Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Way-Too-Early 2011 UK Preview

I think next year’s team is Final Four caliber. I know that’s insane to say with all of the departures from last year. 4/6ths of our all-time freshman class left for professional pastures leaving the unproven pieces of Jon Hood and Darnell Dodson to try their hand at a second year of Division 1 basketball. With our seniors (Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson) and pseudo-senior (Patrick Patterson) also leaving, all veteran leadership is potentially left to big man senior Josh Harrellson and wing juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins. Those obviously weren’t the optimal conditions to enter the summer under.

While anyone who wasn’t oblivious to the lures of being a top-5 draft pick knew that Demarcus Cousins and John Wall were guaranteed to have single year tenures, less expected Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe to have such high stock and bolt. Orton was supposed to effortlessly assume Jarvis Varnado’s place as the most feared big in the country. With his impeccable size and extra year amongst the college ranks, Orton could have put up monster numbers while inheriting literally all of Pat and Boogie’s frontline minutes. He could have showed everyone that he could stay out of foul trouble as well as have his face-up game utilized to prove his versatility and cement his status as one of Billy G’s proudest leftovers. Him and Bledsoe were supposed to become the nation’s elite 1-2 punch, usurping that claim from their former teammates the previous year. Bledsoe was going to slide into the pure point role and pair with Brandon Knight to cement the strongest backcourt combo along with the stupid Dukies (Kyrie Irving and Andre Dawkins). With his full year of off-guard experience, Bledsoe could have curbed his turnovers and established his elite passing skills that would so strongly compliment his otherworldly athleticism. But neither scenario will come to fruition as the pair’s raw skills and limitless potential has allowed them to be a first round pick on everyone and their mom’s draft board. So instead of bringing in some strong complimentary pieces to cement a mostly established Elite 8 roster, Coach Cal had to improvise an entire new team and managed to pull five more highly touted freshmen and an untapped Gator transfer into the fold. So here’s UK’s prospective do-over line-up.

C: Enes Kanter/Josh Harrellson
PF: Terrence Jones/Eloy Vargas
SF: Darius Miller/Darnell Dodson/Stacey Poole
SG: Doron Lamb/DeAndre Liggins/Jon Hood
PG: Brandon Knight/Jarrod Polson

The biggest difference that you need to understand right off the bat is how many more 3-point shooting options we will have this year. Doron Lamb is the perfect spot-up guard that Eric pretended to be for about 4 games, while Brandon Knight is a consistent threat to create his own long-range opportunities whenever he wants. Terrence Jones is also a more than capable shooter who will pick his spots since he has the ultimate floor-game in the mold of a player like Lamar Odom. Enes Kanter will be a surprise threat as a fast break trailer. While Coach Cal may or may not utilize his shooting specifically or regularly in the offense, you just need to know without a doubt that Enes is dead-eye from anywhere on the floor. I promise. With those four freshmen mixed in with the hopefully improving 3-point confidence of Darius and DeAndre plus Darnell as the ultimate wildcard, we should never have a game next season similar to the West Virginia brickfest. On paper, it’s impossible with this roster.

The second point of note is our reconstructed front court. The Cousins/Patterson/Orton trio has been completely reconstructed into a Kanter/Jones/Vargas trio with Harrellson on deck if Vargas doesn't adjust to the level of competition right away. As weird as it is to say, Jones could possibly be more productive than Pat was for most of the year in his power forward slot. The Dribble Drive Motion Offense is made to especially highlight two very specific skill sets. The first is a penetrating point guard who can finish with power to guarantee that the defense is drawn to the rim on any given play. Examples 1A, 1B, 1C, and 2 are Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, and Brandon Knight. The second skill set is a forward who's a shooting threat, but one who can put the ball on the floor with ease. Unfortunately, Coach Cal hasn't had a premier prospect in that mold since Shawne Williams, who was more famous for his marijuana and codeine issues than his basketball skill set. So T-Jones is in line to be that guy in the system next year. Just know that it's gonna be fun. Before Terrence committed, Coach Cal was faced with a roster where he may have had to go exclusively with line-ups composed of 4 guards and a forward. But now we have the legitimate size threat again with the frontline clocking in at 6'11"/6'9"/6'11" that may see a rotation similar to last season's.

One potential situation that won't really be an issue, but will inevitably be written about shamelessly, is the point guard position. Knight will be the only true point in the rotation as no one expects Jarrod Polson to ever hit the floor besides in Krebs-like mop-up duty. Therefore, either Brandon is going to have to catch on seamlessly and stay on the floor every single minute or we'll have to have to institute a back-up-by-committee approach. That committee could very well look Gillispie-like with Miller and Liggins attempting their hand at ball handling duties along with Lamb whenever needed. So while it may look like a possible derailing point at some instance in the season, there will never actually be a real drop off at the lead guard during regulation. Plus, with a guy as multi-faceted as Jones, there will always be a capable player to step up who can get advance the ball to where it needs to be if Knight happens to be taking a breather. So, barring an actual Knight injury, don't worry about it.

Speaking of back-ups, we'll have quite a serviceable bench mob next season. DeAndre seems the likely candidate to be the first guy pulling off his warm-up jersey every night as he could actually, if needed, fill in any position 1-4. With his will to be an energy player, general unselfishness, and vastly improved shooting confidence, I like him as one of the best 6th men in the NCAA. Vargas will most likely be the first big to substitute in at the first sight of foul trouble. While not half the athlete of Orton a year ago, Eloy is actually significantly taller and has a hint of SEC experience and a full year of JuCo dominance under his belt. Hopefully that will translate into significant production, both on the defensive end and creating his own scoring opportunities on the offensive glass. Assuming that Hood doesn't make summer strides to leapfrog him or that Poole isn't quite an immediate contributor, Darnell Dodson is probably slated as the resident 8th man. If he can improve his general decision making, Dodson's shooting will be as strong a weapon as any team has coming off their bench. That kind of surprise player every few games is what changes this squad from a very, very good team to a great team. The last bench factor would be if you have faith in Harrellson's summer progression. He could never manage to break into the rotation last year, stuck even behind Stevenson. But with his sizable frame and sweet shooting stroke, any quality floor time from him would make us as deep a team as there is out there. Our bench is full of potential X-factors everywhere on the floor. If two or so of these guys click each game while the starters are chilling, there will be very few teams that could give us a run for our money.

Some may think that any expectations of matching or surpassing last season's breakout are utterly ridiculous. I thoroughly disagree with that notion. Though none of our freshmen are as singularly talented or naturally dominant as John Wall turned out to be, this recruiting class is much more balanced and provides the pivotal shooting proficiency that we lacked for the majority of the season. No one will be asked to play out of position as Bledsoe was and no one will have to find how they can change their already established game to fit the offense as Patterson did. While we'll miss out on the locker room leadership and general experience of Pat, Perry, and Ramon, Coach Cal will find the right buttons to press with the right players to fill that void. My last surprise prediction for the upcoming season is about the potential production of our new foreign big man Enes Kanter. I think he'll garner attention for National Player of the Year. While a more appealing wing player like Harrison Barnes will probably wind up as the top pick in the 2011 Draft as teams hope he's the next Kobe/Durant-type franchise player, I have an inkling that Kanter will set himself up for that second slot. Just a hunch. I'll throw this link up again approximately a year from now and you can be sure to praise/clown me appropriately.

My 2010-2011 UK season prediction: a 4 loss regular season record, the third #1 seed, and a Final Four birth. Hold me to it.

... and do the John Wall.

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