The new college hoops season is finally here.
Before the Kentucky Wildcats open their season with Stephen F. Austin, we gathered our staff for their thoughts on the upcoming season, what to expect, and some predictions for how far these Cats make it into March, and possibly April.
I am extremely excited about this upcoming season. John Calipari's latest team has the feel of being special once again, much like in hi first year, in 2012, and in 2015. The talent is as rich as it ever has been and Cal will run about 8 or 9 players deep. With the defensive pressure of the back-court and the athleticism of the front-court, Cal could have one of his best defensive teams. Ever.
I'll break the games down into 5 game pods for my predictions. So here it goes:
Pod 1: vs. Stephen F. Austin, vs. Canisius, vs. Michigan State (neutral floor), vs. Duquesne, vs. Cleveland State - Stephen F. Austin is a tournament team from last season, but Kentucky's talent shouldn't be phased by that. The game that stands out here is the one vs. the Spartans in only the third game of the season.
Denzel Valentine is gone, but Tom Izzo is bringing in a talented bunch and players from his best recruiting class. The question is, can Izzo get youngsters to respond like Calipari? And don't forget, Sparty was one and done in the tournament after being a national title favorite. I am giving the edge to Kentucky here because I believe in Cal's freshmen and his ability to coach them over Izzo's. 5-0 to start the season.
Pod 2: vs. UT Martin, vs. Arizona State (neutral floor), vs. UCLA, vs. Valparaiso, vs. Hofstra (neutral floor) - The two biggies in this pod are Arizona State, which will be played in the Bahamas, and UCLA, which will be played in Rupp. I think UK goes 2-0 in those games. They will be far superior to Arizona State and they will owe UCLA some payback after a loss last season in LA. They again go 5-0.
Pod 3: vs. North Carolina (neutral floor), at Louisville, at Ole Miss, vs. Texas A&M, vs. Arkansas - I think this is the most difficult stretch of the season for a few reasons: I think North Carolina will be their toughest test to this point, playing at Louisville will be the first true road game, and that will be followed by their first SEC road game of the season. I will say they will drop their game against North Carolina but will win the rest.
Louisville will hang around for a while, but the depth and the talent of Kentucky will overwhelm the Cards in the end. They won't have the horses to hang. Playing at Ole Miss is always tough for some reason, so I expect that to be close. The SEC games at home won't be too much trouble but look for a battle from A&M. 4-1
Pod 4: at Vanderbilt, vs. Auburn, at Mississippi State, vs. South Carolina, at Tennessee - I would usually mark a young team's visit to Vandy for the first time as a loss, but the Commodores are going to be really bad this season. Games at Mississippi State and Tennessee will be tough, but I think the 'Cats survive. Auburn and South Carolina won't stand a chance in Rupp. 5-0
Pod 5: vs. Kansas, vs. Georgia, at Florida, vs. Arizona, at Alabama - Kansas is the marquee game here. The 'Cats left Kansas with a bad taste in their mouths after some questionable calls down the stretch and Wayne Selden's freak performance. It's time for revenge. I think the 'Cats not only beat the Jayhawks in Rupp, I think they will maul them. But then I think they will go down to Gainesville two games later and lose on the road. And I also think Alabama will be a close call. Maybe a win in OT. 4-1
Pod 6: vs. Tennessee, at Georgia, at Missouri, vs. Florida, vs. Vanderbilt, at Texas A&M - Games at A&M and at Georgia stand out to me, but I think Kentucky will be humming at this point and will be gearing up for tournament mode. A loss at Florida and a close call at Alabama will be what the team will need to get their focus on the rest of the season heading into the postseason. 5-0
So 28-2 is my bet guess for the regular season. Sure, they may drop one or two more than that, but this is going to be an excellent basketball team. They will not lose more than five games. I know they are young but they are uber-talented and they do have experience despite what some of the experts think.
Something that is really being undersold about this team is their depth. They are as deep at every position than any team in the country and may be (gasp) Cal's deepest team ever. Yes, deeper than the platoon team.
So enjoy the ride, and don't forget to tune in to ESPN 680 AM in Louisville after every game to hear my takes on the games as soon as the buzzer sounds. Lachlan McLean and I are really looking forward to the shows and the calls this season. Sorry, but I had to throw in a shameless plug.
There's one thing that can be said about Kentucky this season: If you haven't set your DVR to watch De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk play on a nightly basis, you're doing college basketball wrong this season.
Where does this team rank in terms of hype and expectations? Like any other team coached by John Calipari: Title or bust.
Is it unfair? To a degree, yeah ... but that's why these young men come to Lexington year in and year out. Between the exposure (games against Michigan State, UCLA, Arizona State in the Bahamas, Louisville, North Carolina and Kansas this season) and the challenge of playing in front of the most passionate fans in America, there's not much like playing for the Wildcats.
So, what do I expect from this team? Another SEC title sweep (only this time, they take the regular season title outright) and a Final Four berth. Before last season's Round of 32 loss, Kentucky had been to four of the last five Final Fours.
It's not to say that they're due, but ... well, you get it. This team is probably the most talented in America not named Duke. If they're healthy, they're heading to Phoenix.
To me, the only thing standing between this Kentucky team and the Final Four are injuries. If this team just stays healthy throughout the season, they should make it to at least the Final Four with as much talent, depth and veteran leadership to go with the great chemistry they’ve already developed.
You wouldn’t think this is a team with five freshman in the top 7-8 of the rotation as well as they’ve played together thus far, and I just can’t see this group not making it to Phoenix.
The biggest reason why is defense. De’Aaron Fox has the potential to be one of the best defensive point guards in college hoops, while Isaiah Briscoe may be the best overall backcourt defender. He has all the tools to guard most point and shooting guards, not to mention a lot of wings.
And after not having much of a frontcourt last year, UK now has a 3-5 legit bigs who will contribute this season, the biggest of which being Bam Adebayo. He already looks and plays like an NBA center, and I’d take him against any college big right now.
I also expect Wenyen Gabriel to be playing at an all-conference level by the middle of SEC play. He has too much talent to not become a star on this team and be a big-time contributor by the time March Madness arrives.
And with the senior leadership of Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins, they’ll help keep the young Cats focused on the task at hand and keep them in line.
As for the supposed ‘weakness’ of this team, three-point shooting is not as big of an issue as it’s made out to be. Derek Willis will help ensure that, Mychal Mulder has shown he can make an impact there as well. Even Isaiah Briscoe has shown improvement there, and I anticipate both Fox and Malik Monk to be decent shooters by March.
As for how I see the season playing out, I think UK suffers two non-conference losses (North Carolina, Kansas or Louisville), then suffer three losses in conference play, win the SEC regular-season and tournament championship, and enter the NCAA Tournament with around 29 wins, enough to earn them a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
The Cats then make a four-game run to earn UK its fifth Final Four berth under John Calipari. From there, it’s effectively a toss-up as to who wins it all, but I like UK’s chances if everything goes according to plan.
There’s just too much potential and desire to harness said potential on this team for them to not make it to within striking distance of their ultimate goal.
I think this version of Cal’s ‘Cats is going to look a lot like the 2010 Elite Eight team that was probably one of the 3 best teams in America.
The 2010 backcourt consisted of John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, and DeAndre Liggins…. Look at this year’s group of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Isaiah Briscoe and I think this season’s squad has the edge. While Fox is not John Wall, he is the closest thing we have seen to him. Monk and Briscoe are both upgrades over their 2010 counterparts.
The 2010 frontcourt consisted of Darius Miller, Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins, Ramon Harris, and Daniel Orton. Like the backcourt, Bam Adebayo is unlikely to meet Boogie level talent, but he is going to be our best true POWER forward to lead the group.
With Isaac Humphries complementing Bam, it will be a nice formidable duo.Throw in Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel as players the likes of the 2010 team did not have the luxury of having and I think this year’s front court is also better than 2010’s.
The real x-factor is going to come in Derek Willis being able to take on that leadership role that Patterson did while being a constant of production. If Willis accomplishes that, I think the ‘Cats are a favorite for the title.
1) We are going to steal the ball A LOT. I expect some steals records to be broken; both single game and season and possibly on a national level, not just school records. This team is amazingly quick and seems to LOVE stealing the ball more than any team we have seen.
2) Regarding non-conference games, I think UK’s biggest challenges will be against Michigan State in New York, North Carolina in Vegas, and Kansas at Rupp. I know we go to the Yum Center, but I think UL ends up a team closer to #25 in America than #1. 2 losses max non-conference
3) Regarding Conference Games, UK’s biggest chance to get taken down will come in Athens, and in College Station. Georgia is going to be good and A&M is going to be an improving team that we get late in the year. 2 losses max in-conference, SEC Regular season champs
4) I think this will be another final four year for Coach Cal and as we all know, once you get there anything can happen. I do think you will see UK as one of the top 3 consensus teams though.
5) Player with the least hype that will surprise: Wenyen Gabriel, once the lights come on, he’s going to be a nightmare matchup and be a key player in several wins
6) Somehow underrated: De’Aaron Fox, maybe it’s that we just lost Tyler Ulis, but for some reason Fox is not getting the national recognition I think he should. Fox is going to Wall-esque in his stat stuffing ability and will quietly take over games and we’ll look up and he’ll have 18 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds and 3 steals.
Overall: this team has a chance to be second only to 2012 in terms of skill, ability, and total package. This squad has the best young talent in the game, and they have upper class leaders in Willis and Hawkins, with a returning Briscoe as well.
The *formula* for a National Championship team is there, and I think it’s better than 50/50 it happens.