It's risky to draw many conclusions from just a couple of exhibition games and two regular season games. But risk is what we are all about here at A Sea of Blue, so I am going to go out on a limb.
First, I'm going to reject the notion that Kentucky is "less talented" this year than last. Yes, we do have less prime-time, NBA-ready talent that is more a function of obscene athleticism or unusual size than last year. This Kentucky team does not have NBA size at most positions like it did last year, and made last year's team more athletic all by himself.
But Kentucky has some badly-missed pieces that it did not have in 2009-10, namely consistent shooters from the perimeter, and good ball handlers. Last year, the perimeter was where Kentucky possessions went to die. This year, you throw a zone at Kentucky and you might get blown out by 50. The zone defenses this team has faced so far have been nothing but an invitation to extend the lead.
What the 2010-11 Wildcats do lack is size and power on the inside both defensively and offensively, and until UK is tested by a big, talented team, we really won't know exactly how well they can compensate for their lack of it. An improved Josh Harrellson will help, but he is going to have trouble staying out of foul trouble against some of the more skilled big men in the country. So Kentucky will have to find some other way to handle size rather than man-to-man.
There is word that Calipari has invented (or more likely innovated) a new zone defense. I have no idea what that could be like, although it has been described as a "hybrid" zone or a combination of more than one zone setup. Whether that works out or not, you can be sure that Calipari is thinking zone more and more for this team and forcing opponents to beat the Wildcats from the perimeter.
The thing that's so great about this team is how far they are ahead of last year, execution-wise. This year's Wildcats are chock full of great passers, and the result is the kind of ball movement we didn't see out of last year's team until near the end of the SEC season. I really love the combination of good ball handling with the constant threat of dribble penetration from anywhere. It puts a ton of pressure on the man-to-man defense, and the solid midrange game these new guys bring make playing a matchup zone a dicey proposition against them. Last year, Kentucky had one, but never both.
Conventional wisdom says that this Kentucky team will have trouble against big, athletic teams like Michigan State or Washington. That will likely be tested in Maui, but unlike many, I think bigger teams are going to have a lot of trouble handling Kentucky on the perimeter -- not so much outside the arc, but two or three steps inside it, where this team's real strength lies. It isn't that the Wildcats need to shoot the three so much as have the threat of the three right there at all times, which allows them to penetrate and kick.
You might think that the zone is the way to play Kentucky, but they handle the ball too well for a match-up zone to be effective, they shoot the ball too well from 15 feet to play a lot of 2-3, the 1-3-1 leaves the short corners and top of the key vulnerable, and the man-to-man invites the DDM.
Shooting compensates for a ton of ills, as does good ballhandling. Right now, Kentucky is averaging just over 15% turnovers. Last year, at this same point, the Wildcats averaged over 28% turnovers. Last year, around this time, Kentucky averaged around 55% effective FG%. This year it's 60.1%. Against better competition, both at home and on the road. Offensive rebound % is down, though, just as you would expect. But the combination of fewer turnovers, better shooting, and better execution has them well ahead of last year's effort, and as a result, offensive efficiency is 17+ points better than last year. Here it is, measured, courtesy of Statsheet.com:
Where the 2010-11 version of the Wildcats have been weak this year is getting to the free throw line. It may seem strange, but Kentucky is not getting nearly enough free throw attempts per FGA. Last year, that number was almost 44%. This year, it is a very average 35%, and that needs to change a bit, although the better overall shooting makes that stat slightly less valuable.
In conclusion, I am stoked about this team's potential after seeing them dispatch two fairly dangerous foes with such aplomb, and these two teams were senior-dominated, significantly better than the first two teams Kentucky faced last year, and one of the games took place 3000 miles away from home. We still do not know, though, how they will handle a physically superior opponent, and that may turn my optimism more doubtful.
But right now, I am really liking what I see.