Wiltjer were the only three candidates for this prestigious position. I was actually torn about this Tuesday night, so I ran an informal poll among Kentucky fans on Twitter. Dozens of replies later, the consensus was overwhelmingly in favor of Cauley-Stein. Some made the case for Poythress, particularly in light of Andrew Wiggins' decision to play at Kansas (thus preserving Poythress plenty of minutes and possibly a starting spot). Few made the case for Wiltjer, even though I would contend his length and shooting -- he finished at 36.7 percent from 3 last season, which isn't bad for a 6-foot-10 guy -- could still be crucial in 2013-14.

But Cauley-Stein's case really is the most convincing. You won't find many 7-footers as athletic as Cauley-Stein at any level, full stop, and the big man already demonstrated solid rebounding on both ends of the floor and competent finishing ability around the rim. He ended the season having shot 62.1 percent from the field, which is great pretty much any way you slice it. Despite that output, though, Cauley-Stein couldn't be relied on to score over a competent defender. According to Synergy scouting data, Cauley-Stein scored 1.55 points per possession when he cut to the rim and 1.05 on offensive rebound putbacks but just .067 points per trip the 75 times he was put in a legitimate post-up opportunity.

This is rawness personified. A little more touch and one or two reliable moves, and there's no reason an athletic 7-footer can't score over even the best collegiate post defenders.

[+] EnlargeWillie Cauley-Stein
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWith Cauley-Stein defending the rim, Kentucky's talented offensive players can get to work.
But that would be a bonus. After all, Kentucky shouldn't have much trouble scoring the basketball next season. The Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron) will be deadly on the perimeter, and power forward Julius Randle -- the No. 3-ranked player in the class, behind only Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker -- will be the go-to post force. Also, Kentucky has the No. 2 center in the class, Dakari Johnson, whose chief strength is his offensive polish.

No, what Kentucky needs -- what has made Calipari such a consistently successful coach in the past decade -- is defense. Last season's Wildcats finished ranked No. 77 in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings. That was the first time since the 2004-05 Memphis Tigers that a Calipari-coached defense wasn't among the 15 stingiest in the country. In five of those years, it ranked in the top 10. This is Calipari's formula: His offenses are usually excellent, but sometimes they're merely good. What sets his teams apart is his ability to meld young players into a lockdown defensive group.

Cauley-Stein will be massive in this effort. He blocked a shot on 8.4 percent of his available possessions last season, which is a totally respectable rate on its own and especially impressive given that he was playing on the same team as human block-sponge Noel. Johnson is not known as an elite athlete or defender, beyond his ability to clog the lane. Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, has a chance to be a dominant defensive presence. He could be the prohibitive force that makes interior penetration against Kentucky impossible, the player who lets the rest of the team's talent press out on shooters, unafraid of either (A) inefficient midrange shots or (B) deep drives. Cauley-Stein can be on that wall. He should be on that wall.

The great luxury of Calipari's signing five of the best nine players in recent history's most loaded incoming class is that none of his three returners will be seen as the team's most important player. That title likely will go to either Aaron or Andrew Harrison, or Randle. Neither Poythress nor Cauley-Stein is guaranteed a starting spot; Wiltjer, veteran of a national title team, is practically guaranteed to come off the bench. And we haven't even talked about James Young (a 6-foot-6 lefty scorer ranked eighth overall in the class) or Marcus Lee (the best oh-yeah-they-have-that-guy in recruiting history).

Conceivably, UK could start five freshmen -- the Harrisons, Young, Randle and Johnson -- and still be a legitimate national title threat, if not the favorite. But it is hard to imagine Kentucky approaching its incredibly lofty ceiling if Cauley-Stein isn't contributing in big ways to that effort. The Wildcats need his size, his shot-blocking, his rebounding. They need the size and strength borne of a full offseason spent in an elite training and conditioning program.

They also need his anger. Few players were more vocal about the frustration of last season, how embarrassing getting walked off in Moon, Pa., really was.

"I feel like something’s empty, and I want to fill it," Cauley-Stein told the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker in April. Kentucky needs Cauley-Stein to be that guy -- the guy who has been through it before, who knows it isn't easy, that no matter how bad it gets in practice, he has seen worse. On every rotation and every box-out, Kentucky needs someone who feels an emptiness that can be filled only by winning.

In short, Kentucky needs a veteran. Poythress or Wiltjer might be that guy. Maybe all three are. Maybe there's an MKG in the freshman mix. Someone must embrace the role, tangible or otherwise. Kentucky will be very good the minute it begins the season. Whether it will be great is another matter entirely, one up to Cauley-Stein and, to a lesser extent, Poythress and Wiltjer.

Because that is the real lesson of the past two seasons of Kentucky basketball. Talent is great, but greatness is about so much more than talent. Sometimes we need a reminder, you know?
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A towel draped over his head and his eyes filled with tears, sophomore guard Ryan Harrow sat in a despondent Kentucky locker room Friday night and tried to make sense of a performance that likely sealed the Wildcats’ postseason fate.

Harrow shouldered the blame for Kentucky’s ugly 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, a loss that may well keep the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament for only the second time in the past 22 years.

“I didn’t start off well, and it just trickled down to everybody else. I apologize,” said Harrow, who suffered through a nightmarish 2-of-15 shooting night, many of his misses drives to the basket.

“Of course, we want to get to the [NCAA] tournament, because if we play well, we can beat anybody. I basically just messed it up for us.”

The truth is that he had plenty of help. Nobody played particularly well for Kentucky, while Vanderbilt played lights-out.

The Commodores (16-16) are playing their best basketball of the season, and after being left for dead three weeks ago, have won six of their past seven games.

[+] EnlargeKyle Wiltjer
AP Photo/Dave MartinSophomore Kyle Wiltjer knows UK will have plenty of anxious moments between now and Sunday.
They placed four players in double figures Friday and turned it over only five times, while holding Kentucky to a season-low 48 points.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been as proud of a team as I am this team,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose red-hot Commodores will face Ole Miss on Saturday in the semifinals.

Vanderbilt shot 59.1 percent from the field in the first half and built a 14-point halftime lead. That lead swelled to 21 points less than four minutes into the second half, and Kentucky never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.

As the final seconds ticked down, the Vanderbilt students were taunting the Kentucky team with chants of “NIT, NIT.” Stallings quickly motioned for them to stop, but that’s precisely where the Wildcats may be headed.

Kentucky coach John Calipari almost seemed braced for the worst.

“When you play a game like this, it hurts you,” Calipari said. “But the good news is everyone else is losing, too. So at the end of the day, it will shake out and I trust the [selection] committee to put the right teams in. If we’re in, we’ll play better. And if we’re not in, we’re not. I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it.

“We had an opportunity. It was in our hands to take it out of everybody’s hands, and we didn’t take care of business.

“We laid an egg.”

A smelly one, at that. But Calipari was careful to praise Vanderbilt.

“They had more energy than us,” Calipari said. “I told my team for three days that the hardest thing in tournament play is to have a bye and have a team that’s playing well play a game and then come up against you.

“So it was a combination of everything. I don’t want to take anything away from Vandy. They played great. We laid an egg. We had one guy go 2-for-15 and miss 12 layups.”

Kentucky’s résumé, especially since Nerlens Noel went down with his season-ending injury back on Feb. 12, has been mediocre at best. The Wildcats (21-11) have lost five of their past nine games and haven’t won away from home since they beat Texas A&M on Feb. 2.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi dropped the Wildcats out of his latest projection for the NCAA tournament field and had them among the “first four out.”

The Kentucky players said they will do their best not to think about it until the selection show Sunday night.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult knowing how badly we played,” Kentucky sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “You have to give them credit, but it’s going to be difficult waiting to see if our name is called.”

Olynyk made Wooden case in January

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
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Kelly Olynyk has been among the nation’s best players in January. On Thursday, he’ll close out the month as the Gonzaga Bulldogs travel to Los Angeles to take on the Loyola Marymount Lions (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET).

Olynyk started the season shuttling between the bench and the starting lineup. Since he became a full-time starter Dec. 28, he has averaged 21.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. During that span, he is shooting 64.8 from the field and has made 4-of-8 attempts from behind the arc.

So far in January, he is in the top 10 in the nation in scoring, at 22.0 ppg, and field-goal percentage, at 64.3 percent.

Olynyk is averaging 18.2 points per game this season while averaging only 25.4 minutes on the court. Among Division I players, only Creighton’s Doug McDermott averages more points per 40 minutes.

For the season, Olynyk is shooting 65.8 percent from the floor. The only Wooden Award winners to make more than 65 percent of their shots were Blake Griffin in 2009 and Larry Johnson in 1991.

The last player to average 28 points per 40 minutes while shooting at least 62.5 percent from the field was Arkansas' Corliss Williamson during the 1993-94 season. He lost out on the Wooden Award to Glenn Robinson of Purdue, but no player is having a Big Dog-caliber season in 2013.

Olynyk is fifth in the nation in effective field goal percentage. The last two Wooden finalists with a higher eFG were Johnson in 1991 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984.

When you factor in free-throw shooting, it’s even more impressive. Olynyk moves up to third in the nation at 71.7 percent, trailing only Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Belmont’s Ian Clark.

The last Wooden finalist with a true shooting percentage over 70? That would be Johnson.

Olynyk is part of a wave of Canadian talent playing collegiately in the United States. Consider the following squad of Canadian players:
  • Center Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State): tied for third in Division I with 4.3 blocks per game.
  • Forward Olynyk (Gonzaga): third in Division I with 71.7 true shooting percentage.
  • Forward Anthony Bennett (UNLV): second among freshmen with 18.1 points per game.
  • Guard Nik Stauskas (Michigan): top 10 in nation with 49.5 3-point field goal percentage.
  • Guard Myck Kabongo (Texas): preseason All-Big 12 (currently ineligible).
  • Sixth man Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky): The dual Canadian-American citizen scored a career-high 26 points off bench Tuesday.

Numbers to Know: Tuesday recap

January, 30, 2013
1/30/13
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Player of the Night – Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky
Wiltjer scored a career-high 26 points off the bench, as Kentucky topped Ole Miss 87-74 in Oxford. He also added seven rebounds and three assists. The last two major conference players to do that off the bench were Sean May and Al Thornton, both in 2005.

Freshman of the Night – Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Noel set a Kentucky record with 12 blocked shots, also matching the most in a Division I game this season. That also equaled the career highs of notable swatters Dikembe Mutombo and Shaquille O’Neal. Perhaps most impressively, six of Noel’s 12 blocks came after he picked up his fourth foul.

Scorer of the Night – Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
Thomas once again carried the scoring load, pouring in 25 points in the Buckeyes’ 58-49 win over Wisconsin. On the season, he’s scoring 28 percent of Ohio State’s points, the 20th-highest percentage in the nation. Strange fact from this one: For the first time in school history, Wisconsin did not attempt a free throw.

Stat Sheet Stuffer - Colt Ryan, Evansville
Ryan either scored or assisted on 43 of Evansville’s 54 points. He finished with 23 points and matched a career-high nine assists in the Aces’ 54-51 overtime win over Northern Iowa. Ryan’s now 57 points shy of becoming the 14th 2,000-point scorer in Missouri Valley Conference history.

Ugly Stat of the Night – Wichita State Shockers
The Shockers lost out on a chance to be the nation’s first 20-win team, losing to Indiana State 68-55. Wichita State shot just 27.1 percent from the field, its lowest in a game in almost 12 years. Even worse, the Shockers were 22.6 percent from two-point range, their lowest in at least 15 years.

Thoughts from Louisville's 80-77 win over rival Kentucky:

Overview: Midway through the first half, Kentucky and Louisville were locked in a give-and-take battle. Chane Behanan attacked Kentucky’s young post players, and Peyton Siva connected on open 3s from outside. The Wildcats relied on a similar attack with Ryan Harrow and Nerlens Noel penetrating in the first half. And then Louisville began to pressure and Kentucky began to unravel. Turnovers, bad shots and poor passing seemed to doom the Wildcats as Louisville ultimately amassed a 17-point lead in the first five minutes of the second half. But Kyle Wiltjer helped the Wildcats stay alive late with a string of 3-pointers. With just under seven minutes to go, Louisville’s advantage was just four points. The Wildcats were within two points in the final six minutes, as Gorgui Dieng, Smith and Siva played with four fouls each. But the Cardinals were more efficient at the free throw line in the final minutes. Willie Cauley-Stein played tough the entire night, but he missed his four free throw attempts. And he wasn’t alone. With 49.8 seconds to go, Kentucky had the ball down 75-70, but the Wildcats just couldn’t close the gap. Still, Kentucky stayed alive until the end, making this a great chapter in the rivalry.

Turning Point: Louisville's quick start in the second half appeared to be the most significant turn of events of the afternoon. It helped the Cardinals build a big lead against a young Kentucky team. But with 14:33 to play, Wiltjer hit a 3-pointer and then another. It forced Louisville’s defense to shift in ways it hadn’t in the first half as Kentucky finally had a perimeter threat that couldn’t be ignored. A 51-37 Louisville lead was squeezed down to 63-59 advantage with 6:16 remaining. Wiltjer’s shots started the rally.

Key Player: Russ Smith is named Russdiculous for a reason. When Louisville needed a bucket, especially as Kentucky closed the gap, Smith raced down the floor at 100 mph and gave it one or drew a foul. He finished the game with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He played the final 10 minutes of the game with four fouls. Behanan shares the honor with Smith. He was a terror Saturday (20 points, 7 rebounds).

Key Stat: Kentucky’s challenges at the free throw line limited its chances of pulling off the upset. The Wildcats were 11-for-23 at the charity stripe. That’s how the Wildcats really lost their opportunity for a full turnaround.

Miscellaneous: Foul trouble for Louisville's Dieng, Siva and Smith was a key factor in Kentucky’s comeback. The three players were back together in the final five minutes, which definitely helped Louisville preserve the win. … When John Calipari picked up a technical early in the first half, it rattled the Wildcats. Four consecutive Kentucky turnovers followed. … Dieng did not start but finished with 6 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks as his parents watched him play for the first time after traveling from Senegal.

Up Next: Louisville will face Providence in its Big East opener Wednesday in Louisville. Kentucky will face Eastern Michigan on Wednesday in Lexington.
Afternoon Links are pretty self-explanatory. Want to share? Email or tweet me @eamonnbrennan.

Numbers To Know: Weekend recap

December, 3, 2012
12/03/12
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Player of the Weekend – Erick Green, Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech is 7-0 for the first time in 30 years, as the Hokies handed Oklahoma State its first loss of the season on Saturday. Green scored a career-high 28 points, including the first 10 of the second half.

He’s the first Hokies player to score 20 in seven straight games to start the season since Bimbo Coles did it in nine straight in 1989-90. Green currently ranks third in the nation at 24.9 points per game.

Stat Sheet Stuffer – Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Williams did his best Michael Olowokandi impersonation, posting career highs with 29 points and 17 rebounds, as the Gauchos upset Santa Clara 83-80 in overtime on the road.

He’s the first Big West player to reach those totals since Olowokandi in 1998. Williams’ 17 rebounds are the most by a UCSB player since Josh Merrill’s 18 in 1996.

Freshman of the Weekend – Semaj Christon, Xavier Musketeers
Playing in his sixth career game, Christon walked into Mackey Arena and scored a career-high 25 points, as Xavier beat Purdue 63-57. It’s the most points for a Xavier freshman since Stanley Burrell in 2004-05.

Bench Star – Desmond Simmons, Washington Huskies
Simmons came off the bench to score 14 points and haul in 18 rebounds (both career highs), as Washington eked by Cal State Fullerton 74-72. It was the most rebounds for a Husky since Jon Brockman in 2009, and the most off the bench for any Pac-12 player in at least the past 15 years.

Ignoring Senior Nights where starters briefly sat, the last major-conference player with at least 14 points and 18 rebounds off the bench was South Carolina’s Tony Kitchings in 2001.

Ugly Stat Line of the Weekend – Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky shot just 29.6 percent in its 64-55 loss to Baylor on Saturday. That’s the Wildcats’ lowest field goal percentage in over six years (2006 at Kansas). Kentucky’s 0.73 points per possession were its fewest since a 2008 game against Vanderbilt.

Kyle Wiltjer (1-for-11) had the worst shooting game by a Wildcat with at least 11 attempts since Gerald Fitch went 1-for-13 in 2004. Nerlens Noel (3-for-14) had more misses on Saturday than Anthony Davis had in his first six games combined last season.

Rapid Reaction: Baylor 64, Kentucky 55

December, 1, 2012
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LEXINGTON, Ky. – A quick look at Baylor’s 64-55 win over No. 8 Kentucky, the Bears' first-ever nonconference road win against a top-25 team (had been 0-18).

Overview: Coming off an uninspired loss at Notre Dame, Kentucky didn’t do much to settle the worries in the Commonwealth. This young team in progress has a lot of progress to make to be as good as everyone expects the Wildcats to be.

Kentucky lost its first game in Rupp Arena since Billy Gillispie’s last stand on the homecourt, back in 2009, ending the 55-game streak and John Calipari’s perfect home mark.

The shots weren’t falling for the Cats, but then again, they weren’t exactly slipping through the twine for Baylor, either. The problem was just general sloppiness -- turnovers, missed free throws, coming up short at the rim, bad rebounding.

There is plenty of time to fix all this -- it’s only Dec. 1. But there’s also a lot to fix.

Turning point: Down by as many as 10 in the early second half, UK clawed back to make it a four-point game and get the tense crowd back on its feet with about five minutes to play. But Isaiah Austin scored on the next play and Wildcats never could capitalize.

Key player: The point guard position was going to be pivotal in this game, what with Kentucky trying to find one and Baylor in possession of a good one in the form of Pierre Jackson. No surprise that it came down to a point guard. Jackson’s heady play, timely big shots and perfect stroke at the free throw line was the difference. He didn’t shoot very well from the field, but finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals.

Key stat: The keys here weren’t the pretty stats, but the ugly ones. Kentucky had lots to choose from -- 29 percent from the floor (21-of-72), 19 percent from the arc (4-of-22) and 16 turnovers. All bad.

Miscellaneous: Brady Heslip started for Baylor, returning to action after an emergency appendectomy on Nov. 20. … Kyle Wiltjer is going to have nightmares about this game for a long time. The usually money long-distance shooter was a horrific 1-of-9 from long range and 1-of-11 overall, a huge drain on the Wildcats’ offense. ... All five Baylor starters finished in double-figures scoring for the first time this season.

Next game: Calipari still won’t have a lot of time in practice to fix what ails the Cats. Kentucky hosts Samford on Tuesday. Baylor, meanwhile, will host Northwestern on the same day.

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