published Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

University of Kentucky Wildcats superior in talent

Depth seems to be the only deficiency for another young but special set of Wildcats.

Record: 17-1 (3-0 Southeastern Conference)

Associated Press ranking: No. 2

Best win: 73-72 over North Carolina

Worst loss: 73-72 at Indiana

Best stat: Kentucky has held 51 straight opponents under 50 percent from the floor and entered the weekend leading the nation in field-goal defense (35.5 percent).

Player to fear: Freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In three of UK's toughest contests of the year, he had 17 points and 11 rebounds against North Carolina, 24 and 19 against Louisville and 17 and 12 at Tennessee. The kid's at his best when it matters most.

Reason to believe: As talented as any team in the country, UK can beat you inside and outside on both offense and defense. Tall, quick and fast, the Wildcats have a weakness only in depth, since they really only go seven deep. Otherwise, the fact they could easily have five first-round NBA draft picks in Anthony Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb pretty much says it all.

Reason to doubt: UK is awfully reliant on its freshmen, who are supremely talented -- three of the four average double-figure scoring -- but they're still freshmen and no one knows how they'll handle extended tournament play.

Ballin' on Bourbon Street at Final Four if: They can hit at least five 3-pointers in every tourney game and avoid foul trouble and injury, because of their depth issue.

Prediction: Final Four.

Coachspeak: "They remind me of the Syracuse team that won the national championship in 2003. The tough part is when they just throw it to the rim. Once they get up in the air, they are pretty much on their own."

-- Radford coach Mike Jones after his team lost 88-40 to UK

The game clock approaching nine minutes to play inside Tennessee's sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena early Saturday afternoon, a loud and proud chant of "Go, Big Blue! Go, Big Blue!" cascaded down from the upper level.

Not since Kentucky's last national championship in 1998 had so many Wildcat fans flooded the Boling Alley to make their presence felt in Big Orange Country.

Whether that proves to be a coincidence or not won't be known until UK's season is done. But the Big Blue Nation isn't the only one who thinks that John Calipari's current Cats might be the best of his three seasons in Lexington.

And his first team finished 35-3 and reached the East Regional final; then last year's edition lost by one point in the Final Four to eventual national champ UConn.

"They're probably the best team in the nation," University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach John Shulman said after the Mocs fell 87-62 to the Cats on Dec. 17. "When their smallest wing is 6-foot-8, we understand they are very good."

Said North Carolina coach Roy Williams after his Tar Heels fell to UK by a point in Rupp Arena on the first weekend of December: "They are very good. They have the ability to score at every position."

Added ESPN analyst Jay Bilas earlier this season: "Kentucky is the most talented team in the country."

Of course, the 2010 NBA draft would tell you that Coach Cal also had the nation's most talented team that season -- John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton all going in the first round -- yet UK couldn't overcome a cold shooting night from the 3-point line in its regional loss to West Virginia.

And this squad doesn't have that team's deep bench.

But the talent at the top of the current roster is undeniable. Before senior Darius Miller scored just four points against the Vols, UK had a stunning six players averaging in double figures.

According to NBADraft.net, if the draft were held today, freshman center Anthony Davis would be the second player chosen behind UConn's Andre Drummond, UK freshman wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would go seventh, sophomore forward Terrence Jones 12th, freshman point guard Marquis Teague 18th and sophomore guard Doron Lamb 19th. Miller, the MVP of last spring's SEC tournament, would go late in the second round.

And you wonder why the Cats are not only 17-1 and ranked second nationally heading into tonight's game against Arkansas but also lead the SEC in scoring margin, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, field-goal defense, rebounding margin and blocked shots?

"They're a very talented team," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said after Saturday's 65-62 loss. "They get to the rim. They do a good job of defending, which is what good teams do."

But are they capable of winning the school's eighth national title and first in 14 seasons? As talented as UK is, can it mature fast enough to avoid the surprises of March, when one loss sends you home?

"I'd like to be a little deeper," said Calipari, who had Kidd-Gilchrist, Davis and Teague each play 35 minutes or more against the Volunteers. "We need to get a couple of guys more minutes off the bench."

But the freshman Teague, who's averaging nearly 32 minutes a game, believes they'll be OK, that a one-point loss at Indiana on Dec. 10 taught them most of what they'll need to know.

"That game taught us about life on the road," he said. "It taught us we've got to be tougher and smarter. We don't want that to happen again. We have big goals this season."

Yet as Cal scanned the stat sheet from the Tennessee game, showing UK struggling on the boards and from the field for the second straight outing, he didn't sound like a guy overly ready to pencil the Cats into his Final Four bracket.

"If we want to be unique and special," he said, "we're either going to have to get tougher and negate the physical play people are using on us, or we're just going to be another team out there trying to win as many as we can."

Only at Kentucky could a team standing 17-1 and ranked second in the nation be considered anything but unique and special. Then again, that's another reason why they hang banners in Rupp Arena only for teams that go to the Final Four.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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