There are always surprises - that is the great thing about sports. No matter how much we've seen, no matter how much we think we know there is always a Josh Harrellson right around the corner, ready to delight us in our ignorance. To paraphrase Gandalf, who among the wise could forsee it? And if they are truly wise, why should they expect to do so?
Every new season brings with it new reasons to get excited. There are new players to get to know, returning players to get to know better, and together they form a new team that we have the great pleasure to watch grow and learn and improve. We can often guess and anticipate which freshmen will be instant contributors, how returning players will try to improve their games and where the team as a whole will need to get better from the previous season.
This year there are a lot of reasons to get excited about the Kentucky Wildcats, and none of them require a surprise. That's okay, because one of the other great things about sports is that we can have a lot of fun watching players and teams achieve what we all thought they could achieve. Here are 5 things I eagerly anticipate following over the entire season.
1. Darius Miller's Senior Year
I love Darius Miller. He is easily my favorite player on the team and a guy I think is criminally underrated by a portion of the fan-base because he doesn't put up jaw-dropping numbers each game. He's been one of the most efficient offensive players the last two years and has dramatically improved his shooting from the field over his career. A good bit of that efficiency is due to his discriminating taste in shot selection - he usually will only take open 3's and drive when he has a clear mismatch on his defender. That selection, I think, is the root of frustration for many but I tend to see it as Darius taking what the defense gives him and not forcing shots when it isn't necessary.
It appears as though that approach is about to change. Miller has explicitly stated that he is going to look for his shot more actively this season and Calipari has stated that he hasn't had to say "boo" to him in practice (video). To me that sounds as though Miller is going to take more outside shots even when he is guarded and drive even if he doesn't have a clear mismatch. That new attitude didn't appear in the Blue-White Scrimmage, but neither did team defense and we certainly don't expect that to be an issue this year. Miller is an old hand when it comes to the B-W Scrimmage and he knows he doesn't have anything to prove during it - better to let the freshmen introduce themselves more thoroughly to the BIg Blue Nation.
2. Terrence Jones: Player of the Year
By now we all know that when Calipari talks about a specific player to the media, we need to take what he says with a rather sizable grain of salt. So the other day when he said he didn't think there was a better player in the nation than Terrence Jones you could be forgiven if your first thought wasn't "OMG TJ is going to be awesome!!!" but rather "Huh, I wonder who Cal is trying to motivate?" But then we got to see the scrimmage Wednesday.
Jones went right. He hit jump shots. He exploded to the basket, finishing with a variety of dunks. He pushed around the talented Anthony Davis and was a beast on the boards. As Dave Baker and Kyle Macy noted, several times he passed up bad shots he would have taken last season and instead gave shot fakes before going immediately to the basket. Sure it was just a scrimmage, and there was little - if any - team defense being played, but still...
Last season Jones was good enough statistically to finish 10th in the inaugural Ken Pomeroy PoY ranking, this despite the fact that there were clearly several areas where he could improve his game. His defense was outstanding and was underrated despite his gaudy steal, block, and defensive rebound numbers. And now he's better. We might be about to watch one of the greatest individual seasons in UK history.
3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist aka the Liggins Mk II
Last April I was talking to a friend of mine about this upcoming season and what the team would look like. This was during the time when it was widely assumed that Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and DeAndre Liggins would all be going pro. During this conversation I mentioned that if I could have just one of those three players come back it would be Liggins by a nose over Jones because I felt DeAndre gave the team a defensive element that they would otherwise lack. In addition I felt (and still feel) that DeAndre has a lot of room to grow offensively and would be a valuable contributor on that end of the floor as well.
Well, I still would love to have Liggins back but the idea that he could uniquely provide a particular defensive element to this team looks to be incorrect. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has drawn raves from Calipari with very favorable comparisons to Liggins defensive ability, hustle, and effort. It's like getting DeAndre back but with a few years knocked off his age and with even more room to grow. The one thing that remains unknown is whether K-G can throw his opponent off his game the way Liggins could. I can't wait to watch this guy bring the pain to opponent offenses.
4. Team Defense
There are 3 constants in the universe: death, taxes, and Calipari's defense. Here are his teams' rankings in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency from KenPom since 2006: 6th, 11th, 4th, 1st , 6th, 15th . Last year's team was Calipari's WORST defense of the last 6 years and it was still Top 15 in the nation. Now he gets to add Anthony Davis and MK-G to the already terrific Terrence Jones and Darius Miller. That's to say nothing of the strides Lamb should make this year and what we'll see out of Wiltjer and Teague. Oh yeah, Eloy Vargas showed some nice defense in limited minutes last season, particularly in the zone which it looks like we'll see this year. Opposing teams should be lobbying the NCAA to allow them to play with 6 guys on offense just to restore some fairness to the game. The defense will be a work in progress of course. I recall that Cal has stated that he doesn't usually start to work on defense in earnest until the December break, but by the time conference season rolls around this could be one scary unit.
5. John Calipari's Coaching
I admit it. I was one of the people who believed the extent of Cal's coaching ability was to hype the DDM. I believed it when he was at Memphis and I believed it after his first season here when the team just fell apart against West Virginia. Then last season came along and my eyes were opened. In hindsight, I should have realized this earlier. I just mentioned how well his teams play defense. More than anything else in basketball, good defense requires the entire team to work together. When a coach has teams that year - after - year play defense the way Cal's do, that's a sign of good coaching.
Then there's the offense: for two years running Cal has adapted the offense to fit the players at his disposal. I love, Love, LOVE this about him! Few things in sports irk me more than a coach who refuses to adapt when it becomes necessary. It is not a widespread trait: Roy Williams continued to stubbornly play Larry Drew II last year even though it was obvious to everyone that his team played better when Kendall Marshall ran the point. As Glenn pointed out earlier this week, Calipari continues to learn and think and grow in his coaching and that is an underrated ability. I can't wait to watch how he molds this team as the season progresses.