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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.

Please don’t count John Calipari and Kentucky out of the race for the Harrison twins

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Yesterday, NBCSports.com took a look at the recruitment of the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, and the possible connections that could land them at Maryland when they announce their decision Thursday evening.

But what about the other horse in the race for their commitment? If we have learned anything, it’s not to bet against John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats.

Maryland might have deep connections from Texas, close ties to the family, a geographic advantage, and the Under Armour card in its back pocket, but the defending national champions have ruled the recruiting world since Calipari took over in Lexington.

The fact of the matter is, aside from Shabazz Muhammad, the Calipari we’ve come to know at Kentucky has never lost out on a prospect that he truly wanted. If a top prospect hears Kentucky calling, he usually answers with a verbal commitment.

Say what you will and allege what you will about Calipari’s behind-the-scenes recruiting tactics, but there’s plenty to legitimize the flood of recruiting heading to Calipari’s program.

Plainly put, Calipari and Kentucky turn the nation’s best players into NBA first-rounders.

Don’t believe it? Ask John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Eric Bledsoe, and the list goes on.

The same way that the country’s top students flock to the Wharton Business School because it’s almost a guaranteed ticket into their desired field, Calipari is now running the equivalent in basketball.

And that’s the draw for the Harrison twins.

Under Armour aside, personal relationships dismissed, Calipari would give the twins an opportunity to be surrounded by some of the country’s best talent for (if all goes as likely planned) one season, compete for a national title, and be NBA lottery picks.

Perhaps that can pull harder than anything Mark Turgeon could do at Maryland.

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

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_

Cody Zeller, Peyton Siva headline Blue Ribbon Yearbook Preseason All-Americans

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Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook has released its annual Preseason All-American team.

The 2012-13 team follows last year’s team that featured three NBA first-round picks (Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger, and Harrison Barnes) and a national champion (Jones).

Take a look at Blue Ribbon’s 2012-13 team below:

Peyton Siva, Louisville

Siva, fresh off a Big East tournament title and a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans, enters his senior year as the point guard for a team that will have high expectations.

Alongside Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan, Louisville is likely the favorite to win the conference and some will predict a national championship for the Cardinals.

Last season, Siva averaged 9.1 points, 5.6 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game for Louisville.

Michael Snaer, Florida State

Last week, Snaer expressed his belief that he is “the best two-guard in the country” and a selection to Blue Ribbon’s team might help to validate that assertion.

He averaged 14.0 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in a breakout season for the Seminoles in 2011-12. Perhaps Duke fans will remember him most for this huge shot at Cameron Indoor which allowed FSU to escape with a win.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

Thomas decided not to follow his teammate Jared Sullinger into the draft and is a Preseason All-American because of it.

He averaged 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season, but the biggest question will be whether he picks up the defensive intensity.

“I like playing defense now,’’ Thomas was quoted as saying during the NCAA tournament last season. “It’s a game-changer. Last year, I used to just come in the game, chuck threes. I didn’t care about defense. I take very good pride in it now. It’s just that scoring mentality. Coming out of high school, I had the green light. So now I can do more: put it on the floor, pass, knock down open shots.’’

Doug McDermott, Creighton

As just a sophomore last season, McDermott put up a stellar 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game for Creighton.

He now returns and is the centerpiece of a team looking to improve on a 26-9 finish. He was an AP All-American in 2011-12 and will look to repeat this season.

Cody Zeller, Indiana

Speaking of centerpieces, Zeller is just that for the team that many expect to be No. 1 when the first poll is released this fall.

The 6-11, 230-pound sophomore averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game for an Indiana team that reached the Sweet 16.

Indiana welcomes an important recruiting class for the 2012-13 season, but Zeller will once again be the focus.

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

Nerlens Noel most overrated 2012 prospect? Whoa, now …

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If you want clicks from college basketball fans, write about Kentucky. If you want clicks and comments, write something critical of a Kentucky player. That’s a guaranteed formula.

Still not enough? Add a generalization that doesn’t apply to college players.

Cue this story at Rant Sports: “Top Prospect Nerlens Noel is Most Overrated Prospect in 2012.”

Noel, the 6-10 center who re-classified from the class of 2013 to 2012 and committed to the Wildcats in the spring, is the man who’ll step into Anthony Davis’ considerable shoes this season. Noel already earned a rep as the best shot blocker in a generation – yes, even better than Davis – and is seen as a guy whose offensive game can only get better.

But Jason Greenberg at Rant is convinced that Noel won’t match Davis’ production. He says Noel’s offensive game was lacking at the adidas Nations event earlier in June (only scoring off putbacks and dunks) and was outplayed by other prospects such as Isaiah Austin and Steven Adams. Worse yet, he got pushed around.

Here’s the thing: Greenberg is right about one thing. Noel probably won’t match Davis’ production. Not many guys – let alone freshmen – lead their team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, win a national title and take all the major awards in the process. That’s a remarkable season. But to use Davis’ performance as a way to call Noel overhyped – and throw in references of Bowie vs. Jordan, Oden over Durant – misses the point. (Is Shabazz Muhammad MJ or Durant in this scenario? I’m confused.)

Noel doesn’t have to be the next Davis. If he hits the averages Greenberg expects (eight points, seven rebounds, three blocks) then he’ll still be incredibly valuable. Three blocks a game usually means he’s altering another five or six. That’s game-changer in the frontcourt from a defensive standpoint, which is what Davis was most of the season for the ‘Cats. (Remember that at least one scouting site ranked Austin Rivers as 2011’s top recruit.) Noel will be surrounded by enough scorers and shooters that the points will come. Probably off putbacks and dunks. Concerns about Davis’ build also lingered throughout the season, but somehow didn’t matter in the end (having Terrence Jones down low helped a lot).

But hey, who hasn’t trotted out a sensational headline every now and then? Just don’t make it a habit.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Were Cody Zeller and James Michael McAdoo smart to return to school?

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In the five days since Thursday’s NBA Draft, perhaps the biggest talking point has been the fall of Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones.

The consensus seems to be that the two cost themselves a great deal of money by returning to school. Considered by many to be locks for the lottery — if not the top five — after their freshmen campaigns, the two players returned to school and had, frankly, incredibly similar seasons. The result of those seasons combined with injury concerns that leaked out prior to the draft were that Sully fell to the 21st pick and PJ3 dropped all the way to 28th.

(It wasn’t all bad, however. Sullinger landed in Boston, where he’ll get a chance to learn behind a roster full of former all-stars and future hall-of-famers in the same place that made Big Baby a quality NBA player. Jones will be playing in Oklahoma City, which is about as ideal of a landing spot as there is for a first round pick. There is a legitimate argument to make that while they lost out on some first round money, they set themselves up for a bigger second contract.)

The same question can be raised with Harrison Barnes and Terrence Jones. Barnes fell slightly from being the potential No. 1 pick to No. 7, while Jones went from being a late lottery pick to the 18th pick. Returning to school likely cost them some money, as well.

The question that Mike DeCourcy asked today was, given the result of returning to school for Sullinger and Jones, did James Michael McAdoo and Cody Zeller make the correct decision to keep their names out of the 2012 NBA Draft?:

So there’s a natural question about what their experience should teach Zeller and North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo, each of whom was regarded as a lottery pick following his freshman season but chose to stick around college a second year.

The answer: not a thing.

In my opinion, the situation is different for McAdoo and Zeller. McAdoo was projected as a late lottery pick, meaning that with a successful season as a sophomore, he could potentially climb up into the top five. Monetarily speaking it is worth the risk to return to school. A fall to the late first round would not be a major hit financially, while climbing up into the top five could double or triple the money he would have been guaranteed. Beyond that, the fact that McAdoo will have a chance to be UNC’s featured big man after playing behind Tyler Zeller and John Henson should set him up for a breakout season.

Zeller, on the other hand, had a chance to be a top five pick. He could still end up being a top five pick after this season, and based on the way that his workouts were described by Tom Crean — apparently, he’s up to 240 lbs with a vertical of 39″ while benching 185 lbs 20 times — that probably won’t change. And to his credit, Zeller seems to be making a decision based on the fact that he’s not ready to “pay bills and own a house”, which is probably smart given the fact that he’s not yet allowed to legally drink.

But what Zeller needs to be aware of if that teams won’t be as accepting of his flaws after a second year in school. Instead of focusing on what he’s capable of doing, the focus will be on what he’s not able to do.

There is no question that it is a risk, but if it is one that Zeller is willing to take, who are we to argue with him?

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