Is this the year Calipari’s Cats win it all?

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UK by the Numbers: Is this the year Cal’s Cats will win it all?
by Heather C. Watson

Eight.
It’s a number that’s being thrown around Lexington a whole lot these days. With the absurd amount of talent that Coach Calipari has assembled on the 2011-2012 team, there’s a good chance that the Wildcats could bring home National Championship banner number eight.
One.
That’s another number that’s getting tossed around town quite a bit. Cal’s magnificent freshmen have long been heralded as the Number One recruiting class in the country. ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lundardi projected the preseason Cats as a one-seed for the Big Dance. Coach himself has proclaimed Terrence Jones the Number One player in the country, while imploring the press and

photo by Alex Orlov

fellow coaches not to saddle the team with the dreaded curse of a Number One ranking.  And, with all that talent and all the hype, it’s pretty easy for us to believe that it’s finally Calipari’s turn to claim a National Title – his very first one.
Not that there’s any pressure, of course.
We toss around a  lot of numbers and statistics, out of excitement and anticipation of the season ahead. We project and predict.  We inject those numbers with a lot of hope, believing that if we cite them often enough, they will have a huge meaning. We focus on the earliest indicators, like Terrence Jones’s fifty-two point scrimmage or Kentucky’s 85-point exhibition match annihilation of Morehouse College, as though these inflated statistics have any real bearing on the season. Sure, they’re fun and impressive, but they don’t really mean much of anything. They’re just numbers.
If the John Calipari era of Kentucky basketball has taught me anything, it’s that early predictions are meaningless.  Last year, at exactly this time, I argued in the pages of this very newspaper that the 2010-2011 Wildcats might not live up to the legacy of the previous year’s team.  Still awestruck from my favorite UK lineup in a decade and bereft at the notion of Enes Kanter’s potential ineligibility, I’d written Coach Cal, Season Two off as a total loss.  Don’t judge Brandon Knight against John Wall, I opined.  Let them take their own path.  It may be different. It may be worse.
Well, we all know how that turned out.  The Wildcats who started out with diminished expectations – the team with seemingly no big man– actually achieved more than their storied predecessors.  Josh Harrelson’s tour de force senior year – after three relatively uninspired seasons—provided the mature leadership and dominant play that elevated the Wildcats to an outstanding team.  Somehow, the squad I’d written off in November rallied in March, knocking off seemingly unbeatable Ohio State and North Carolina teams to claim a spot in the Final Four.
This year, the numbers tell us that the Freshman Wildcats include four McDonald’s All-Americans and three of the top five recruits in the country.  The early polls show us that the Cats are considered a dominant force not only by the Big Blue Faithful, but by the entire nation.  The words on the street in Lexington are a Number One ranking and Title Number Eight.  But what will those numbers mean?
This year’s lineup promises a ridiculous degree of talent and physicality. Anthony Davis combines the footwork and ball-handling skills of a point guard with a 7’4 wingspan.  Marquis Teague, a classic Calipari point guard, combines speed, vision and an unselfish nature.  Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a rebounding demon. Kyle Wiltjer rains threes. Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller have returned with more maturity and improved skills. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been playing pickup games with the likes of Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant.
I expect an evolutionary season from Cal’s latest lineup; a few early stumbles from the wunderkinds seem likely.  Marquis Teague will be the key to the team’s success – his ability to shoulder Calipari’s emphasis on a dominant point guard will determine how far this team goes.  Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seems poised to assume the role of team leader.  Davis’s athleticism and Wiltjer’s scoring capacity are crucial, as are the summertime adjustments that Jones made to his game.
It’s a long road from November to March. Numbers and rankings can never accurately predict how the team will gel.  North Carolina and Duke have some pretty dominant players of their own.  And, as last year’s team taught us, there are always surprising moments.  I haven’t begun my plans to recreate the 1998 trek from King Library to the corner of Lynagh’s and Debauchery just yet, but I’m not scheduling any major appointments in early April, either.

This article also appears on page 14 of the November 17 print edition of Ace.

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