Arizona v Ohio State

2013-2014 Pac-12 Conference Preview: League’s on the way back after rough three-year stretch

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

After placing six teams in the 2009 NCAA tournament the Pac-12 hit a rough patch. A really rough patch, receiving a total of eight bids to the Big Dance from 2010-12. Prior to the start of the 2012-13 campaign many expected more futility, but while the league still wasn’t at the level fans expect the fact of the matter is that the Pac-12 displayed signs of improvement. Look for more of the same in 2013-14, with there being eight programs who enter the season with realistic hopes of contending for the league crown. After going through a rough stretch on the court, look for the Pac-12 to reassert itself as a power conference in 2013-14.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. New additions will make Arizona a much better perimeter defensive team: Losing Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill shouldn’t be overlooked but the arrival of Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and transfer T.J. McConnell now being eligible will make Sean Miller’s team a better defensive squad. After ranking among the nation’s best in defending the three for two consecutive seasons the Wildcats struggled in that department last season. Adding McConnell, an Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team selection at Duquesne, will help in this regard.

2. Colorado and Washington both have rebounding issues to address: Both the Buffaloes and Huskies need to account for the loss of their leading rebounders from a season ago, with CU’s Andre Roberson in the NBA and Washington’s Aziz N’Diaye out of eligibility. Who steps up? For Colorado, redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon and sophomores Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott will be key. As for the Huskies, who led the conference in rebounding margin, San Francisco transfer Perris Blackwell, Shawn Kemp Jr. and Desmond Simmons are some of the options.

3. Larry Drew II was more valuable to UCLA than many wanted to admit: The butt of many people’s jokes due to the way in which he left North Carolina, Drew ended up leading the Pac-12 in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio last season. With him gone, who will run the show for Steve Alford? Two of the three possibilities are freshmen (Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine), but the best option may be 6-8 sophomore Kyle Anderson. The right answer to this question will make the Bruins a threat to repeat as Pac-12 regular season champions.

4. Andy Enfield takes over at USC: After leading FGCU to the Sweet 16 Enfield took over at USC, and he’ll have his work cut out for him given the Trojans’ personnel losses from a season ago. Two transfers (guard Pe’Shon Howard and center D.J. Haley) will be asked to contribute immediately, and the same can be said for freshmen Julian Jacobs and Roschon Prince. But teams better get their shots in early, because with the strides the Trojans have made on the recruiting trail they likely won’t be down for long.

5. Oregon looks to continue its recent run of success with transfers: Dana Altman’s Ducks will once again be a factor in the Pac-12 thanks in large part to the return of guards Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Johnathan Loyd. Add in transfers Joseph Young (Houston) and Jason Calliste (Detroit), and Oregon is loaded on the perimeter. But if they’re to truly contend for a Pac-12 title a big season will be needed from Mike Moser, who’s immediately eligible after transferring in from UNLV. Injuries played a major role in Moser’s struggles at UNLV last season, and a less cluttered interior rotation should give him the room needed to return to the form he displayed in 2011-12 (14.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg).

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jahii Carson (Arizona State)

Arizona State insisted that they’d play at a higher tempo last season due in large part to the addition of Carson, and the point guard certainly didn’t disappoint as he led the nation’s freshmen in scoring (18.5 ppg) while also dishing out 5.1 assists per game. Now that the Sun Devils want to play even faster, Carson should be even more dangerous in his sophomore campaign. The question: can he lead Arizona State to its first NCAA tournament appearance than 2009?

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THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM:

  • G Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado): Dinwiddie’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and his size (6-foot-6) makes the Los Angeles native a tough matchup at the point.
  • G C.J. Wilcox (Washington): Wilcox averaged 16.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game for the Huskies last season. With Abdul Gaddy and Scott Suggs gone, he may have to score even more as a senior.
  • F Aaron Gordon (Arizona): Incredibly athletic, the McDonald’s All-American will likely be a factor at both forward spots for the Wildcats. How much time he spends at the three will likely depend on how well he defends the position.
  • F Dwight Powell (Stanford): After averaging 14.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game Powell earned first-team All-Pac 12 honors and the league’s Most Improved Player award. He’s a serious threat to win Pac-12 Player of the Year this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • G T.J. McConnell (Arizona)
  • F Xavier Johnson (Colorado)
  • G/F Damyean Dotson (Oregon)
  • G Justin Cobbs (California)
  • C Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State)

BREAKOUT STAR: F Xavier Johnson (Colorado)

As the 2012-13 season wore on the Mater Dei product became even more of a factor for the Buffaloes, who made their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. With Andre Roberson off to the next level, Johnson (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) will be needed to step up alongside guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker if the Buffs are to contend for the Pac-12 crown.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Johnny Dawkins (Stanford)

The conference has a few options for this selection, including Ken Bone (Washington State), Craig Robinson (Oregon State) and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). But the choice here is Dawkins, whose team is the best equipped of the four to reach the NCAA tournament. Anthony Brown’s back after missing all of last season, forward Dwight Powell is a league Player of the Year candidate and guards Aaron Bright and Chasson Randle should be productive as well. One can’t forget about Josh Huestis either, as he’s one of the Pac-12’s best defenders.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Pac-12 is back to where it should be.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: The amount of young talent in the Pac-12, with multiple players being pieces their respective programs can build around.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • December 14: Arizona at Michigan
  • November 8: Colorado vs. Baylor (in Dallas)
  • November 8: Oregon vs. Georgetown (Camp Humphries, South Korea)
  • December 19: UCLA vs. Duke (in New York)
  • December 18: Stanford at UConn (in Hartford)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Arizona: The Wildcats will be better defensively thanks to the presence of McConnell, Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But who makes jump shots on a consistent basis? Find a suitable answer (or answers) and this group can get to Jerry World.
2. Oregon: With four of their top five scorers gone the Ducks are sure glad they added transfers Jason Calliste, Mike Moser and Joseph Young. And that sophomore tandem of Dominic Artis & Damyean Dotson has the potential to be special.
3. Colorado: Andre Roberson’s a big loss, especially as a defender and rebounder, but Tad Boyle’s built himself a program that can be a consistent Pac-12 contender.
4. UCLA: Steve Alford won’t lack for talent in his first season in Westwood, but who takes over at the point for Larry Drew II? If freshmen Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine are ready, the Bruins will be fine.
5. California: Losing Allen Crabbe hurts but there’s still plenty of talent in Berkeley. If Richard Solomon is fully engaged in the action night in and night out, the Golden Bears will contend for the league title.
6. Stanford: Look for Dwight Powell to become a household name nationally, and if Rosco Allen’s European experience (Hungary’s U-20 team) put some “dog” in him he could break out as a sophomore.
7. Arizona State: Adding Jermaine Marshall and Shaquielle McKissic to the equation certainly helps matters, and ASU will be deeper than they were last season. But who has the intangibles that the departed Carrick Felix provided?
8. Washington: The Huskies have some questions to answer in the paint, but there should be no doubting the long-term impact that Nigel Williams-Goss will have on the program. One word: winner.
9. Utah: Things are beginning to look up in Salt Lake City, and Jordan Loveridge should be even better as a sophomore. But there’s still much work to do be done before the Utes are a factor in the Pac-12.
10. Oregon State: Angus Brandt returns after suffering a torn ACL in November, which will help Devon Collier and Eric Moreland inside. With Roberton Nelson providing scoring punch on the perimeter OSU can move up if they commit defensively. Which has been said in each of the two seasons prior to this one.
11. USC: Given the roster turnover from last season USC’s newcomers will have plenty of opportunities as Andy Enfield looks to build an uptempo system like the one he had at FGCU.
12. Washington State: With the addition of Ike Ireogbu the Cougars have an option at the point they sorely lacked last season. But losing Brock Motum and Mike Ladd is kind of a big deal.

In-state rivals BYU, Utah to meet again in 2017

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 27: Head coach Larry Krystkowiak of the Utah Utes gestures to his team during the first half of their game against the Arizona Wildcats at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on February 27, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)
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The series between BYU and Utah has been an intense one, with the two programs meeting a total of 257 times with the Cougars holding a slim 129-128 advantage. But after last season’s meeting, a comfortable Utah win mired by the ejection of BYU’s Nick Emery for striking guard Brandon Taylor late in the second half, threatened the future of the series.

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak wanted to call a halt to things, and sure enough it was announced in January that the Cougars and Runnin’ Utes wouldn’t play each other during the 2016-17 season. But the “break” will only last one season, as Utah announced Thursday that the two teams will meet in Provo during the 2017-18 season.

Athletic director Chris Hill stated in a release that also announced non-conference series with Butler and Xavier set to begin this season that the game will be played in either November or December 2017.

Hopefully the one-year hiatus will be the only hiccup in this series, one that began way back in 1909 and managed to endure changes such as the run of conference realignment that landed Utah in the Pac-12 and BYU in the WCC. As for those games against Butler (November 28) and Xavier (December 10), Utah will host the Bulldogs and visit the Musketeers this season with the return games for both series to be played during the 2017-18 season.

News of the resumption of the BYU/Utah series was first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Maryland lands commitment from four-star forward

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon instructs his team during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game against Hawaii in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
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No coach in the country has had a better 24 hours than Mark Turgeon of Maryland.

The morning after Melo Trimble announced that he will be returning to College Park for his junior season, Turgeon landed a commitment from Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward from Las Vegas by way of Canada. Jackson is a top 50 player in the class of 2016.

Jackson should immediately help the Terps replenish a front court that was decimated by early entry. A versatile athlete with a ridiculous wingspan and a still-developing perimeter game, Jackson will likely spend his freshman season playing a power forward role, maybe even as a small-ball five.

This fits perfectly with the roster that Maryland has for next season. Not only will Trimble be flanked by freshman Anthony Cowan, a now-healthy Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens, the Terps add freshman wings Kevin Heurter and Micah Thomas as well as Duquesne transfer L.G. Gill. They needed depth up front, particularly at the four.

And remember, when Maryland had their most success with Trimble — his freshman year — they went small and spread the floor with Jake Layman at the four. Jackson may not have quite the impact that Layman did that season, but he can play that role for the Terps.

Alec Peters withdraws from NBA Draft, will he transfer?

Alec Peters, Valparaiso (Getty Images)
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Valparaiso forward Alec Peters became the final player to announce that he has withdrawn from the NBA Draft on Thursday, waiting until the day after the deadline to make it official.

The 6-foot-9 Peters was one of the best mid-major players in the country this past season, averaging 18.5 points and 8.0 boards while shooting 44.0 percent from three for the Horizon League champs, a team many considered to be the best mid-major team in the sport.

Here’s why Peters’ decision is interesting: He’s a junior that will be eligible as a graduate transfer, meaning that if he leaves Valpo — like Bryce Drew, the coach that recruited him, who left for Vanderbilt — he will be able to play elsewhere in 2016-17.

How many top 25 programs could use a 6-foot-9 forward that can score in the post and posted shooting splits of 50.5/44.0/85.0? Hint: The answer is all of them.

Will he leave school?

Looking Forward: Here’s what the Pac-12 has in store for 2016-17

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 20:  Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks drives against Dillon Brooks #24 and Tyler Dorsey #5 of the Oregon Ducks in the second half during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 20, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Pac-12 over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. The returns of Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey make Oregon the early favorites: Losing two quality contributors in Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin will have an impact on Dana Altman’s Ducks, but by no means will Oregon fall off after winning the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earning the program’s first-ever one seed last season. With Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey withdrawing from the NBA Draft, the Ducks have the depth and talent needed to repeat (or even exceed) last year’s achievements. Brooks will be an early favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year, and options such as Dorsey, Chris Boucher, Jordan Bell and Casey Benson will be heard from as well. Add in a recruiting class that includes Kavell Bigby-Williams, Payton Pritchard and M.J. Cage, and Oregon has enough to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1939.

2. Arizona reloads…and is absolutely loaded on the perimeter: There were some who wondered just how good of a class Arizona would be able to put together, as they landed just one commitment during the early signing period. But Sean Miller never panicked, and we all saw why in the spring. The Wildcats reeled in three high-level guards in Kobi Simmons, Terrance Ferguson and Rawle Alkins, and they also grabbed juco transfer Keanu Pinder and four-year transfers Talbott Denny (Lipscomb; eligible immediately) and Dylan Smith (UNC Asheville; will sit out next season). That early signee (Lauri Markannen) is a highly regarded prospect in his own right, and the return of Allonzo Trier provides a boost as well. With the amount of talent on this roster, Arizona can win a third Pac-12 regular season title in the last four seasons.

3. Needing to bounce back, UCLA welcomes a highly regarded freshman class: UCLA also cleaned up on the recruiting trail, but unlike Arizona the Bruins are looking to bounce back from a year in which they finished below .500. That won’t fly in Westwood, where the only banners that hang are those of the national title variety (and they have 11 of those), so the pressure’s on Steve Alford and company to make things right. What helps is that point guard Lonzo Ball and stretch forward T.J. Leaf can both be immediate impact players, and Ike Anigbogu can help them defensively in the post. UCLA’s returnees, most notably Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh, should benefit from these additions.

4. Oregon State, USC look to build on last season’s success: Of the seven Pac-12 team to reach the NCAA tournament, the Beavers (since 1990) and Trojans (since 2011) had gone the longest without an NCAA appearance. Neither stayed long, but getting to the Big Dance represented an important step forward for the two programs. The question facing both Wayne Tinkle and Andy Enfield: how do they ensure that their programs continue to make positive strides? Oregon State has to account for the loss of do-everything guard Gary Payton II, but their personnel losses pale in comparison to a USC team that bids farewell to both Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic. There’s still talent for Enfield to work with, but the task became a little tougher thanks to those two NBA decisions.

NOTABLE NEWCOMERS

  • Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, UCLA: Not to overlook Ike Anigbogu and Kobe Paras, but Ball and Leaf are the marquee names in UCLA’s 2016 recruiting class. Ball is one of the nation’s best point guards (and players, period), and his arrival should make things easier for the Bruins offensively. As for Leaf, he’s a skilled forward who can score from just about anywhere on the court.
  • Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz’s recruiting story is one that’s been told many times over, as through hard work the DeMatha Catholic guard went from a member of the JV team to a McDonald’s All-American in two years. With the Huskies losing Andrew Andrews and Dejounte Murray from their perimeter rotation, Fultz will have to have an immediate impact if the Huskies are to move up the Pac-12 standings.
  • Arizona’s loaded freshman class: Of Arizona’s seven newcomers four are freshmen, with three (Rawle Alkins, Terrance Ferguson and Kobi Simmons) being five-star perimeter prospects. And power forward Lauri Markannen is also a highly regarded prospect. The additions should make for an interesting (and talented) mix, and how Sean Miller allocates minutes on the perimeter will be fun to observe as well.
  • Kavell Bigby-Williams, Oregon: Last year it was Chris Boucher who arrived in Eugene as a highly regarded junior college transfer, and he had a major impact on a team that won the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles. This time around it’s Bigby-Williams who arrives via junior college, giving Oregon additional front court depth alongside Boucher, Jordan Bell and freshman M.J. Cage. And after blocking nearly six shots per game last season, Bigby-Williams can make scoring around the basket on the Ducks even tougher than it was a season ago.
  • JaQuori McLaughlin, Oregon State: McLaughlin is expected to be an impact addition for Oregon State this season, as the Beavers look to account for the loss of Gary Payton II. What changes things is the transfer of Derrick Bruce, who appeared to be in line for a noticeable increase in minutes after serving as the sixth man as a freshman. His departure puts even more on the shoulders of McLaughlin, who along with senior Malcolm Duvivier appear to be the answers at the point for Oregon State.
  • Shannon Evans and Sam Cunliffe, Arizona State: Landing Romello White gave Arizona State a nice late recruiting boost, as he joins a class that was already good thanks to the presence of Cunliffe. A top 40 recruit according to Rivals.com, the Washington native has the skills needed to make an immediate impact in Tempe. Add in Evans, who was a standout on head coach Bobby Hurley’s NCAA tournament team at Buffalo in 2014-15, and the Sun Devils have two perimeter newcomers who can make some waves in the Pac-12 next year.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, USC: Had these two decided to return for their senior seasons, the Trojans had the skill and experience needed to possibly contend in the Pac-12. But with both leaving for the professional ranks, Andy Enfield and his staff have two noticeable holes in the starting lineup to fill. The cupboard certainly isn’t bare, thanks to the combination of remaining pieces and newcomers, but these losses definitely hurt.
  • Derrick Bruce, Oregon State: As noted above Bruce was in line to earn a greater role in 2016-17 due to Gary Payton II’s departure, so his decision to transfer caught some by surprise. The loss of Bruce means that the aforementioned tandem of JaQuori McLaughlin and Malcolm Duvivier will likely be the guys Wayne Tinkle looks to at the point.
  • Brekkott Chapman, Utah: With the departures of Jordan Loveridge and Jakob Poeltl, Chapman was expected to play a key role for the Runnin’ Utes in 2016-17. Well, he decided that a change of scenery was needed, leaving Larry Krystkowiak with another hole in his front court rotation to fill. Utah did pick up a couple late front court commitments, and rising junior Kyle Kuzma is back as well, so this is a decision they should be able to manage.
  • Dejounte Murray, Washington: Murray was one of two Washington freshmen to make the move to the NBA, with forward Marquese Chriss being the other. But while Chriss’ draft prospects have improved throughout the spring, Murray’s possibilities haven’t been as easy to pinpoint. His departure leaves Lorenzo Romar with another backcourt contributor to replace, joining the graduated Andrew Andrews, but Markelle Fultz will help mitigate the impact of Murray’s departure.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Jerod Haase, Stanford: There was only one head coaching change in the Pac-12 this offseason, with Jerod Haase replacing Johnny Dawkins on The Farm. Haase racked up 80 wins in four seasons at UAB, with his third season including a win over Iowa State in the NCAA tournament, before deciding to return to the state he grew up in. The cupboard isn’t bare in Palo Alto either, with Marcus Allen, Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis among the players returning. The key for the Cardinal: stay healthy. Stanford was hit hard by injuries last season, including expected starting point guard Robert Cartwright being lost to a broken arm before the season began, which did them no favors in the Pac-12. This was a good hire for Stanford, and the resources are there for Haase to get the Cardinal back to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

F Dillon Brooks, Oregon (Player of the Year)
G Lonzo Ball, UCLA
G Terrance Ferguson, Arizona
G Allonzo Trier, Arizona
F Ivan Rabb, California

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS, IN TWEETS

1. Oregon: The Ducks lost Cook and Benjamin, but with Brooks and Boucher leading a deeper roster they can be even better in ’16 – ’17.
2. Arizona: Sean Miller won’t lack for talented options on the perimeter, so expect the Wildcats to bounce back.
3. UCLA: The Bruins will be good, but how good they are will ultimately depend on their commitment on defense.
4. California: Rabb’s return helps, and with their perimeter options Cal could be more fluid offensively next year.
5. USC: The Trojans return some key pieces, led by Jordan McLaughlin, but losing Jacobs and Jovanovic hurts.
6. Colorado: The Josh Scott era comes to an end, but George King and Xavier Johnson will help with the adjustment.
7. Utah: The loss of Poeltl and some key seniors hurts, but Kuzma, Bonam and Jayce Johnson are all on board.
8. Oregon State: OSU can make a 2nd straight tourney trip, but the point guard spot is an early concern.
9. Washington: With the arrival of Markelle Fultz and last year’s group a year older, this spot could prove low.
10. Arizona State: The Sun Devils brought in some talented newcomers, but they may be a year away in the Pac-12.
11. Stanford: Back to full strength after an injury-riddled ’15 -’16, but no Rosco Allen hurts offensively.
12. Washington State: They’ll have an all-conference caliber player in Josh Hawkinson, but it’ll be a struggle.

Looking Forward: Kentucky’s success and the victims it’s made them

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Kentucky and why “expectations” can be a fickle beast.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jeff Borzello of ESPN.com turned himself into persona non grata in the Bluegrass State as he penned a column that ranked Kentucky as college basketball’s biggest underachiever over the course of the last four seasons.

Full disclosure: He has text messages from me telling him to rank Kentucky first on that list. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing Borzello’s mentions get bombarded with hate from Big Blue Nation. There’s nothing I love more than being able to quote poet laureate DJ Khaled when talking with him: “Congratulations! You played yourself.”

But … I also kind of think that he’s got a point. At the very least, I can put together a pretty convincing argument saying as much.

Look at it from a year-by-year perspective:

  • In 2013, the Wildcats were the reigning national champions having landed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class headlined by the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Nerlens Noel. There are a myriad of reasons why the season went the way it did — Ryan Harrow was a headcase, Noel tore his ACL, the pieces were never going to fit together — but the Wildcats ended up in the NIT. There’s no way around it: that season was an utter disappointment.
  • The following year was the first time that the “Kentucky 40-0” train kicked into motion. The Wildcats landed five five-stars recruits — Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, etc. — and proceeded to flop their way all the way to 10 regular season losses and an eight-seed in the NCAA tournament. They got hot in the tournament and played their way to the national title game, but I’d we have to consider that season “underachieving”. The regular season still matters, doesn’t it?
  • In 2015, they won their first 38 games. They were the best team I’ve seen since I’ve been in this business. But they lost in the Final Four to Wisconsin. If you’re one of the people that says 2014’s postseason run wipes away their regular season struggles, shouldn’t you consider 2015 a failure because an undefeated team didn’t, you know, stay undefeated? For the sake of this argument, you can’t have it both ways. Either the regular season matters or NCAA tournament results are the be-all and end-all.
  • This past season, the Wildcats were a preseason top five team and ended the year as a No. 4 seed that couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the tournament. Again, there are reasons for it — Skal Labissiere’s struggles being the main culprit — but based on all of our preseason expectations, Kentucky underachieved.
  • In total, they’ve won one SEC regular season title outright, a share of another SEC regular season title, two SEC tournament titles and reached two Final Fours while missing one tournament outright.

Now, reasonable minds can disagree here, and trust me, I understand the absurdity in labeling a team that’s put together that résumé as an underachiever, but I just cannot see how anyone makes the argument that they have lived up to expectations since winning the 2012 national title.

Because the key word there is “expectations”.

Success in sports — hell, success in life in general — is all relative. Chris Beard got two different high major jobs this spring because he made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in his first year at Arkansas-Little Rock. There are people that think Bill Self is overrated as a head coach because he’s only been able to get to two Final Fours and win one national title while spending the last dozen years as the reigning Big 12 regular season champion.

And what John Calipari did with that 2012 title is turn his program into college basketball’s ultimate pressure cooker.

That title changed the way that college basketball works at the highest level. Once Coach Cal proved that it was possible to win a ring by starting over with a new crop of freshmen every year, the idea that he needed time to work through the kinks of building a team around a bunch of 19-year-olds became obsolete. If he could do it with that group, what’s stopping him from doing it this year?

The fact that the title came in the middle of a five-year run where the Wildcats reached four Final Fours set a baseline standard for what is expected out of his Kentucky teams. Anything short of playing during the season’s final weekend is a disappointment in the eyes of the media and anything short of inching closer to UCLA’s record 11 national titles means that the season was a wash in the eyes of many Kentucky fans.

When greatness is the baseline, anything short of that feels like an underachievement, even if “underachieving” is now making it to the Final Four as an eight-seed or winning a share of the SEC title while exiting in the first weekend of the tournament.

And that, 750 words later, brings me to my larger point: Might we be setting ourselves up for something similar with this iteration of the Wildcats?

Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox (Jon Lopez/Nike)

To be clear, we have Kentucky sitting at No. 2 in our Preseason Top 25, in front of Kansas, reigning champions Villanova and an Oregon team who essentially brings back everyone from a top-five, Pac-12 champ. And keep in mind that the SEC should be — how can I say this diplomatically? — rebuilding next year. Even if Kentucky is overrated, their record come March is going to look good.

But it’s still pretty easy to look at this roster and see where the flaws lie.

For starters, their back court, while talented, essentially features three guys who want the ball in their hands in De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe. Furthermore, Briscoe’s perimeter shooting was a major liability during his freshman season, and Fox likely won’t be all that much better. Monk, the only one of these three that can really be considered an off-guard, is a wildly entertaining player whose strength is slashing to the rim and playing in transition. As a shooter, he’s quite inconsistent. He might hit six threes in a row. He might then make four of his next 30. That’s not an exaggeration.

The problem, then, is that those are the only three guards on the roster that should see any playing time. Mychal Mulder has the reputation of being a shooter, but if he’s playing 20 minutes a game for the Wildcats next season that’s a red flag.

The key to last year’s Kentucky team ended up being the emergence of Derek Willis, who came out of nowhere midway through SEC play to shooting 44.2 percent from three. But he did that playing primarily at the four, which worked because Kentucky’s front court was not as talented last season as it will be this season and because Jamal Murray was in the lineup. That gave Kentucky two shooters to spread the floor for Tyler Ulis — and, at times, Briscoe — to penetrate.

What happens next season? Will Willis see minutes at the four over the likes of Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones? Is he quick enough to play major minutes at the three?

And that leads me to my next point: Just how good is Kentucky’s front court? They have a lot of bodies — they have six scholarship big men even with Marcus Lee transferring — but how many of them are impact players? Bam Adebayo certainly is, but if he’s on the floor, can Kentucky play Tai Wynyard or Isaac Humphries, two Land Warriors whose usefulness disappears when they’re more than eight feet from the rim? Gabriel and Killeya-Jones are both promising prospects, but at this point, are they more prospect than player? Killeya-Jones is. Gabriel will likely have a bigger impact as a freshman, but he’s also a 210 pound power forward that is capable of making threes as opposed to being a shooter with three point range; there’s a big difference.

Kentucky is loaded with talent and has a roster full of kids with tremendous long-term potential, but that doesn’t guarantee that all of those pieces are going to fit together perfectly in their one year in Lexington.

That’s something that Kentucky’s 2012 team and Duke’s 2015 team have made us forget.

Sometimes, stockpiling freshmen creates super-teams that can dominate all year long and win a national title. Sometimes, even with Hall of Fame head coaches leading the way, the team as a whole isn’t a good as the sum of the parts.

Whether or not those teams are successful depends totally on context and expectations, and when the expectation is for a team to be the best in the country, league titles and Sweet 16 trips are disappointing. It’s a natural by-product of preseason prognostication, and it’s something that the Wildcats could end up falling victim to again this season.

Just keep this in mind: The fact that Kentucky’s most recent four-year run can be called an underachievement tells you more about the state of that program than anything else will.

Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
Bam Adebayo (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)