Top 25 Countdown: No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 38-2, 16-0 SEC (1st); Won the National Title

Head Coach: John Calipari

Key Losses: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, Doron Lamb

Newcomers: Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays

Projected Lineup:

G: Ryan Harrow, So.
G: Archie Goodwin, Fr.
F: Alex Poythress, Fr.
F: Kyle Wiltjer, So.
C: Nerlens Noel, Fr.
Bench: Willie Cauley-Stein, Fr.; Julius Mays, Sr.; Twany Beckham, Sr.; Jon Hood, Jr.

Outlook: As is the norm for this Kentucky program, there aren’t going to be many familiar faces on the Wildcat roster heading into the 2012-2013 season. Gone is just about everyone significant from last year’s team, with all six of Kentucky’s key players getting drafted in 2012.

What that means is, once again, Coach Cal is going to have to build his team from the bottom up, and he’s going to have to do it quickly — in just nine days, he’ll be kicking off the season with a trip to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to take on Maryland, heading to Atlanta just four days later to take on Duke. The learning curve for this group is is non-existent.

There’s no question about the talent level and NBA potential on this crop of ‘Cats. Nerlens Noel isn’t the second coming of Anthony Davis simply because he doesn’t have the same advanced perimeter skills that Davis did, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noel is a dominant interior force on the defensive end of the floor. He may even be a better shot-blocker than Davis was, and surely his ability on the offensive end will develop as the season progresses.

What’s scary is that, thus far in the preseason, the excitement for this group seems to be more about Willie Cauley-Stein than Noel. Cauley-Stein is seven-feet tall and was a wide receiver in high school, which should give you a bit of an idea of his athleticism. He’s very raw, maybe even more so than Noel, but with those two taking the floor at the same time, opponents may not be able to get a shot off within 10 feet of the rim.

Joining them up front will be Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. Poythress is a guy that may have the most potential for success this season, as he seems to be one of the more polished freshmen in the class. He’s a 6-foot-7, athletic combo-forward that has really put on muscle-mass since arriving on campus. He could have the same kind of impact as Terrence Jones did as a freshman, minus the attitude issues. Wiltjer could be the x-factor for this group. He’s by far the best perimeter shooter on the roster, and the fact that he’s a 6-foot-9 forward makes him a tough matchup. The question mark with him is simply how he well he’s going to be able to defend and rebound.

In the back court, Ryan Harrow takes over the point guard role. A transfer from NC State, Harrow spent last season redshirting and practicing every day against Marquis Teague. He’s not the same kind of talent as Coach Cal’s last five point guard recruits, however, and it will be interesting to see just how successful he ends up being in the role. Archie Goodwin will likely be the best perimeter scoring threat. He’s a hyper-athletic, 6-foot-5 slasher that understands how to get to the rim and score. Kentucky may end up needing him to be a guy that averages about 15 points given some of their other question marks offensively. Julius Mays, Twany Beckham and Jon Hood are the other guys that could end up seeing time in the back court.

The biggest question mark I have with this Kentucky group is simple: How well does this roster fit together? Cauley-Stein and Noel are, essentially, the same player — big, tall, athletic shot-blockers that can’t do much offensively besides dunk the ball. But Kentucky’s best lineup is probably going to be with both of them on the floor together because I’m not completely sold on Wiltjer being a good fit for Cal’s system. This is a group that is going to have to thrive on athleticism and defense, especially early in the season, and those are the two biggest weaknesses for Wiltjer.

The problem with leaving Wiltjer off the floor is that he’s really the only guy that is the kind of shooter that cannot be left open; Kentucky has no one to play the role that Deandre Liggins and Darius Miller have the past three seasons. Poythress seems like a better fit at the four than at the three, but he needs to play the three because Kentucky isn’t very deep in the back court. That means that either Cauley-Stein or Wiltjer is going to have to play major minutes unless one of Beckham, Mays or Hood can prove that can be a defensive stopper and three-point marksman.

Predictions?: There’s plenty of talent here, and if there is anything in Calipari’s coaching repertoire that rivals his ability to recruit, it’s his ability to convince elite talents to buy into playing a specific role for the betterment of the team. I don’t doubt that he’ll find a way to get his best five players on the floor at the same time; one of the most interesting subplots to the college basketball season as a whole will be to watch what he does to make that happen. I don’t think that Kentucky is as safe of a bet to win the SEC as a lot of people are giving them credit for simply because I believe Missouri is being severely underrated. That said, as long as Kentucky as this much talent on their roster and Coach Cal making their decisions, they have to be considered a top three team and a national title contender.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

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Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

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Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”

Arizona releases non-conference schedule

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A trip to Maui, a home date against Baylor and trips to UConn and Alabama highlight Arizona’s non-conference schedule, which the school released Thursday, this season.

Despite losing nearly the entirety of last year’s talented-but-troubled group, Sean Miller still scheduled aggressively. The first test will come the week of Thanksgiving in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. It’s an extremely competitive field with Duke, Auburn, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Illinois, San Diego State and Xavier. The bracket for the event has yet to be released.

The Wildcats travel to Storrs to face UConn in Dan Hurley’s first season on Dec. 2, and then a week later visit Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The marquee home game will be Saturday, Dec. 16, when Scott Drew and Baylor come to Tucson.

Here’s the full schedule:

Day Date Opponent Location

Sunday Nov. 11 Cal Poly Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Nov. 14 UTEP Tucson, Ariz.

Monday Nov. 19 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Tuesday Nov. 20 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 21 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 28 Texas Southern Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 2 at UConn Hartford, Conn.

Thursday Dec. 6 Utah Valley Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 9 at Alabama Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Saturday Dec. 15 Baylor Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Dec. 19 Montana Tucson, Ariz.

Saturday Dec. 22 UC Davis Tucson, Ariz.