The countdown for the Big Blue Bahamas Tour for the Kentucky Wildcats Basketball team continues and already tidbits are leaking from the practices that have been opened for the media. Hopes are high for a ninth national title and the adage is that “defense wins championships”. It should come as a good omen that this team takes defense very seriously, according to Kyle Tucker.
* On a related note, Kentucky looks like it will be an unholy terror on defense. The combination of length and a bunch of aggressive guys who appear to take great pride in it – there was lots of wild clapping and cheering among themselves after stops – will make these Cats hard to score against. On both ends, the team looks unusually cohesive, especially in the Calipari era of perpetually young teams, at this early stage. It’s easy to see they’ll be light years ahead of last year’s team when this season starts.
* Sophomore forward Marcus Lee is still skinny, but he’s added some serious muscle – and an awesome mohawk – while still playing way, way, way above the rim. The way he gets up and throws it down looks too easy. Lee looks like the guy we saw in that breakout performance against Michigan in the Elite Eight. CBS’ Jon Rothstein predicted after watching a recent UK practice that Lee will start. I’m not there yet, but maybe.
That was Tucker’s main takeaway from Day #1 of practice. Tucker was back at yesterday’s practice, along with ESPN analyst Dino Gaudio. Gaudio noticed a lot of difference with this team from other UK practices in the past. There is a new intensity, a new focus, and apparentlyy much more consistent and prepared Harrison twins.
“I can remember the year they lost to Robert Morris (2012-13), watching those guys practice, and the team had like seven scholarship guys. No disrespect to the walk-ons at all, but in practice there was no competition ,” Gaudio said, “and (Calipari) had no leverage, for lack of a better word, with that team and those players. Well now, if guys aren’t playing hard, ‘Sit down.’ So I think he has a lot of diversity and a lot of options, but also think he has a lot of leverage, too.”
Another significant difference – perhaps the most significant – as noted in yesterday’s practice notes: twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison have made major strides since their rollercoaster freshman season. Both looked in command again today and the team looked far more in sync than most would on Aug. 5.
“It’s because of the guards,” Gaudio said. “When you have a maturity back there, even that one more year, it’s night and day. Last year at this time when they were practicing, I think there was a little bit of immaturity with the twins. You know what, and this is so important when you’re coaching talented young guys: They really don’t start listening until they get humbled.”
I don’t make too many predictions on this site, but I will make a bold prediction that this years Wildcat team will make ESPN’s Chad Ford look very silly. You can question the point of having a mock draft in August, but I question even more the devaluing he has done on Kentucky’s returning players in his latest mock draft.
Ford has Karl Towns listed at #4 overall and here is what he has to say:
Marcus Smart, Evan Turner, James Young and Joel Anthony aren’t likely to increase the Celtics’ win total too much this season. The good news for Celtics fans is that this might be the year they finally get a big to build around. Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller are nice, but Towns has much more potential. He’s huge, highly skilled and can stretch the floor. The biggest question mark around Towns will be how much playing time he gets on a loaded Kentucky team. If he gets minutes, he’ll likely go very high in the draft.
Aside from Towns, Kentucky’s returning players seem a bit disrespected. Willie Cauley-Stein is tabbed at #13, with Andrew Harrison at #26 and Trey Lyles at #29.
I’d love for Ford to be right as that means a whole lot of players returning for next year, but I just don’t see it.