The Kentucky Wildcats are the top ranked team in the nation. Nobody can really argue with their #1 status. They have a guady 36-2 record heading into this Final Four. They’re but a few better sequences away from being unblemished and chasing history in New Orleans. Had they hit their free throws in the final minute in Bloomington, there is no Christian Watford game winner, and the Cats win. And they were outplayed by Vanderbilt in the final two minutes of the SEC Championship Game in their other loss. Otherwise, this has been about as dominant a team as we’ve seen in a while. Since league play began in early January, the Cats average margin of victory is just under 15 points. Nobody has come within single digits of Kentucky in this tournament.
Its not just the sportswriters and coaches ranking Kentucky as the top team. So too does KenPom as the Cats are the top team in his ranking system, armed with the 2nd most efficient offense and 11th most efficient defense in the land. I would have guessed those rankings to be flip-flopped somewhat because what makes this team so hard to beat is how difficult it is to score and run your offense against them. Defensively, they’re #1 nationally in EFG% holding foes to just 42.1% and 2nd nationally in 2-pt FG D allowing just 40.1%. The stat of their season is the fact that they get blocks on a bit more than 20 percent of the possessions. Think about that. If you’re playing UK, expect to get your shit stuffed back in your face at least 1 out of every five times down the court. Obviously Anthony Davis and his best in the nation block rate of 13% has a lot to do with that, but dont overlook active forwards Terrance Jones and Michael Kidd Gilchrist who are also among the nation’s leaders in block rate. Its no easy task getting and making good looks against these guys. On offense, the Cats are high percentage and balanced with six guys scoring between 10.0-14.3 points per game. Jones, Davis, Doran Lamb and Darius Miller are among the national leader in individual EFG% and as a team the Cats rank 13th in the country with a 53.8 EFG%. Lamb is an assassin behind the arc nailing more than 47-percent of his treys on the season. They rarely turn the ball over, impressive for a team so reliant on freshman, get to the line a ton and when they do miss shots, they chase missed shots like its their job, evidenced by their 18th nationally 38.9% offensive rebounding percentage. There isnt anything this team cant really do. Except for maybe getting bench production. They pretty much just play six guys, the five underclassmen starters and senior Miller coming off the bench. But that hasnt been a stumbling block for them yet, and I doubt they’ll lose this weekend merely because of a lack of bench.
Oh, and the only other thing they likely wont do well is stick together and play another year as teammates. Everybody is aware of Kentucky’s system under John Calipari: Collect uber-talented recruiting classes, play them all as freshmen, watch them turn pro after one year, repeat. Some have issues with this. I dont. If you want to turn your school into a glorified junior college in the name of winning Final Fours, thats your business. While I dont have a problem with it, I dont think I would enjoy if it was my team. Every program that nets talented players is going to be subjected to losing kids early to the professionals. But this seems to be taking it to another level, and, despite the winning, I’m not sure I would collect a lot of enjoyment out if it were my team. It seems hollow. But different strokes for different folks.
All five starters were former 5-star recruits, each ranked in the overall top-21 nationally. The three freshmen starters–Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Marcus Teague–were ranked #2, #3 and #5 overall in this year’s incoming crop of freshmen. Lamb and Jones were 2010 5-star recruits, ranked 13th and 21st respectively overall in their class. Miller, coming off the bench, is a project by comparison. #sarcasm. Not only was he just a 4-star, but he arrived in the class of 2008. He’s been on campus for four seasons. Cleary, he hasnt bought into Cal’s system. #moresarcasm. Since Calipari arrived in Lexington, his three recruiting classes have included 12 5-star and 3 4-star recruits. Only seven of those 15 players remain on the roster (4-star 2010 center Elroy Vargas and 5-star 2011 forward Kyle Wiltjer, who combine for 15 minutes of run time a game, are the other two that are still on the team). The second the Final Four ends the question becomes, how many bolt? The Cats might be starting from scratch a year from now. Vargas and Wiltjer will see their role dramatically increase. But beyond that, it’s back to relying on a new crop of incoming, top end talent from the high school ranks. Calipari already has a pair of
mercenaries 5-star recruits inked to come in next year and keep the good times rolling. Archie Goodwin is the #2 overall rated shooting guard in ’12 freshmen class and power forward Alex Poythress is the 19th player overall in the class. The Cats are in hot pursuit of 6-6 wingman Shabazz Muhammed, the hands down top recruit in this class, as well as fellow 5-star forward Anthony Bennett. There is a lot of talk that Muhammed and Bennett want to play in college together, so Coach Cal and UK might have another quartet of 5-stars rolling into Lexington. While they’re trying to win a national championship this weekend with their current roster, the Cats starting lineup for next year might be predominantly preparing for their senior proms.