The Greatest Day Ever

How you doin'?

Today marks the real beginning of the NCAA Tournament and one of my favorite days all year. The upsets, the overtimes, the buzzer-beaters, the Cinderellas… It all starts today.

Here what I’ll be watching:

6 Murray St. vs. 11 Colorado St.
Are the Racers for real or have they been the benefactors of a dreadful schedule? Has Colorado State been “tested” against a tough MWC schedule or are they as mediocre as their record would indicate? We’ll get the answers today and hopefully see Isaiah Cannon put on a show.

Early Exit Artists
Will the Louisville Cardinals and Vanderbilt Commodores continue their trend of high seeds and early exits? Logic tells you that with Louisville being the Big East tournament champs and Vanderbilt taking the SEC tournament title over #1 Kentucky this should be a no-brainer. My gut still tells me to trust neither win as a given against tough first round opponents.

Is Kentucky Still Kentucky?
After steam-rolling through the regular season, the Wildcats looked anything but dominant in the SEC tournament. Was that a result of a lack of motivation or a sign of regression? We might not get a full answer against an over-matched WKU squad, but it will be interesting to see if the Cats start strong.

There’s just no equivalent to the excitement of knowing you’re going to see so many games that mean so much for each team’s players, coaches, and fans. It’s the NFL playoffs turned up to 11. It’s the NBA playoffs, if the players cared. It’s March Madness and it knows no peer.

2011-12 College Basketball Preview Series – Kentucky Wildcats

[EJSIC is previewing several college basketball teams. Check out our Duke, Memphis, and Kansas previews.]

The 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats already have a lot to live up to. They’ve been billed as a Final Four lock, a top 2 team, and perhaps John Calipari’s best shot at a title. No pressure, though…

Last season’s results:
29-9
SEC Tournament Champions
NCAA Tournament East Regional Champions
Lost 56-55 to UCONN in the Final Four

Key departures:
Brandon Knight (35.9 mpg, 17.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 38% 3PT)
DeAndre Liggins (31.6 mpg, 8.6 ppg, 2.5 apg, 39% 3PT)
Josh Harrelson (28.5 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 61% FG%)

Key returnees:
Terrence Jones (31.5 mpg, 15.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg)
Doron Lamb (28.4 mpg, 12.4 ppg, 49% 3PT)
Darius Miller (31 mpg, 10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg 44% 3PT)

Notable non-conference matchups:
Kansas (at MSG)
St. John’s
UNC
Louisville

New Faces

As has become the norm at UK under John Calipari, the Wildcats will look to replace last year’s crop of NBA draft picks with another class of highly touted freshmen. Kentucky’s group of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer has been rated as the #1 class in the country by most services, giving Calipari his third straight class with that distinction.

Fear the Unibrow.

Anthony Davis has been billed as the possible #1 pick in next year’s NBA draft, with his game being compared to Kevin Garnett and Marcus Camby. Davis can thank an unusual growth spurt for his meteoric rise to the top. The lanky forward has grown an astonishing 7 inches since his junior year of high school, and has transformed from an also-ran guard into a one-in-a-million big man. Davis’ combination of center size and guard skills are likely unmatched on the college level.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has the distinction of being one of the few highly rated recruits in this year’s class that is as relentless on defense as he is on offense. The do-everything forward should pick up right where DeAndre Liggins left off, as the Wildcats’ go-to defensive stopper. He’s the type of player that may seem to fade into the background a bit during the course of a game, only to flirt with a triple double by the time it’s over.

Marquis Teague has the ability to drive to the basket at will. The 6′ 2″ point guard’s speed has been compared to that of John Wall. While he’s much more raw than Wall or Knight at this stage, he has all the physical tools to be successful in John Calipari’s system.

Kyle Wiltjer is a true throw-back. While most highly touted recruits have their games compared to one-and-dones, the 6’9″ Wiltjer has had his game compared to Kevin McHale. The versatile forward is an anomaly in Calipari’s recruiting history in that he’s more known for his highly polished skill set than his athletic prowess. It will be interesting to see how his offensive range is utilized in a system predicated on driving to the basket.

The Right Mix

Highly rated rookies are nothing new for John Calipari. What separates this team from the previous two is the blend of diaper dandies and grown mandies (Hey, it rhymed). The Wildcats returning core of Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and senior Darius Miller should mesh well with this year’s freshmen.

Miller’s practice battles with Kidd-Gilchrist have already become the stuff of legend around the Bluegrass. These two should push each other for a starting spot all season long, with both seeing comparable minutes.

Terrence Jones has been a force of nature thus far.

We may also be witnessing the metamorphosis of Terrence Jones. I’ll admit that I was among those who wouldn’t have been sad to see the often erratic forward head off to the greener pastures of the NBA. His poor shot selection and inability to finish around the rim were a source of frustration for Cat fans last season. What we’ve seen so far has been nothing short of a complete transformation. Gone is the awkward kid who was as happy with a fade-away as a flush and in his place is a “man on a mission”. Jones has been aggressive and accurate thus far, pouring in 53 points and 16 rebounds in the annual Blue/White scrimmage.

The Wildcats’ combination of perimeter scorers, interior finishers, speed, and versatility should be unmatched outside of Chapel Hill this season.

Where’s the D?

The biggest question mark with this team appears to be whether or not they can mesh their parts into a defensive unit on par with their offensive ability. While the potential is obviously there, we’ve yet to see the intensity without the ball that has become a trademark of Calipari’s teams.

The Wildcats do have a great overall defender in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a phenomenal shot-blocker in Anthony Davis. It will be interesting to see who else steps up to give this team a chance to be truly special.

Alone On Point

Marquis Teague is currently the only eligible scholarship point guard on Kentucky’s roster. Mississippi State transfer Twany Beckham will not be eligible until the second semester and former NC State guard Ryan Harrow will not be available until next season.

Should Teague run into problems early, Doron Lamb will be called upon to move from his natural position of shooting guard to run the offense. While Lamb is definitely capable, he has shown weaknesses in the ballhandling and turnover departments.

It will be interesting to see if a lack of depth at the 1 spot causes the Wildcats problems early.

Predictions

This team truly has no ceiling in terms of success. Their unique combination of talent and experience should be enough for a return trip to the Final Four and beyond.

27-3, 14-2 (SEC)
SEC Regular Season and Tournament Champs
NCAA: 1 seed, advancing to the Final Four and Championship Game

SEC Tournament: Day 1

Opening Day Report from Nashville

Well folks, day 1 is in the books, and quite frankly, it couldn’t come soon enough for the conference. The games today were, um…….ugly. To say the least. To be fair, only 2 of the 8  teams to play on Thursday have any shot at playing in the NCAA tournament, but this was not a good commercial for the conference.

The day started off with a bang, as South Carolina exploded out to an 18 point lead. The media was stoked. Downey/UK part 3 headlines were being written all along media row. But then something happened: South Carolina decided not to play the final 13 minutes, and ended up losing an ugly game by 5, 68-63.

What followed was a game that I don’t think anyone thinks was enjoyable, as Tennessee toyed around with LSU just enough to give their fans a bit of hope, before finally putting them away, 59-49.

The night session began with a Florida/Auburn matchup that pitted a team desperate for a win to increase their NCAA tournament chances, against a coach desperate for a win to save his job. Somehow, this game was close throughout, despite Florida outplaying the Tigers for the vast majority of the game. The scrappy Tigers kept clawing back from multiple 10+ point deficits, led by the excellent play of Frankie Sullivan. But it was no use, as Florida proved to be too much behind Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus, both of which recorded more than 20 points in Florida’s 78-69 victory.

The nightcap was nothing to write home about. Both Georgia and Arkansas were extremely athletic, but not very skilled or disciplined. I left at half time to enjoy some of the finer things in life, but I’ll get to that later.

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