Darius Miller

Kentucky out of Top 25 for first time under Calipari

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Yes, Big Blue Nation, it finally happened. A Calipari-coached Kentucky team will play their next game without a ranking next to their name.

For the first time since Cal took over prior to the 2009-10 season, the Wildcats aren’t ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. It’s a product of back-to-back losses to Notre Dame on the road and Baylor at home, a loss that was also Cal’s first at home since taking over at Kentucky.

Now breathe. It’s going to be ok.

This team is not anywhere near the caliber of last season’s national champions that steam-rolled essentially everyone (sans Indiana and Vanderbilt) on it’s way to one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history. You probably knew that already.

But first of all, polls are dumb. They are meaningless, really. Especially this early. They factor a little bit into opinions for at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament. The end.

But mainly, this team has a huge deficiency in leadership and that’s due to the fact that for the first season under Cal, the team lacks the senior leader that has been through the pre-Calipari Domination years. There’s no Patrick Patterson, Perry Stevenson or Ramon Harris. No Jorts, DeAndre Liggins or Darius Miller. No big brother figure that can lead the team mentally and emotionally when they’re tired of hearing it from Calipari. No, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson don’t count.

It’s a newsworthy item because of Kentucky’s recent dominance. But nothing that should send Wildcats fans into a panic. There’s still four months to play until Selection Sunday.

David Harten is the editor of The Backboard Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter at @David_Harten.

Underrated Notre Dame hands No. 8 Kentucky a beatdown in South Bend

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First and foremost, before we start talking about No. 8 Kentucky’s 64-50 loss to Notre Dame on Thursday night, we need to get one thing out there: Kentucky is not as bad as they were against the Irish.

The Wildcats are a young team, a group of freshmen, that have never had to play a true road game before, and the first place they are forced to play is Purcell Pavilion, which is probably one of the 10 or 15 toughest environments to play in? And they are still without their point guard? Going up against a Notre Dame team that is experienced, underrated and adept at controlling tempo and executing offensively?

What happened here is simple, actually. Notre Dame came out and punched Kentucky in the mouth, catching fire early and opening up a big first half lead. Kentucky responded by doing what freshmen are wont to do: forcing shots, getting impatient defensively, and most importantly, getting overwhelmed by a raucous home court that included Heisman hopeful Manti Te’o as a member of the student section.

“This was not two teams battling and then Notre Dame won,” John Calipari said after the game. “This was Notre Dame threw us around and dominated us.”

I even picked Notre Dame to win, and while I didn’t think that they would wipe the floor with the Wildcats, the result should not be surprising.

The Irish are underrated. By a lot. They have a veteran back court in Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins that are capable of controlling the pace of a basketball game — which allows Mike Brey to run his ‘Burn Offense’ when necessary — and that are dynamic play makers. They can penetrate to score, they can get into the lane and create, they run off of big Jack Cooley’s hard-hitting ball-screen, and they hit threes. Throw in shooters Scott Martin, Cameron Biedscheid, and Patrick Connaughton spreading the floor, and the Irish can put a lineup on the floor that is quite difficult to slow down.

And against Kentucky, you saw all of that.

You saw ball-screens. You saw penetration-and-kicks. You saw Cooley abuse the more athletic Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein with positioning and strength, as he finished with 13 points and 11 boards, six of which game on the offensive end of the floor.

Everyone on Notre Dame understands their role, and it’s quite obvious how the Irish fit together. And that right there is the most noteworthy dichotomy between these two programs.

The biggest concern I had about the Wildcats heading into this season had less to do with a lacking veteran presence (which is a concern, trust me) and more to do with the simple fact that the pieces on this team just don’t seem to fit together. Does Alex Poythress really want to be the man, which Kentucky needs him to be? Does he was to be a beast? Can Ryan Harrow be this team’s point guard down the road? Can Archie Goodwin, who is best suited to playing on a wing, learn to play the point in his stead? Is Julius Mays really this team’s Darius Miller? Can Kyle Wiltjer defend? Will either Noel or Cauley-Stein develop enough of an offensive game to be a threat?

Is this a team that plays big or small? Do they thrive on their defense? Is this a running team?

John Calipari’s has got his work cut out for him this season. There’s too much talent to ever count this team out, but if Thursday told us anything, it’s that Kentucky’s road to success may be longer than we thought.

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

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.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 17 Arizona 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: 23-12, 12-6 Pac-12 (4th); Lost in the first round of the NIT

Head Coach: Sean Miller

Key Losses: Josiah Turner, Kyle Fogg, Jesse Perry, Brendan Lavender

Newcomers: Mark Lyons, Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley, Gabe York

Projected Lineup:

G: Mark Lyons, Sr.
G: Nick Johnson, So.
F: Kevin Parrom, Sr.
F: Solomon Hill, Sr.
C: Kaleb Tarczewski, Fr.
Bench: Grant Jerrett, Fr.; Brandon Ashley, Fr.; Angelo Chol, So.; Gabe York, Fr.; Jordin Mayes, Jr.

Outlook: The recruiting job that Sean Miller has done since he landed at Arizona is simply undeniable. Even with a pair of top 100 recruits — Josiah Turner and Sidiki Johnson — leaving the program after last season, Miller has a roster brimming with talented college players and potential pros. The problem is that almost every player currently on the roster brings with him a question mark. In other words, not much about Miller’s roster and rotation is a known quantity.

The biggest question mark that Miller is going to have to deal with is youth. He three most talented big men — Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley — are all freshmen while Angelo Chol is a sophomore. In the back court, Miller will likely be starting a sophomore, Nick Johnson, while using another freshman, Gabe York, for major minutes off the bench. All things considered, six of the top eight players in Arizona’s rotation — and all of their big men –will be underclassmen.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily preclude Arizona from competing on a national level the way that it has in the past. Obviously, Kentucky won the national title last season with a roster based almost solely on freshmen and sophomores. But John Calipari is the best in the business when it comes to dealing with freshmen, getting them to buy-in to a system and making them accept their roles. I’m not saying that Miller can’t do that as well, but we just don’t know. And while every single player in that group is talented — there is a reason that Arizona has one of the top three recruiting classes in the country — they aren’t exactly Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, either.

As if that wasn’t enough of a question mark, one of Arizona’s veterans, senior wing Kevin Parrom, is coming off of one of the most difficult seasons for any player in recent memory. Not only did his lose both his mother and grandmother last offseason, but Parrom was shot twice when someone broke into his home last September. If that wasn’t bad enough, he broke his foot last January. All signs point to Parrom being back to 100%, but there really is no way to tell if he will be the same player that he was — and it should be noted that he was a very good player — before all of that happened.

But the biggest question mark for the Wildcats will be at the point guard spot. During the offseason, Miller brought in a pair of transfers — Mark Lyons from Xavier and TJ McConnell from Duquesne, although McConnell will be redshirting this year — to solidify the point guard spot. The problem is that it has been four years since Lyons was needed to play the point. He redshirted his first season with the Musketeers and spent the last three playing off the ball while Tu Holloway put up all-american numbers running the show. Lyons is a veteran, a tough kid that is a proven scorer, but he also developed a bit of a reputation during his time there. He didn’t have the best shot selection and he was a bit of a hothead.

Does that mean he can’t be the kind of leader and facilitator that Miller needs him to be? Of course not. Lyons was recruited as a point guard out of high school. But he’s spent the past four years proving himself to be a certain kind of player, and there’s no way for us to know if he’s going to be anything different until we actually see it unfold.

Predictions?: The Pac-12 should be improved from where the league was a season ago, and, for my money, Arizona will be the best team in the conference. But how good they end up being on a national scale depends on how a number of different factors end up playing out. They have all the pieces, but will all those pieces fit together the right way? Can Lyons truly be a point guard, a guy that gets the ball to his big men where they need it and is willing to share the glory with his younger teammates? How good will that trio of freshmen big men prove to be? Will Solomon Hill embrace the role of veteran leader the way that Darius Miller did for Kentucky last season? I can see this scenario playing out a myriad of different ways. If everything breaks the right way, having the Wildcats ranked 17th heading into the season will look silly. But if everything goes wrong, it will as well. I’d say a Pac-12 title, a three or four seed in the NCAA tournament and a trip to the second weekend should be the expectation for this group.

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

Kentucky to install part of 2012 Final Four floor into new Rupp Arena locker room

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Kentucky enjoyed its national championship so much, it figured it might as well bring some memorabilia home.

John Calipari and the Wildcats will install close to 3,000 square feet of the 2012 national championship floor from the SuperDome in New Orleans into a renovated locker room at Rupp Arena.

“I’m not sure I’ve heard of any other locker room doing anything like this,” Calipari said in a release from the school. “But then again, it seems like here at Kentucky we do a lot of things that have never been done.”

Major pieces include the logo at center court, which will be placed in the middle of the team’s locker room, as well as the free throw line where Doron Lamb hit two late free throws.

As you’d expect, there is a recruiting angle to the move, which Calipari acknowledges.

“It does motivate when we’re bringing families in there and recruits in there and all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” Calipari said. “So yes, it’s going to be a motivating factor in us continuing to get the best and the brightest players here.”

The ironic part, though, is that most of the players integral to winning the championship will never step on the new locker room floor while suiting up for a UK game, as most have move on to the NBA, including Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Darius Miller, and Lamb.

Calipari is working to raise money for charity, too, with the installation of the floor, partnering with Northwestern Mutual to auction off the remainder of the floor.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Senior Darius Miller doesn’t feel like he’s among freshman

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Darius Miller’s importance could not be overstated.

The Daily’s Dan Wolken calls Miller the “last impactful senior John Calipari will ever coach,” and he might be right.

Miller had 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting in Kentucky’s win over Louisville on Saturday night in New Orleans and, though stellar freshman like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may get the majority of the spotlight, Miller’s handy work is the a big reason why Kentucky is one win away from a national title.

The senior has been made a difference throughout the tournament, scoring 19 points in back-to-back games against Iowa State and Indiana, which pushed the Wildcats into the Elite Eight.

“He’s our senior leader.  He’s been there since day one for us,” said freshman point guard Marquis Teague after Saturday night’s win. “Whenever we get a little hectic on the floor, he huddles us together, tells us to stay poised.  We always look to him for leadership.”

Surrounded by so many freshman, one can imagine Miller as an old man, sitting on his rocking chair, telling the young ones about what it was like to play college basketball back in—get this—2008.

He has seen players like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Brandon Knight pass through the program, all while he continued to build his game and become the player that has been arguably the best sixth man in the country.

“He calms us down and tells us what to do.  He’s a great leader,” said Davis. “That’s what he does at crunch time, tells you what to do. “

And even being around these freshman, Miller doesn’t feel like the elder statesman.

“These guys don’t play like freshmen.  Y’all been watching them play all year,” he said. “They play like seniors in college.  We’ve been successful in those situations throughout the whole year.  So I don’t have any doubt, no.  Not at all.”

There aren’t many doubts that Kentucky is in prime position to cut down the nets on Monday night, either.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_