King's Court: UK's backcourt blues

Kentucky leads our comprehensive look at the national scene in college hoops

Updated: December 5, 2012, 2:50 PM ET
By Jason King | ESPN.com

When it comes to opposing players, there may not be a more qualified person to analyze Kentucky's basketball program than Baylor's Brady Heslip.

The shooting guard was a starter on the squad that got thumped 82-70 by the Wildcats in last season's Elite Eight. Nearly eight months later, Heslip and the Bears avenged the loss by upsetting Kentucky 64-55 on Saturday in Lexington.

The rosters are almost entirely different, but as was the case a year ago, Heslip said the Wildcats still have the "ultimate team."

[+] EnlargeArchie Goodwin
AP Photo/James CrispBrady Heslip (left) and the Bears won their matchup with Archie Goodwin and his Cats.

Well, almost.

"They're young and their backcourt is really inexperienced," Heslip told ESPN.com on Monday. "They're really good, regardless. But they lack that guy that can settle a team down, a guy who's a pure point guard. It never felt like they had that Saturday."

Heslip isn't exactly breaking any news here. Kentucky's deficiencies at the point guard position have been glaring since the season opener against Maryland, when former walk-on Jarrod Polson was forced to replace a rattled -- and to be fair, flu-stricken -- Ryan Harrow.

Kentucky won that game en route to a 4-1 start. Even as inconsistency and mediocrity continued to plague the Wildcats' backcourt, the assumption was that one of the game's greatest coaches would find a way to resolve his point guard woes.

After the Baylor loss, though, it may be time to start taking John Calipari more seriously when he says he doesn't wave a "magic wand." The loss was the second in a row for the Cats, who were blown out 64-50 at Notre Dame two days earlier.

ND coach Mike Brey said the game was one his team "should've" won considering Notre Dame's edge over Kentucky in the backcourt. Harrow and Archie Goodwin combined for five points on 2-of-11 shooting. Goodwin has moved from point guard to shooting guard while Harrow tries to straighten things out.

"They were really searching," Brey told ESPN.com.

The situation has been foreign to Kentucky fans during the Calipari era. John Wall became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft after spending just one season as the Wildcats' point guard. Brandon Knight was a first-round pick the following year after leading UK to the Final Four. Last season's NCAA title was won with another first-round draft pick, Marquis Teague, running the show.

Before his arrival in Lexington, Calipari spent his final two seasons at Memphis coaching Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, who earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

"I've played with all kinds of different point guards," Calipari told reporters this week. "Everybody acts like, 'He's always had the [star].' Well, I've had the point guard not be my best player a lot."

That's not to say that Calipari doesn't have confidence that his current players can turn things around. Ideally, the coach would like for Harrow -- the only natural point guard on Kentucky's roster other than Polson -- to reclaim the starting position he won during the preseason.

Harrow's health issues have been only part of the problem. Sources close to the point guard indicated two weeks ago that Harrow was having difficulty dealing with the pressure being put on him by Calipari, who was shown multiple times yelling and screaming at the sophomore during episodes of "All-Access Kentucky," a reality show about the Wildcats that aired on ESPN during the preseason.

Harrow acknowledged last week that the intense scrutiny may have contributed to the mysterious flu-like illness that caused him to lose seven pounds. When Harrow returned to Georgia a few weeks ago to deal with a "family matter," there was concern among Kentucky's staff that Harrow was considering a transfer.

Harrow said the texts and words of encouragement he received from his teammates during his time away did wonders for his confidence. After missing four games and 17 days overall, he returned to practice last week and played nine minutes against Notre Dame, 18 against Baylor and 21 in the Wildcats' win over Samford on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeCalipari
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIt's safe to say the start of Ryan Harrow's UK playing career has been less than ideal.

"[Calipari] tells me I'm doing better a lot more now," Harrow said. "But he still yells at me and stuff like that. I'm kind of used to it."

No one was happier to see Harrow return than Goodwin, whose game has suffered in Harrow's absence. Goodwin is averaging 16.6 points per contest, but he combined for just 20 points in his past two games against stronger competition before dropping 18 on Samford. A natural 2-guard, Goodwin is an elite scorer who is better off the ball.

"He's a pure point guard," Goodwin said of Harrow. "He knows the position better than I do."

Goodwin is also averaging 3.3 turnovers per game.

"He's a great player," Heslip said of Goodwin, "but he's not the guy to calm the team down.

"Late in the game against us, instead of slowing it down and building off of their runs, they took a couple of quick shots. Then we got some charges that worked in our favor instead of them having someone to slow it down and run a set and make us guard for 35 seconds."

Even if nothing were to change, the Wildcats are talented enough to have an outstanding season and contend for an SEC title. But conference championships alone won't appease fans in Lexington, where the Big Blue opened the season ranked No. 3 despite losing every key piece of last season's NCAA title squad.

To make the 2012-13 season a special one, to contend for a Final Four berth and, dare we say, a national championship, Kentucky needs to make strides -- big ones -- at the game's most important position.

The past five NCAA champions have boasted elite point guards. Kansas had Sherron Collins and Russell Robinson in 2008, Ty Lawson helped North Carolina get a trophy in 2009 and Jon Scheyer was the catalyst for Duke a year later. Connecticut's Kemba Walker and UK's Teague continued the trend the past two seasons.

As much as they're struggling in the backcourt, even the Wildcats' competitors are confident they'll work things out, as their schedule should allow them to develop.

"Other than Florida and Missouri, the SEC isn't a killer," Brey said. "That's going to really help them as they're trying to mature. They can grow up without going through murderers' row. They're still a work in progress, but they'll be fine.

"It's a long season."

REPORT CARD

A: Tim Miles -- The first-year Nebraska coach has been as impressive as any new hire thus far. Picked to finish last in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers are off to a 6-1 start following a convincing 12-point victory over USC and a road blowout of Wake Forest. Not bad for a team that uses just six scholarship players and two walk-ons. "The buy-in from the upperclassmen has been great," Miles said by phone Tuesday. "Our way is different than Doc Sadler's way, but they said, 'That's fine. Let's figure it out together." Ray Gallegos, who redshirted last season, has scored 20 points in each of his past two games.

[+] EnlargeRasheed Sulaimon
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireRasheed Sulaimon scored 17 points in the second half of Duke's win over Ohio State last week.

B: Rasheed Sulaimon -- Freshmen such as Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, UNLV's Anthony Bennett and UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad have commanded a ton of headlines and rightfully so. But I'm equally impressed with Sulaimon, the combo guard who is a key reason Duke is undefeated thus far. Sulaimon carries himself like a senior. He's physical, assertive and confident -- yet he rarely strays from the team concept. He also plays his best in big games. Sulaimon averaged 13.5 points in victories over VCU, Minnesota, Louisville and Ohio State.

C: Jim Calhoun -- It's pretty obvious now that the former Connecticut coach wasn't ready to retire -- at least mentally -- when he stepped down during the fall after 26 years in Storrs. But the Hall of Famer didn't do Kevin Ollie, his successor, any favors when he told a television station that he would "never say never" about getting back into coaching. Working under a seven-month "trial" contract is stressful enough. Ollie shouldn't have to listen to speculation about Calhoun's interest in a possible return to the sideline. Even if that's not what Calhoun meant, his comments created a predictable and unnecessary buzz. Calhoun, 70, needs to step back into the shadows so Ollie can do his job without any distractions.

D: Todd Mayo (Marquette) and Maurice Jones (USC) -- The guards may have ruined their programs' postseason chances by flunking off their respective teams. The Golden Eagles were depending on Mayo to be one of their top perimeter scorers. O.J.'s younger brother averaged 7.9 points in just 21 minutes as a freshman last season. Marquette has dropped two games without him, including a 34-point setback against Florida last week. Along with being USC's leading returning scorer (13.0), Jones was the only true scholarship point guard on the Trojans' roster. In his absence, Jio Fontan has moved over from shooting guard and is struggling, shooting just 25.8 percent from the field for a 3-4 team. Jones has transferred to Iowa State.

F: Florida State -- UCLA, Drexel and West Virginia have been disappointing, but no team has underachieved quite like the Seminoles. Leonard Hamilton's squad opened the season by losing at home to South Alabama and have dropped two more contests in Tallahassee during the past week. The first came in a 77-68 setback against a Minnesota team that could've easily been road weary after a week in the Bahamas. Instead, the Gophers annihilated Florida State, leading by as many as 21 points. That loss wasn't nearly as head-turning as Sunday's 61-56 embarrassment against Mercer. Guard Michael Snaer, who seemed poised for a breakout season, is shooting just 38.8 percent from the field.

THIS WEEK'S POLL

Ranking the best home-court advantages in the country (voters: myself, Andy Katz, Dana O'Neil, Fran Fraschilla), ordered by total points with number of first-place votes in parentheses:

1. Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas (3): 39
2. Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke (1): 37
3. Assembly Hall, Indiana: 24
4. Carrier Dome, Syracuse: 23
5. The Kennel, Gonzaga: 18
6. Viejas Arena, San Diego State: 17
7. Rupp Arena, Kentucky: 16
8. The Pit, New Mexico: 14
9. Breslin Center, Michigan State: 8
10. Koch Arena, Wichita State: 6

Also receiving votes: Peterson Events Center, Pittsburgh, 5; Kohl Center, Wisconsin, 4; Bramlage Coliseum, Kansas State, 3; McKale Center, Arizona, 2; Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas, 2; Gallagher-Iba Arena, Oklahoma State, 1; CFSB Center, Murray State, 1.

THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW

1. One of the most impressive things about Minnesota's 9-1 start is that it's occurred without a huge contribution from forward Trevor Mbakwe, a senior who made a handful of preseason All-American lists. Mbakwe is beginning to regain the strength and stamina he lost after sitting out last season with a knee injury. So far he's averaging just 8.4 points in 17.4 minutes in reserve duty. "We're bringing a guy whose probably a pro off the bench," coach Tubby Smith said. "This is the most depth I've had."

[+] EnlargeVCU
Geoff Burke/US PresswireVCU looks like it might be the favorite in its first season in the Atlantic 10.

2. Coaches I spoke with at the Battle 4 Atlantis all agreed that VCU should be ranked in the Top 25. The Rams' three losses are against No. 2 Duke, No. 12 Missouri and No. 24 Wichita State. Not many teams in the country employ the type of pressure defense VCU uses to give opponents fits. And when they're hitting their 3s, the Rams almost seem unstoppable. "Everyone talks about their press," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner, whose team lost to VCU at Atlantis. "But it's not as much their press as it is their offensive ability, their 3-point shooting, that makes them so tough. They get steals, and the way they come at you, they space the floor. When they play [Juvonte] Reddic at the 5, they've got four shooters on the floor at all times. That's not easy to guard. When they're hitting their shots, they're good enough to win a national title."

3. Speaking of rankings, I can't understand why more voters aren't putting Duke atop their polls. If victories over Louisville, Ohio State, Kentucky, Minnesota and VCU aren't good enough, what is?

4. Oregon State appears poised to take the next step under Craig Robinson, which is why the coach beefed up a nonconference schedule that has been noticeably weak in past years. Oregon State is 4-2, with the losses coming against Alabama (by three) and No. 10 Kansas (by six). Point guard Ahmad Starks scored 25 points against KU. "I've always felt they could play with a team like a Kansas," said Robinson, whose squad won 21 games last season. "Now they're going to start thinking that, too -- I hope. When you take on a program that was in the doldrums like this, you have to change an entire culture, including the thought process that you're not supposed to win games like this. That's what we're spending most of our time on. It's above the neck."

5. One thing on Bill Self's Christmas wish list is a player with a mean streak. Self's biggest issue with the Jayhawks is that they are too nice. Self is longing for a "bulldog" type of player who refuses to let his team lose, the kind of guy who gets so fired up that steam is practically coming out of his ears. A player with that kind of demeanor can be infectious to his teammates. Self saw it happen in the past with standouts such as Sherron Collins, Marcus Morris and Thomas Robinson. The one player on this season's squad who carries that type of persona is freshman forward Jamari Traylor, but he isn't logging enough minutes to make a difference. "I guarantee we lead the country in three-point plays [against us]," Self said. "We foul so soft."

6. Expect a few triple-doubles this season from Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams. The 6-foot-6 sophomore leads the nation in assists with 9.5 per game. He's also averaging 11.5 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds.

7. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey sent Eric Atkins a text a few nights ago that read: "I've got the best point guard in the Big East." Brey couldn't have been more complimentary of Atkins when I spoke to him Monday evening. "He's been flat-out fabulous," Brey said. "Just his body language, demeanor and voice. He's a quieter guy. I've always tried to get him to talk more. His voice is so respected right now. He's playing well, he's confident in himself, so he feels more comfortable being vocal." Atkins, a junior, leads the Fighting Irish with 6.4 assists. But even more impressive to Brey is the rise in his shooting percentage, which is now at 49.3 percent. Atkins shot 39.4 percent as a sophomore. "In the past he's focused almost too much on getting other guys going," Brey said. "Now he's hunting his shot more."

8. Atkins scored 16 points in last week's victory over Kentucky at the Joyce Center. Brey said he initially hoped students wouldn't storm the court. But he changed his mind when he saw Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman candidate Manti Te'o on the sideline. "He was in his linebacker stance, waiting for the clock to run out with two of our defensive linemen," Brey said. "No one was going to tell those guys to stop."

[+] EnlargeJackson
AP Photo/John BazemoreJoe Jackson was a high school legend in Memphis, but has struggled to live up to expectations.

9. Memphis has enough talent and depth to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament -- but only if point guard Joe Jackson develops some consistency. Jackson was so bad at times in the Bahamas that his coach couldn't afford to keep him on the court. He had seven turnovers in a loss to VCU and only two points against Minnesota. The situation has become a maddening one for Pastner, who has lost out on a number of other point guard recruits because of his commitment to Jackson as the starter. Jackson has shown flashes of dominance in the past, which makes his up-and-down nature so much more difficult to stomach.

10. I've covered the Maui Invitational three times, but the Battle 4 Atlantis was just as quality of an event. The games are played in a ballroom inside the Atlantis Resort, which includes upscale shopping and dining, a nightclub and a casino. It almost felt as if I were covering a tournament at a ritzy Las Vegas hotel -- with a beach outside. It also might be the only one in which a live seal provided the halftime entertainment. Not. Even. Joking. Although a bit distracting, another nice touch was the presence of the reigning beauty queens from states of each participant. Nothing like looking behind the VCU bench during a timeout and seeing Miss Virginia, Rosemary Willis. Yowza!

RAPID FIRE

Better than I thought: Cincinnati
Not as good as I thought: Michigan State
Still undecided: Arizona
Earned his latest paycheck: Larry Shyatt, Wyoming
Needs to return his latest paycheck: Rick Barnes, Texas
Seat warming up: Mark Fox, Georgia
Overwhelming: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Underwhelming: Kyle Anderson, UCLA
Green light: Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Red light: Jio Fontan, USC
Coach with the best win: Scott Drew, Baylor over Kentucky
Coach with the worst (two) losses: Scott Drew, Charleston and Northwestern over Baylor
Don't sleep on: Iowa State
I'd pay to watch: Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Send a get-well-soon-and-hurry-back card to: Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee

STARTING FIVE

Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach at his current school. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about.

Florida's All-Billy Donovan team

Starters

G -- Taurean Green: Stabilizing force and facilitator on back-to-back NCAA title squads.
G -- Mike Miller: Do-it-all standout who spearheaded run to 2000 championship game.
SF -- Corey Brewer: MVP of 2007 Final Four.
F -- Al Horford: Arguably the greatest Gator of them all under Donovan.
F -- Joakim Noah: MVP of the 2006 Final Four.

Reserves

G -- Lee Humphrey: Florida's leading scorer in the 2006 and 2007 Final Fours.
F -- Udonis Haslem: Dominated glass in the early 2000s; won NBA title with Miami Heat.
F -- Matt Bonner: Led the SEC in 3-point shooting despite standing 6-foot-10.

PREDICTION TIME

[+] EnlargeTim Miles and Trevor Menke
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonTim Miles is off to a better-than-expected start at Nebraska, but Creighton comes to town on Thursday.

Creighton 70, at Nebraska 58: Doug McDermott and Co. will bring the Cornhuskers back to earth with a win in Lincoln.

at Kansas 64, Colorado 60: The Jayhawks have struggled to beat mediocre teams at home. Colorado is not mediocre.

Duke 70, Temple 59 in East Rutherford, N.J.: The Owls defeated Duke last season. It won't happen again.

UCLA 65, Texas 50 in Houston: The Longhorns, who are without Myck Kabongo, picked the worst possible year to play the nation's toughest schedule.

at Marquette 55, Wisconsin 51: The Golden Eagles are down a bit this season, but they still play hard. And I can't get over Wisconsin's home loss to Virginia.

at Gonzaga 81, Illinois 66: Let's just be honest -- the Illini aren't nearly as good as their record.

UNLV 62, at Cal 57: It's been tough to get a feel for either team, but talent will prevail in this one.

PIT STOPS

Oscar's in Omaha, Neb.: What is it about Nebraska and wings? Just when I thought I'd found the country's best bird at the Watering Hole in Lincoln, my good friend Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald swore there was something even better at Oscar's, a sports bar located in the back of an Omaha strip mall. Word has it that Creighton coach Greg McDermott and his son, Doug, frequent Oscar's, and I can certainly understand why. The thin-crust pizza, cut into squares, is nice and crispy. But the wings are what keep me coming back. Trust me. I wouldn't steer you wrong. I've got a reputation to uphold.

Goode Company Barbeque in Houston: If you need to find me after Saturday's UCLA-Texas game, there's a good chance I'll be a few miles down the road from Reliant Stadium, elbow-deep in brisket, Czech sausage and ribs at Goode Company. As much as its known for its 'que, Goode Company is also revered for its famous pecan pie. But I won't be eating any of that as far as you know.

Village Host Pizza & Grill in Lexington, Ky.: There was an evening back in October when I walked into Village Host for dinner -- just four hours after I'd dined there for lunch. Need I say more? I'm a crispy-crust kinda guy, and the pie at Village Host is so addicting that I plowed through an entire large supreme without a problem. And that was after two trips to their salad bar, which has 40 fresh items. I can honestly say that was the best salad bar I've ever seen. Lexington is stocked with great restaurants such as Ramsey's, Village Idiot, Merrick Inn and Goodfellas. But Village Host will now be my first stop on every trip. And sometimes my second.