By Clint Corey
Much has been made of the NBA potential of this Kentucky Wildcat Freshman class. John Calipari brought in five projected eventual first round draft picks, that some, including Dick Vitale, have called the best recruiting class ever assembled:
“No doubt in my mind,” Vitale says, “this will be the best class ever assembled. Now, whether they blend and bond together like Kentucky’s 2012 team, only time will tell. I personally think they will. Last year was a blip. This is going to be a special Kentucky team.”
“Anything less (than a national championship) for this team would be a huge disappointment,” Vitale says.
To put this Kentucky class in perspective, the rock star 1991 class that eventually went on to be known as the “Fab Five” at Michigan were individually ranked: Chris Webber was ranked #1, Juwan Howard was ranked #3, Jalen Rose was ranked #6, Jimmy King was ranked #9, and Ray Jackson was ranked #84.
All but Jackson participated in the McDonald’s All American game in 1991:
Kentucky’s top five recruits were ALL ranked in the top ten of this year’s class according to the ESPN 100.
Thus far, however, this team has had mixed results. They lost their first game of the season to Michigan State who was ranked No. 2 (Kentucky no. 1) 78-74 in the State Farm Champions Classic.
What was impressive about this game for the Wildcats is they only shot 20-36 from the line, they did not play particularly all that well and it was their first game playing together. Yet, they were in it until the end against a much more experienced Spartan team.
The next five games they cruised along against middling competition including games against Robert Morris and Eastern Michigan before falling to the #14 Baylor Bears on a neutral floor 67-62 just over a week ago in the Big 12/SEC challenge.
Other than Julius Randle, who has put up big numbers all season and is all but assured of being a top five pick, smooth shooting lefty guard James Young has been playing well of late and had 17 of his 21 points in the first half versus the Broncos.
Young, a lefty, whose game is equal parts Chris Mullin and Fab Five legend Jalen Rose, was 11-22 from three his past three games before Saturday averaging 18.3 in these outings after struggling mightily with his shot early in the season.
Which brings us to the game at North Carolina.
Like all season, the Cats showed glimpses as to why they were as individuals so highly touted but ultimately their youth and inexperience on the collegiate level showed again as the committed 17 turnovers to North Carolina’s nine en route to a 82 – 77 loss.
The most encouraging thing for Kentucky fans is the Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron) had their best game as a tandem this season.
The question then arises, because it’s still early, can this Kentucky team team become a cohesive enough a unit to pull it together by February and March to make a serious run at the Final Four?
In a word, no.
Not because of their youth and inexperience, although that’s a big part of it, but more because of their lack of three point production. So far this season this is John Calipari’s worst three point shooting team since he’s been at Kentucky just behind his 2009-2010 team.
That was a pretty good team who had a couple of future NBA players by the name of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins that lost a total of three games the entire season.
Their undoing, however, was in a regional final game against West Virginia where the Mountaineers threw a 1-3-1 zone at John Wall and company:
It took more than 36 minutes for Kentucky to make a 3-pointer after missing its first 20 attempts. The Wildcats finished the game 4 of 32 from 3-point range. Kentucky struggled to penetrate and settled for outside shots, a strategy that backfired.
This year’s Kentucky team does not have a penetrator with the quickness of Wall so a 2-3 packed in zone will suffice off-setting the impact of the aforementioned Julius Randle on the interior.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kentucky make an exit as early as the second round this season and they definitely will not be one of the Final Four teams still playing in Arlington.
The silver lining for Wildcat fans is in all likelihood both the Harrisons and Jamie Young will return as opposed to declaring for the NBA draft as a result of their falling draft statuses.
This will give them the off season to grow and work on their shots which will make the Cats a serious threat.
Just not until next season.