UK Basketball Season Preview by Kevin Faris

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Photo of Enes, roaming free at Tolly Ho, by Jessica Newman

This article appears on page 6 of the November 11 Ace.

Free Enes
A UK Basketball Season Preview, With and Without 
by Kevin W. Faris

Last year was fun, I think we can all agree on that, but that was then and this is now. (Insert last year’s star freshman) and (Insert other star freshman) have left to pursue their dreams in the NBA but Coach Calipari has brought in a new crop of freshmen who are ready to make their mark on the Big Blue Nation. It’s not fair to compare this year’s team to last years, and although (Insert star freshman point guard) is not (Insert last year’s star point guard) he is talented and brings other attributes to the table. It may take awhile for this team to gel, but when you add the new kids to (Insert upperclassmen here) UK has the ability to once again challenge for a National Title.*

*Generic intro to UK basketball preview to be used for the duration of Coach Cal’s tenure.

Stop me if you have heard this before. UK has a young team. UK is going to take some time to gel. UK will go through some growing pains.  The team needs to be hungry, needs to talk, needs to be the best rebounding/defensive team in the country and the freshmen think they poop ice cream.  All of these things were said about last year’s team, and already, before the first real game of the season, they are going to be said about this year’s team.  But this year’s team is a much bigger question mark than last year’s.  That is because this year’s team is potentially two teams: A team with Enes Kanter and a team without Enes Kanter.

Enes Kanter, if you don’t already know by the “Free Enes” signs and t-shirts which seem to outnumber the political signs this year, is a highly regarded freshman center who has not been cleared to play by the NCAA due to potential amateurism issues from his time with a professional team in Turkey.  Currently, Chad Ford of ESPN has him as the #5 2011 NBA Draft prospect and #1 in the SEC.  Whether Enes plays or not, his career next year will be in the NBA, but the question on whether he plays or not does greatly affect this current UK team.  For the time being, it is best to look at this team as if Kanter will not play. That is where we are right now and there is no timetable for when a decision will be made.

The starting lineup for UK’s first exhibition game gave the fans a glimpse of what, perhaps, Coach Cal would like to do without Kanter.  The “small” lineup featured freshman Brandon Knight at the point, freshman Doron Lamb and junior Darius Miller at guard, and junior DeAndre Liggins and freshman Terrance Jones at forward. 

Knight is going to be a star, but he’s not the type of point that John Wall was.  He is not as explosive or athletic, but he is a better shooter.  ESPN’s Ford has him ranked as the #11 2011 NBA Draft prospect, but acknowledges that shooting guard may be his position in the future.  Through Canada and one exhibition game, he is UK’s best player.  He will score more points than Wall, and without a clear backup, will play a lot more minutes.

Miller and Liggins are the veterans and will need to play much bigger roles for UK to have a successful year.  Miller is a returning starter, but has often faded into the background, content to let others do the work.  In the “small” lineup, UK will need to rely on Miller’s rebounding and post play.  I feel this is the most underrated and overlooked part of his game and anyone that watched him play in high school knows he is comfortable down low.  Liggins may be the most athletic player on the team, but will need to show consistency and maturity to really shine.  It is hard to believe that it wasn’t even three years ago that Liggins refused to enter a game for Billy G., and last summer he was constantly rumored to be leaving.  And now, he will probably be a starter. 

Lamb is the freshman with possibly the most confusion about his game.  Lamb is a good shooter, but Lamb is not a three point shooter.  Or, at least, not the three point shooter that a lot of UK fans are making him out to be.  He is the most interesting of the UK freshman and I think has the most room to grow.  He is not a one and done player and will probably have an up and down season as he has the least clear role of the starters in the small lineup.  Lamb will, in my opinion, follow in the footsteps of Miller and Liggins and see his role and responsibilities grow over the course of his UK career.  Lamb is the type of freshman, very good, but not leave after one year great, that will need to stick around for this program to have consistency.

Jones is #15 on Ford’s draft list and the biggest reason the small lineup did not look so hot against Pikeville.  The 6’9” 230 pound forward has an amazing skill set and Ford compares him to do everything Los Angeles Laker forward Lamar Odom.  He can handle the ball, shoot from the outside, and take his player off the dribble.  In a non-Kanter world, however, UK also needs him to play post defense and rebound, two areas where he has not excelled so far.  In the Blue/White game he played 40 minutes and only pulled down eight boards, compared to 26 for Josh Harrellson, and against Pikeville he picked up fouls early and finished with only 9 points and 7 rebounds.  If he can play up to his #15 ESPN NBA Draft ranking, UK will have a very good year, but if he cannot pull down the boards and provide the post defense, UK will not be able to play their small lineup, which features their five most talented players on the court.

Senior Josh Harrelson and junior Eloy Vargas are your Kanter alternatives.  They are both 6’10” and will be asked, in the absence of Kanter, to provide the big body that will probably be necessary.  So far, Harrellson has shown the most ability to do what a non-Kanter center needs to do on this team:  Rebound and play defense.  Vargas is new to the system and has been battling junior college talent for the past two years, but he has potential.  If Cal is forced to start Harrellson, something he seems to not want to do, I think he is capable of doing what is necessary.  He isn’t quick and I don’t think we need to run plays for him, but through a few scrimmages and exhibition games, he has shown the best ability to get boards.

The seven players listed above will probably be the main rotation with sophomore Jon Hood, freshman Stacey Poole, Jr. and freshman walk-on Jarrod Polson serving as bench players.  It is possible that Hood or Poole might break through into meaningful minutes at some point in the season, but right now, I don’t see either of them consistently playing a major role.  Polson has already staked his claim as the favorite of my younger cousin in the 9th grade, but I am guessing that doesn’t have a lot to do with his basketball abilities.

Now, if Kanter is eventually cleared, a lot of the above changes drastically.  You will probably not see the “small” lineup, the roles of Liggins/Miller will change slightly toward being more traditional forwards, and Jones will be able to play more outside without the inside responsibilities.  Harrelson and Vargas will be back-ups and probably see about as much time as Daniel Orton did last year.

Already people are a little less optimistic about this year’s team than they were last year’s and it is true that last year’s team had more talent and depth, but after an NCAA Tournament that saw UK and Kansas both fail to make the Final Four, it should be more clear that the tournament is a one game playoff and that strange things can happen.  This team has talent in Knight and Jones, and if Kanter returns even more talent.  I don’t think they will be able to equal the record of last year’s team (32-2) but when the tournament rolls around, they could be in position to advance further.

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