It's Big Blue Madness week, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation. 202 days will have passed since the official end of Kentucky's last season by the time Midnight Madness gets here for 2010, and that is 201 days too long a wait for Kentucky fans.
But now that the wait is almost over, how are you feeling about the 2010-11 Wildcats? My experience is that UK fans, despite their national image, don't always go into the season expecting or demanding a national championship. Like most fans that truly understand the sport they follow, the Big Blue Nation understands that not every team can be expected to win the NCAA tournament.
In some recent comments, John Calipari talked about expectations for the 2010-11 Wildcats:
"Outside of Kentucky, (people are saying), 'There's no way they can be as good as they were a year ago. They just lost too much,' "Calipari told the Herald-Leader. "In Kentucky, (people are saying), 'They're going to be better and they're going to win by 30.' "
Calipari tends to fall in the middle, but certainly understands the "outside-Kentucky" viewpoint. "We’re losing a ton," he said.
I really don't know of any Kentucky fan that believes the hyperbole that Coach Cal imputed to them above. Most fans I know believe that UK will a lot this year, but they also realize that, at least in the case of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky lost talent that is rarely present on the same team in college basketball. You don't just replace Wall with Brandon Knight and Cousins with Enes Kanter, wash, rinse and repeat the 2009-10 season except this time you win it all. That looks like fantasy to almost everybody.
Realistically, Kentucky fans expect to be able to compete for the national championship every year. To me, that means having a team that can plausibly make a Final Four run, and plausibly win once they get there. Does the 2010-11 team pass that test? I should think so, especially given what we have seen so far this year in the summertime.
Of course, a lot of the potential of this year's team, particularly at the highest levels of basketball, hinge on the eligibility of Enes Kanter. Without Kanter, the Wildcats will be without a power player on the roster. Even Josh Harrellson with his NBA size does not qualify, as so far in his career he has been somewhat shy of contact and generally less effective in the power game than his size would suggest.
Teams can go far in the NCAA tournament without a true post presence or a power game (see the 2006 Villanova team for an example), but it is difficult and such teams rarely reach the Final Four. With Kanter, Kentucky would have a power player who competes for every rebound, and though somewhat raw in the post, is skilled and strong enough to become an offensive power player in fairly short order. His combination of inside strength and perimeter skill make him a nightmare matchup for any college basketball team.
Darius Miller is, judging by what I saw in the Canadian trip earlier this year, a vastly improved basketball player. He has put on a bit of weight, a bit of strength, and his all-around skills are significantly improved over last year. This, I believe, is the Darius Miller the Kentucky faithful have been waiting for since the day he set foot on campus. This is set to be Miller's year, and with the great ballhandling and passing talent Kentucky has coming in, there is no telling how much damage he can do.
According to many people in the know, it is DeAndre Liggins, the forgotten man of this year's team, who has improved the most of anyone returning from last year. Last year, Liggins made an impact by being an energy guy off the bench, especially defensively. With his point-guard skills and great court vision, Liggins represents the one yet-unfulfilled promise among Kentucky's returning players. Word on the street is that fulfillment is in the offing this year.
We saw a bit of what Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb can do in Canada this summer. Both these guys are legitimate college stars, and Brandon Knight might be a one-and-done talent. His ability to get to the rim is nearly as good as John Wall's, although he doesn't have the size to finish like Wall and doesn't possess Wall's freakish, end-to-end speed, although he may be as close as anyone in America in that department. In other words, he's arguably faster than any player in the college game.
Lamb is a gifted scorer who lacks the flash of Knight or the size of Liggins, but his long suit has become a relative rarity in college basketball -- the mid-range game. Just as Rip Hamilton demonstrated how a great mid-range game can be a weapon for the NBA's Detroit Pistons, Doron Lamb uses a variety of floaters, pull-ups and quick jumpers to put the ball in the basket inside the 3-point line. Oh, yeah -- he's a pretty good 3-point shooter, too.
Finally, we have Terrence Jones, who we saw only briefly in Canada. Jones has been sidelined with a variety of injuries over the summer, and is only recently able to practice. Despite his 6-8" size, Jones is a finesse player and not at all a power player. Calipari will have to convince Jones to play closer to the paint some of the time when the Wildcats are in the half court because of a dearth of big people on the UK roster.
But Jones is, like the rest of the incoming Wildcats, a talented ballhandler. He also possesses remarkable passing skills for a man his size. He is the kind of player that opponents will have difficulty matching up with offensively.
But the real question in my mind is how good a defender Jones can be. He will often be tasked with defending the power forward spot, and Jones, unlike Patterson, Cousins, or Orton, does not seek out contact. Despite his prodigious skill, Jones looks to be Calipari's biggest coaching challenge this year, and may force Cal to change his offensive and defensive philosophy more than any other player.
As for the team overall, we'll no doubt be seeing a lot more of the Dribble Drive Motion. We saw some of that in Canada, but keep in mind that teams, as they have been wont to do, will zone Kentucky to avoid facing the DDM in a man look. But UK promises to be a much better 3-point shooting team this year than last, and if that promise holds up, zones are likely to be shelled from outside the arc by the Wildcats. That should produce an interesting conundrum for UK opponents.
So that's a preview of what we have coming up for the 2010-11 season here in Kentucky, and it looks to be a second straight year of fun and excitement. Year 2 for Calipari promises to be just as much fun as Year 1, and my expectations going into this season are just as high as they were going into last.
Shameless Commercial Plug: Be sure to visit your local retailers (Kroger, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, etc.) and pick up your copy of Wildcat Tip-off 2010, published by Maple Street Press and edited by yours truly. In stores on October 29th, but available for immediate order and delivery right now from MSP's website above. I'll have an excerpt from the book up on the site later today.