David Cloninger

October 31, 2013

SEC Hoops Lookahead: Kentucky

South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.

David Cloninger

All things Gamecocks, especially basketball and football

South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.

Other previews
Oct. 26: Alabama
Oct. 27: Arkansas
Oct. 28: Auburn
Oct. 29: Florida
Oct. 30: Georgia


2012-13 record (SEC finish): 21-12, 12-6 (T-2nd) *NIT
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): John Calipari (123-26, fifth year; 526-164, 22nd year)
Top returners: F Alex Poythress (11.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg); F Willie Cauley-Stein (8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg); G Jarrod Polson (3.1 ppg, 1.7 rpg)
Biggest losses: Archie Goodwin (14.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg); Nerlens Noel (11.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Kyle Wiltjer (10.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg)

Kentucky was picked to win the league in the preseason. Kentucky’s Julius Randle was selected SEC preseason player of the year.

News at 11.

Look, it’s no surprise that the above happened. It happens nearly every year, especially in a basketball league that is known (not unkindly) as “Kentucky and the Pips.” After a national championship two years ago, followed by a first-round NIT flame-out a year ago, coach John Calipari reloaded with so many McDonald’s All-Americans that it makes the rest of the league look like they have a roster of busboys at Long John Silver’s.

Randle? The Harrison twins? Dakari Johnson? James Young? And that’s added to a group that already returns Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein (not to mention my favorite name in the SEC, Sam Malone, from Massachusetts, yet)? C’mon, man!

The Wildcats are really, really good and will win a lot of games. They should win the league, although they do play Florida and LSU twice each. They’ll go far in the NCAA tournament, and are already a trendy pick to win the whole shootin’ match.

The only thing that can trip them is too grand of an expectation.

Calipari has freely spoken of desiring to coach an undefeated team, which spawned the “40-0” moniker popping around the Bluegrass. I will say that if Kentucky gets through its non-conference slate (Michigan State, Baylor, North Carolina, Louisville) and the SEC unbeaten, then wins the SEC and NCAA tournaments, it definitely deserves to be mentioned as one of the greatest teams of all time.

The problem here is that Kentucky can still have a magnificent season without going undefeated. I mean, say the Wildcats lose their opener to UNC Asheville (just suppose). And then wins the next 39. Is a national championship 39-1 team a disappointment?

It’s always been my theory that the teams that go through the majority of the season undefeated, or enter the NCAA tournament on a long winning streak, are doomed. Look at UNLV ’91. St. Joseph’s ’04. Shoot, Kentucky ’03. A team is undefeated or on a long winning streak heading into March, everybody starts talking about it, next thing you know, Marquette is handily winning and going to the Final Four.

I think the best thing that could have happened to Kentucky two years ago was losing the SEC tournament final to Vanderbilt. The Wildcats hadn’t lost since early December and they were clearly the best team in the country, but losing that game got their minds re-focused. There would be no talk of a winning streak, and since that game was also in New Orleans, the Wildcats left town vowing to be back in three weeks for the Final Four. Seems to have worked out.

Kentucky will have a fine year. It’s not going to be a cuss-worthy offense if the Wildcats lose a game. All they have to do is think of what effect it had two years ago, and then look at the last banner hanging in Rupp Arena.

2012-13 record (SEC finish): 30-6, 13-3 (2nd) *NCAA Elite Eight
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Matthew Mitchell (144-62, seventh year; 174-91, ninth year)
Top returners: C DeNesha Stallworth (12.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg); G Jennifer O’Neill (12.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg); G Bria Goss (8.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
Biggest losses: A’dia Mathies (16.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Maegan Conwright (2.4 ppg, 0.6 rpg); Brittany Henderson (1.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg)

Three Elite Eights in four years has Kentucky bursting with pride over its basketball. Not only is its men’s team one of the great traditional powers nationwide, but its women’s team is some kind of good as well.

The brilliance of A’dia Mathies put the Wildcats in rare air, winning the SEC two years ago and being a constant fixture in the Top 15. But Mathies is gone now, and while Kentucky returns plenty of talent, it remains to be seen if it can replace what Mathies brought game after game.

Kentucky had a setback when four-star freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was lost for the season before a game was played, after a pulmonary embolism was discovered in her lung. That takes away a lot of the help in the post that Kentucky was counting on. Forward DeNesha Stallworth is very strong on the block, but Goodin-Rogers could have drawn some attention away from Stallworth to avoid a double-team. Samarie Walker will be relied on to fill that void.

The Wildcats are still blessed with several strong guards, like Jennifer O’Neill and Bria Goss, but they very much played in Mathies’ shadow over past seasons. Given their time to step up, will they?

I think they will. It will be a battle as it always is, but Kentucky should finish in the league’s top four.

Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState

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