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The Powerful UK Wildcats

We are still in the first full week of the College Basketball season and it is easy to overreact one way or another. But there are times when something really big happens and causes everyone to freak out.

Welcome to today.

On Tuesday, the No. 1 Univeristy of Kentucky Wildcats absolutely manhandled the No. 5 University of Kansas Jayhawks. Actually, “manhandled” might not do enough justice to what happened Tuesday evening. UK won by a score of 72-40, which would be enough reason to be impressed. However, UK allowed just 12 second half points to the Jayhawks.

12 second half points.

John Calipari‘s Wildcats looked sensational, they looked like the best team in college basketball in years. Though it is just the third week of November, they looked to be in mid-season form. But I suppose when you have enough guys on your team to have two legit rotations of starters, you have the ability to be great.

Watching that game brought a question to my mind – how in the world are we supposed to downplay our enthusiasm and expectations for UK now?

All the talk this offseason has been about just how dominant this UK team would be – how loaded they were and whether or not they would go undefeated. At that time, it was just that – all talk. Many of us heard the possibilities and just dismissed them, after all didn’t we hear the same things about UK just a few years ago?

Then the Kansas game happened and it gave a bit of legitimacy to this team. It is safe to say that the assumption of many was that UK would defeat Kansas, but it was the way in which they won that caused many to pause and take a second look at this team.

So what is it about these UK Wildcats that has so many people frothing at the mouth?

Depth

Just for the heck of it, let’s take a look at the UK roster before anything else:

No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Cl. Hometown (Last School)
00 Marcus Lee Forward 6-9 220 SO Antioch, Calif. (Deer Valley)
1 Devin Booker Guard 6-6 206 FR Grand Rapids, Mich. (Moss Point)
2 Aaron Harrison Guard 6-6 212 SO Richmond, Texas (Travis)
3 Tyler Ulis Guard 5-9 155 FR Lima, Ohio (Marian Catholic)
5 Andrew Harrison Guard 6-6 210 SO Richmond, Texas (Travis)
12 Karl-Anthony Towns Forward 6-11 250 FR Piscataway, N.J. (St. Joseph)
13 Sam Malone Guard 5-11 185 SR Scituate, Mass. (Scituate)
15 Willie Cauley-Stein Forward 7-0 240 JR Olathe, Kan. (Northwest)
21 Tod Lanter Guard 6-2 190 SR Lexington, Ky. (Gulf Coast State CC)
22 Alex Poythress Forward 6-8 238 JR Clarksville, Tenn. (Northeast)
24 EJ Floreal Guard 6-4 200 SO Palo Alto, Calif. (Dunbar)
25 Dominique Hawkins Guard 6-0 195 SO Richmond, Ky. (Madison Central)
32 Brian Long Guard 5-9 155 SR Dumont, N.J. (River Dell)
35 Derek Willis Forward 6-9 216 SO Mt. Washington, Ky. (Bullitt East)
41 Trey Lyles Forward 6-10 235 FR Indianapolis, Ind. (Arsenal Tech)
44 Dakari Johnson Center 7-0 255 SO Brooklyn, N.Y. (Montverde Academy)

That is one insanely deep roster. It has been said before, but there are two legitimate starting five squads on this roster. John Calipari has discussed possible rotations with his team, but it is apparent that this team is loaded with talent.

University of Kentucky Wildcats Basketball Andrew Harrison

Pat Lovell, USA TODAY Sports

For many teams, fatigue is a huge factor. When your best players are tired and need rest, teams often experience a loss in production. For UK, that is not the case. Because of their depth, fatigue is less of an issue for Calipari than other coaches. Coach Cal can rotate players in and out to keep his guys healthy for the game as well as the season. Having such a rotation keeps legs fresh, allowing Calipari to continue pushing the pace of the game.

This team’s depth doesn’t just help against fatigue, it also helps with fouls. UK has six big men that are NBA-caliber players. If one or two of those players find themselves in foul trouble, there are four more right behind them ready to come in and produce. And as we saw Tuesday night, they are all capable of impacting a game.

Looking at the statistics, one thing stands out the most – only two players (Cauley-Stein and Johnson) have played more than 25 minutes in any of the first three games, and that happened just once (both played 26 minutes against Buffalo). This is perhaps the greatest aspect of this team’s depth – they are not forced to rely on the talents of one player. So many teams are forced to ride the success of their budding stars – and when those stars struggle, so does the team. For UK, their depth takes that pressure off of any one individual.

On Tuesday, Dakari Johnson led the team with 11 points and Andrew Harrison followed up with nine.

Against BuffaloTrey Lyles and Tyler Ulis led the team with 12 points each.

And against Grand Canyon, Harrison led the way with 16 points, Lyles had 14 and Willie Cauley-Stein had 12.

But the fascination of the “team” aspect on the court goes beyond the stats of the highest scorers.

Against Kansas, 12 different Wildcats scored.

Against Buffalo, all 10 players who played in the game scored.

Against Grand Canyon, 10 different players scored.

Many skeptics wondered if there would be enough basketballs to go around with this stacked team, and it looks as though they are getting their answer. This team, perhaps more than any Calipari UK team, has thoroughly embodied the “team” mindset their coach has been preaching. The bonded nature of this team shows on the court, and it is now showing on the scoreboard.

Defense

Take a look at these statistics through the first three games of the season:

28 blocks.

85 defensive rebounds.

Opponent field goal percentage of 28.

Opponent three point percentage of 33.

39 forced turnovers.

23 steals.

45.7 points allowed per game.

Those are some staggering statistics provided by this UK defense. They have been stifling to opposing offenses. While some critics will dismiss UK’s first two opponents (Grand Canyon and Buffalo), it is hard to dismiss Kansas – and that Kansas game featured the most impressive defensive performance yet from UK.

Kansas shot just 19.6 percent on field goals and 20 percent from beyond the arc. That is impressive against any team, but against fifth ranked Kansas that is even more astounding. As was mentioned above, Kansas scored 12 points in the entire second half. That is pure domination.

The UK defense has been astounding in the front court as points have been hard to come by inside the paint. With six legit big men, that is something that opposing offenses will come to expect. With the skill of those big men, the success of the interior defense is not all that surprising. However, Calipari has done a great job improving the defense of his guards. The perimeter defense by the Cats has stellar as they continue to contest shots and force errant passes.

Perhaps most impressive on the defensive side has been the communication. With a team full of so many personalities, it could be easy to play individual basketball. But this discussion goes back to the “team” basketball that was talked about above. The communication on the floor by the Wildcats has been near picture-perfect. From major adjustments to switching on pick and rolls, these communication has shown so far to be the backbone of this team’s defense.

Camaraderie

So often we hear of team’s and coaches preaching “family” to their players. It’s a mindset that, when bought into, can have such a drastic impact on the team as a whole. In Kentucky, this is something that Calipari has preached – though he has used the word “together” much more than the typical “family”.

But three games into the season, this Kentucky team looks more than just “together”. They look like a family.

Just watch the players and how they interact with one another – it’s natural, not something forced for the court. There is a level of chemistry on the team that has yet to be seen from Calipari-coached UK team. That chemistry is showing in more ways than just their interactions on the bench.

Everything just seems to flow on the court. Watch the defense played by Kentucky and notice how fluid their play is. The players aren’t screaming directions back and forth, there is almost a “feel” among the players – confidence in knowing where each teammate is going to be and what they are going to do.

The camaraderie with this team has been a pleasant surprise. Perhaps the credit goes to Calipari for the job he is doing with these young player. Or maybe the return of core players for yet another season has helped to build a foundation within the heart of this team. Whatever the reason, there is a sense of togetherness that surrounds this team and it is helping to separate this group for any Calipari-group before them.

Sure, talent has a lot to do with the success we have seen from UK thus far, but there is something to be said for the the fact that this team is exactly what Calipary has been trying to build for years – an actual team, from top to bottom.

 

Cover Photo: RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES

Grant E. Doepel

Grant E. Doepel

Editor in Chief and co-founder of Riverfront Grumble, Doepel is a Cincinnati native who lives and breathes Queen City sports. A University of the Cumberlands graduate with degrees in Journalism and Communication Arts, Doepel still resides in the Greater Cincinnati area to provide easy access to the riverfront stadiums.
Grant E. Doepel

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