As we are ready to embark on what should be another fantastic run through college basketball, the excitement level for this team is starting to build. Big Blue Madness, the Blue/White Game, and the two exhibition games were enough to whet our whistles and give us just a taste of what this team may be capable of this season.
Admittedly, it took me a while to get here. The disappointment of last season's ending has stuck with me like no other loss in my lifetime. I am too young to truly appreciate the effect The Shot in 1992 and the Elite 8 exit of the 2010 team left me more stunned than crushed. And there is even more of a sting now as I watch Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein make an immediate impact in the NBA.
But alas, that season was over months ago and there is a new team of Wildcats and new opponents to get ready to face. The more I think about this season, the more excited I get about the opportunities this team has to be really, really good.
Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, and Skal Labissiere
If there is a better trio of players on a single team this season, then please tell this poor blogger because I don't see them. Ulis, Murray, and Labissiere make up a three-headed monster on offense that may not have an equal.
John Calipari made sure to keep Ulis and Skal together during all of the preseason workouts and scrimmages in order to let the two develop chemistry together. Their combined efforts on the lob/dunk, pick and roll, and the inside/out two man game is going to be key components to what Kentucky wants to do in the half court this season.
All three players can fill up the offensive stats, showcasing long-range capabilities (even Skal), crafty work around the rim, and high percentage free throw shooting. It's going to be hard for teams to figure out which guy to stop, and even if they stop two of them, the other one has the skills to make up for the loss.
What makes Tyler Ulis so dangerous is that he is morphing from a pass first guard, which he will be primarily, into a bona-fide offensive threat. He has an improved three-point jump-shot and he's shown his ability to nail that in-the-lane tear drop. He can take over a game in multiple ways.
While Skal needs work in the post, we saw of glimpse of how he can be unstoppable at times. Two of the most difficult shots to guard in basketball is the hook shot and the fadeaway mid-range jumper. Skal is great at both. And he can execute with either hand. While Dino Gaudio may not want Skal to fall in love with that jumper too much, I say let it fly, big man. How many centers will he face that can realistically guard that?
And then there is Jamal Murray. The kid is a flat-out killer. He scores with such ease that sometimes I don't even know how many points he has until they flash it on the screen. He can score from any point on the floor, inside and out, is as calm and collected as any guy on the team, and he's an unselfish point guard at heart. What's not to love?
Chippy Coach Cal
While many of us gave the proverbial head-slap a few times this off-season as Cal talked about being loyal to the Harrison Twins and being 38-0 will be the one thing people remember from the 2015 team, I think he was speaking as a coach that was hurt by a big loss. He knew he had the best team. We all did. They, including Cal himself, failed to execute at crunch-time.
Now that Cal has a new squad, we can already see him instilling his trademark toughness in them. But don't be surprised if this team is tougher than usual. With Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe, Cal has two of the biggest Alpha-Dogs he may have ever had. They are going to get after it on every possession. Cal is already challenging guys like Briscoe to be the best defender, Skal to get stronger in the block, Alex Poythress to be the best rebounder in the country, and Charles Matthews to be physical and slash.
This team will exemplify the character of Cal, but also Ulis, a player as tough as they come.
While this may not be the platoon team of a year ago, these Kentucky Wildcats still have a wealth of talent. In reality, John Calipari could go eight deep and I think that he will start guys based on match-ups. Marcus Lee will play more minutes than he ever has at Kentucky as will Derek WIllis. Charles Matthews is another player that may see 20 minutes in certain scenarios depending on the opponent and how he is playing.
Ulis, Murray, Skal, Matthews, Poythress, Lee, Briscoe, Willis, and Isaac Humphries have all shown that they deserve minutes this season. Obviously, Ulis, Murray, Skal, Briscoe, Poythress, and Lee are going to see the lion's share, but the others will get their chances to shine.
It seems that the odd-men out may be Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder. I do think Hawkins will see more minutes than Mulder, but it s going to be tough for the two guards with Ulis, Murray, and Briscoe in front of them.
Mulder is billed primarily as a knock-down shooter, but if Ulis and Murray can continue to hit from the outside as they have in the preseason, then there may not be a big need for Mulder's skill set.
- Last season we all knew Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin, and Arizona were the best teams in the country, and that some variation of those teams would be in the Final Four. This year is wide open and there are more unknowns. North Carolina and Kentucky sit atop most preseason rankings, but after that, there is Kansas, Maryland, and Duke. Are any of these teams really powerhouses? Each have their flaws, and it will be interesting to see how this season shakes out.
- The SEC should be much improved as a league. LSU, Vanderbilt., and Texas A&M seem to be the biggest contenders along with Kentucky. Can guys like Ben Simmons and Malik Newman make noise for the conference?
- It looks as if Ben Simmons and Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer are getting the most love as preseason All American Choices and Player of the Year Candidates. But don't count out our tremendous trio of Ulis, Skal, and Murray. I think they are being undervalued and they will be in the mix for the postseason honors.
- How will the new rule changes affect the game? I think the shot clock will be negligible, but if the officials call the freedom of movement like they are supposed to, then look for lock-downs on hand-checking and illegal screens on offense. I watched the Louisville Cardinals play in their exhibitions, and the masters of the slap/grab defense are already having issues with this. The freedom of moment rules were implemented three seasons ago but didn't stick. If they do, look for Ulis, Briscoe, and Murray to feast on defenders.