Stock Watch SEC: Kentucky chasing perfection; Ole Miss falling back
Over the next few weeks, One and One will highlight two teams from each conference — one riding a positive trajectory heading into the 2013-14 season (stock up) and one headed for a decline (stock down). The unpredictability of college basketball could force a reassessment of these projections at some point over the next few months, but whether our analysis is prescient or misguided, watching the following teams perform in the upcoming season should be fascinating.
Stock up: Kentucky
Forecasting AP No. 1 Kentucky’s upcoming season is not easy. Some believe the Wildcats will be one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled. Others are less optimistic. A third group believes it will fall drastically short of expectations. At least one thing seems virtually guaranteed: Kentucky’s 2013-14 season will not end inside a 3,000-seat arena in Moon Township, Penn.
That’s where the 2012-13 Wildcats, who lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the National Invitational tournament after winning 21 games and failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament, played their final game. It was a huge disappointment by Kentucky’s standards; given the high school talent John Calipari typically recruits to Lexington, Kentucky making the tournament felt like a formality before last season. Failing to do so this season will be an even bigger disappointment, because the expectations for the Wildcats are arguably higher than they’ve ever been since Calipari became head coach in 2009.
The biggest reason for this is obvious: Kentucky’s recruiting class is, to put it simply, insane. It features six of the class of 2013’s top 20 players and five of the top twelve, according to Rivals. It counts six McDonald’s All-Americans, and three players ranked No. 1 at their respective positions. It is considered by many observers the best recruiting class of all-time – and that holds true despite the fact the player ranked No. 1 overall in 2013, small forward Andrew Wiggins, signed with Kansas.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of this collection of freshmen talent, but if it can even come close to playing at the level Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer did in 2011-12 while leading the Wildcats to a national championship, Big Blue Nation should be satisfied with the results.
For some, anything short of an undefeated season — something that hasn’t been accomplished since Indiana went unbeaten in 1975-76 — will feel like Kentucky left something on the table. Calipari didn’t shy away from talk of perfection at Kentucky’s media day in October. “For eight years I’ve said that before I retire I’d like to coach a team that goes 40-0,” he said. “Will that happen? I don’t know.”
While Calipari didn’t say 40-0 was the expectation for the Wildcats this season, he didn’t dismiss the possibility, either. The undefeated talk is probably a little premature, but it shouldn’t be written off completely.
Not only do the Wildcats welcome in arguably the greatest recruiting class ever, they bring back two talented sophomores — center Willie Cauley-Stein and forward Alex Poythress — who played significant minutes last season and should help provide the experience the 2012-13 team lacked. On second thought, “experience” might not be the best word choice; Cauley-Stein and Poythress are only sophomores. But they have at least gone through a full season of college basketball, one that saw the Wildcats fall well short of their preseason expectations.
The lessons learned during that disappointing 2012-13 campaign should allow Poythress and Cauley-Stein to provide their teammates with some helpful advice. Then again, these freshmen are so talented they might not need it.
Power forward Julius Randle, point guard Andrew Harrison, shooting guard Aaron Harrison, small forward James Young and center Dakari Johnson should see the most playing time among (eight) Kentucky freshmen this season. Within that group, Randle — who many consider the biggest threat to unseat Wiggins as the potential number one pick in the 2014 NBA draft — is expected to make the biggest impact. Andrew Harrison, meanwhile, is a big, strong, athletic backcourt presence (6-6, 215 pounds), the prototype play-starter for Calipari’s dribble-drive motion offense. Young has drawn rave reviews from NBA scouts. And Johnson and power forward Marcus Lee, along with Cauley-Stein, should help the Wildcats’ defense, which slipped last season, bounce back to the elite standard set by Calipari’s teams in recent seasons.
One of the biggest reasons Calipari has been so successful at Kentucky is his ability to convince highly-touted freshmen to play selfless, team-oriented basketball. The Wildcats’ 2011-12 national title team is a perfect example. If Calipari can get this year’s freshmen to buy in, to set aside the individual spotlight and defer to teammates, a national championship seems like a distinct possibility.
That said, avoiding every possible pitfall along the way and finishing undefeated may be a bit of a stretch. Winning a national championship is hard. Going 40-0 is really, really hard.
Stock down: Ole Miss
There were few teams more exciting to watch last season than Ole Miss. There is a simple explanation for this: Marshall Henderson.
The senior shooting guard’s colorful personality and volatile on-court demeanor — two of Henderson’s most notable moments were his jersey-popping celebration at Auburn and his decision to flip off the crowd at the Sprint Center in Kansas City after Ole Miss’s Round of 32 loss to La Salle in the NCAA tournament — made the Rebels appointment viewing. Henderson was also fun to watch because he helped Ole Miss, a team that hadn’t won more than nine games in SEC play in over a decade, win 12 conference games and 27 games overall en route to the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2002.
That success undoubtedly played into the school’s decision to offer coach Andy Kennedy, whose job security felt shaky at times during the 2012-13 season, a four-year contract extension in the offseason. Predicting a similar level of achievement from the Rebels in 2013-14, however, seems unwise.
Henderson returns, but must sit out an exhibition and three regular season games, including two SEC conference games, as part of punishment for misconduct during last season’s SEC and NCAA tournaments and the offseason. And who’s to say Henderson can make it through the season without another transgression?
The trepidation about a potential relapse is one issue. Another is the loss of three key seniors — forwards Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway and guard Nick Williams — who combined to average 32 points and 20 rebounds per game last season. The Rebels could use shot-blocker Aaron Jones, who missed part of 2012-13 after tearing his ACL in January, and Madrid native Sebastian Saiz to fill the frontcourt void left by Holloway and Buckner. Sophomore Anthony Perez, freshman Dwight Coleby and junior Demarco Cox are other frontcourt options.
In the backcourt, the Rebels could pair the volume-scoring Henderson — he led the SEC in scoring at 20.1 points per game last season while using 27.9 percent of available possessions and taking 31.6 percent of available shots, one of the 50 highest percentages in the country, according to Kenpom.com – with guards Ladarius White and Jarvis Summers, both of whom averaged more than 20 minutes per game in 2012-13. Sophomore Derrick Millinghaus and freshman Jerron Martin are two talented guards who could get plenty of playing time off the bench.
Even with Henderson back, Ole Miss looks like a longshot to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. Other SEC teams that finished below the Rebels in the league standings last season — including Tennessee and LSU — look better suited to challenge Florida and Kentucky’s presumed stranglehold on the conference championship race.
Thanks to its polarizing, high-scoring shooting guard, Ole Miss should be fun to watch again this season, but the complementary players it brings back around Henderson aren’t as good as last year’s cast. That should result in Ole Miss winning fewer games and falling short of a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth.