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Kentucky Basketball: The Yin And Yang of the 2014 Wildcats

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There are a lot of things to love about this season's Kentucky team, but they have some challenges as well.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Just how strong is this Kentucky Wildcats basketball team? What are their weaknesses? Who can beat them? Inquiring minds want to know, and praises are coming from all corners of the Internet. The latest piece is from SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell, and a very fine article it is. As we’ve seen so often in the sports media, Ricky frets about the plethora of talent that Kentucky brings into the season:

It won’t be easy, and Calipari is admitting as much with talk of two true platoon units. It sounds good in theory, but how long will it last? Kentucky’s real problem is that it has too many power forwards and centers and not enough help on the wing. That’s why Alex Poythress, who qualifies as an elder statesman as a junior, is likely to shift to small forward this season even if he’s more comfortable playing the four. The sheer amount of talent here is undeniable, but it’s not exactly evenly dispersed throughout the roster.

I don’t blame Ricky for seeing it this way, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Kentucky has plenty of people for every position, although one of our most prototypical small forwards (Derek Willis) is unlikely to see a lot of playing time. What Kentucky really lacks is small forwards as Ricky says, but Trey Lyles has shown the ability to do most small forward things, Poythress seems comfortable enough at the spot (and needs the reps there anyway), and we’ve seen lineups where Devin Booker has manned the 3-spot. I don’t see this with as much concern as Ricky seems to, but to be fair about it, because Kentucky fan.

Then there is this observation:

Tyler Ulis isn’t the best Kentucky freshman this season as part of a four-man class of named McDonald’s All-Americans, but he might be the most important. The 5‘9 point guard from the suburbs of Chicago could shift the Harrisons to shooting guard and small forward, respectively, to add some depth on the wing and give Kentucky a point guard adept at controlling the tempo. Ulis looked great in Kentucky’s four-game exhibition slate in the Bahamas and could be the perfect facilitator to keep so many good players involved.

I suppose this is so, but the reality is, we aren’t going to move Andrew Harrison off the ball. It’s just not going to happen. He’s not comfortable at that spot, and when Ulis comes in, it’s going to be in relief of Harrison, not to move him to the off guard. If we need another person at that spot, Booker would probably be more suitable.

I found this very interesting:

To put the talent level here in perspective: Kentucky has nine McDonald’s All-Americans. The Big 12 has seven. The Big Ten has six. It’s a roster that includes possibly the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, and he wasn’t even mentioned in this intro. The Wildcats are loaded. Will the Bahamas trip help them hit the ground running? How will Cal manage the lineup when they’re losing? There are lots of questions here, but there’s no doubting this is the most stacked team in the nation.

Look, Kentucky is going to miss Randle's relentless rebounding, and no mistake.

That is perspective for you. Kentucky is clearly the most talented team in America, but not by miles. Duke and Arizona certainly have nice players and McDonalds’ All-Americans. Still, this is a major concentration of talent, and it can virtually field two high-quality teams rather than just one, which is really what the platoon system Coach Cal has been running is all about. How long it will last is currently unclear, but until Kentucky is seriously challenged, I doubt it will change much at all, barring injury. But challenged they will be, soon enough.

I’m not quite sure I agree with this:

Julius Randle is gone, but Kentucky will barely miss him. Cauley-Stein and Johnson are both way too big for opposing centers – it’s likely the best competition they face all season is when they play each other in practice. Lee is a pogostick who can jump out of the gym for rebounds and dunks. Lyles draws comparisons to Carlos Boozer – not the rundown current version, but the player who was twice an Olympian. [my emphasis]

Look, Kentucky is going to miss Randle’s relentless rebounding, and no mistake. Dakari Johnson will replace some of it, but Randle was special and Kentucky is not likely to be a top-two team in offensive rebounding rate this season. We’ll probably be up there, for sure, but not like we would be with even the freshman version of Julius Randle around. He was a special talent, and we don’t have anyone like him on the roster.

That showed up in the Big Blue Bahamas, if you’ll recall. UK had trouble keeping their OR% high, and a lot of that was due to the absence of a Randle-type player. You do not "barely miss" a player like that, trust me.

The only concern is how much playing time he’ll get in this rotation. Playing Towns 22 minutes a game is a crime against basketball, but that’s what happens with so much other talent here. Cal knew what he was doing by coaching his Dominican Republic team when Towns was in high school.

I get this, but I think Towns will get plenty of time, and this is a basketball team with a lot of mouths to feed when it comes to minutes. Towns will be able to perform better, be fresher, and showcase his talent at a high level. If he were on some other team for 35 minutes a game, we’d get to see a lot more of him grabbing his shorts and huffing air from all the time and attention.

Kentucky’s players have to learn how to play this game in seven-minute spurts, and quite honestly, it’s a great way to play the college game. You are fresh, your legs are ready, and you can play as hard as you can without fear of getting too tired. I think it may wind up being a benefit rather than a negative, but we’ll have to wait and see.

What happens to Poythress will interesting to monitor, as well. Poythress is a huge athlete with the potential to turn into a great wing stopper at the next level. On this Kentucky team, though, he might struggle to find his fit. Kentucky needs him at the small forward spot, but he made only eight three-pointers last season. The Wildcats will need to stretch defenses with shooting, or teams will put every defender in the paint against them. Freshman Devin Booker might help there too, but will he be ready to contribute right off the bat?

It will be interesting to see how Poythress does at the three. He has showed signs of an improved jump shot this season, and he hasn’t been reluctant to put it up. Where we most have to worry about Alex is handling the ball, but so far against smaller teams who should be able to give him trouble, he’s handling it well.

I think this is a very fine point also:

Despite posting the No. 10 offense, Kentucky still shot only 33.2 percent from three-point range. It might be the Wildcats’ only concern offensively, but it’s still a valid one. Kentucky will have too much talent for most teams during the regular season, but what happens when the ‘Cats are playing the other top teams in the tournament? Shooting from deep will be imperative, and Aaron Harrison, Ulis and Booker will be counted on to help.

Three-point shooting is the apparent weakness of this team, and Ricky is spot on with his observation. If UK can’t make at least 35% of their threes, teams are going to pack-line and zone them to death. Teams are also going to try to out-physical Kentucky, because other than Dakari Johnson, the Wildcats haven’t shown the kind of physical presence that Randle brought to the party last season. We saw some of that in the Big Blue Bahamas, so Kentucky has to get a lot tougher there.

One thing he doesn’t mention is turnovers. Kentucky was not awful at ballhandling last season, but 18% turnovers is not great. Compare that to Louisville, who had only 15.3% turnovers Wisconsin at 12.7%, and Michigan at 14.8%, just to name a few. Andrew turned the ball over 23.6% of possessions, and assisted only on 23.8%. That’s out of whack by quite a bit. Kentucky as a team only had a couple of guys in the main rotation under 15% turnovers. That needs to get better, and I think (hope) it will.

Another potential worry is free throw shooting. UK only managed a very pedestrian 68% last season, and I don’t think this year’s team is going to substantially improve on that, particularly from the bigs. Dakari has shown some improvement, but Willie hasn’t yet. Marcus Lee has also been less than impressive from the line so far. It will get better, probably, but it’s a minor concern.

There is certainly good reason to think this Kentucky team will be the best team in college basketball this season, and there is even some reason to rationally think they can be one of the best college teams ever, or at least in recent history. That’s a load of positives, but it doesn’t come without the potential for giving other teams hope.