A conversation with Jeffrey Chao, who covers Kentucky basketball, among many other things, for SB Nation.
Tjarks: Saturday's "rematch" of last year's Elite Eight game between Baylor and Kentucky is an excellent example of how college basketball has changed. There are eight players from that game in the NBA now, only two of whom (Darius Miller and Quincy Acy) were seniors. As a result, it's still hard to get a feel for these two teams. Both are stocked with raw NBA talent but neither has played up to expectations, at least in the first few weeks, which isn't all that surprising considering how young they are.
On the Kentucky side of things, how would would you rate this class (Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin) compared to the first three groups of freshmen Cal brought to Lexington? I saw them against Maryland and Duke, and my first impression was of a raw group offensively, none of whom can stretch the floor. On the defensive end, as they become more comfortable with the college game, they should be great, because all four are extremely impressive athletically.
The Wildcats seem similar to the Bears in that, to properly utilize their weapons upfront, they need steady playmaking and consistent shooting from their perimeter players. So what exactly is going on with Ryan Harrow, the NC State transfer who was supposed to man the point this year? Is he going to play, and if he does, is he up to the responsibilities of being a championship PG? Kyle Wiltjer, the only holdover from last year's title squad, is very important to this team and he would benefit greatly from a PG who can run the pick-and-pop.
Chao: Stop me if you've heard this before. This year's Kentucky squad has Final Four talent. Right now, they're still in a formative stage: young, inexperienced, and littered with question marks. But if these guys all realize their potential, I expect them to win a ton of games and make an NCAA Championship run. On personnel, let's start with Harrow. He had "next" in Calipari's long lineage of NBA Draft first round point guards, but barely played in the season opener against Maryland and sat out the next four games.
The official stance is that Harrow had flu-like symptoms, followed by family issues, but he's been practicing and came off their bench in their loss to Notre Dame on Thursday. If you caught ESPN's excellent Kentucky All-Access series, you could sense that Calipari wasn't exactly enamored with Harrow's play in fall practice. His stock is falling, and Harrow needs to prove that he can lead this team. Regardless, expect the feel-good walkon story of backup point guard Jarrod Polson to continue all year. The backcourt is also buoyed by shooting guard Julius Mays, a senior transfer from Wright St. who can shoot the rock.
As for this year's crop of freshmen, comparing it to classes past is like trying to pick from Victoria's Secret Models. You can't really lose. After seeing him on the high school All-Star circuit, I became a huge Alex Poythress fan. The young forward already has a man's body and is a beastly rebounder, but tends to lose himself in the offensive flow of the game. Shooting guard Archie Goodwin has been favorably compared to Russell Westbrook. Currently Kentucky's best scoring option, Goodwin is a blur slashing to the rim but needs to work on ball-handling and his outside shot. Look for a mix of spectacular plays and head-scratching mistakes from both players. Both these guys could be borderline unstoppable come March.
Starting center Nerlens Noel gets all the pub of being the #1 recruit in the country, and also some unfair comparisons to last year's Wildcats star, Anthony Davis. While he gets pushed around some on both ends of the court, Noel has had an outstanding start to the year. He is already a plus defender and has flashed some offensive skill. Seeing him matched up against Isaiah Austin will be a lot of fun. Backup center Willie Cauley-Stein is raw, but oozes potential. Look for the inevitable ESPN clip of the 7-footer lined up as a wide receiver for his high school team, towering over all who dared defend him. And don't forget about forward Kyle Wiltjer, who is a dead-eye triggerman. It would be fun to see a shootout between him and Brady Heslip, although Heslip is a game-time decision after an appendectomy earlier in the week. Now, what's your take on Baylor and how the Bears match up against this young but talented Kentucky team?
Tjarks: Stop me if you've heard this before: Baylor has one of the most talented front-courts in the country, but they may end up being held back by lackluster guard play. In terms of just recruiting, Scott Drew might be the best in the country. He doesn't quite get as many players as Calipari, but he obviously does an incredible job of selling his program, which isn't exactly a traditional basketball power.
Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Ricardo Gathers could be the best front-court in the country by the end of the season. Austin is a skilled 7'1 225 forward comfortable spotting up for the jumper and putting the ball on the floor. That really shouldn't be possible. Jefferson, meanwhile, has come into his own as a junior: at 6'9 210, he's got the body and the mentality of a bruiser, but the soft touch of a finesse player. He's averaging 14, 9 and 2 blocks on 70% (!!) shooting this year.
Unfortunately for Baylor fans, the problem, just as it was with Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy last year, is getting their front-court studs the ball. Colorado gave the blueprint for beating Baylor: limit the number of possessions, sag on the big men, put a longer defender on Pierre Jackson and let any Bears perimeter player not named Heslip fire away from deep. When Baylor loses, it's generally because Pierre starts hunting for his own shot instead of distributing: he went 8-21 from the floor in their stunning loss to the College of Charleston.
Don't even get me started on AJ Walton, who actually put up these stats last season: 4 points on 31% shooting, 3 assists on 2 turnovers. However, one thing Walton and Jackson -- both excellent (if undersized) athletes -- are good at is ball-pressure. I expect the Bears will try to speed up the tempo of the game and force the Kentucky guards make decisions on the fly in half-court. That's the key to Saturday's game to me: which back-court plays more efficiently and makes fewer mistakes.
Chao: Now that Kansas' Tyshawn Taylor has graduated, A.J. Walton takes the mantle of "Big 12 Player Whose Game I Can't Stand." All the defense in the world doesn't excuse his atrocious offense. As athletic as Walton and Jackson are, I can't see either of them stopping Goodwin from getting to the paint at will. I actually think Drew would do well to deploy the little-used but uber-athletic Deuce Bello to shadow Goodwin.
In my opinion, Baylor's biggest advantage will be at point guard. When Pierre Jackson wants to, he can dish the rock and hit the 3 with the best of them. Statistically, he's excellent, but Baylor fans know that he sometimes (OK, mostly) makes you pull your hair out. But against this Kentucky squad, he's a huge advantage over either a recovering Harrow or overmatched Polson.
Meanwhile, the Bears front-court will have their hands full. Jefferson may be a built 6'9 210 beast, but Poythress measures 6'7 239. Neither Noel or Cauley-Stein have the offensive range that Isaiah Austin possesses, but the Wildcat twin towers won't have to stray far from the basket to clean up messes. And both Noel and Cauley-Stein are athletic enough to stay with Austin defensively, wherever Austin might roam. In the end, the difference may be whichever coach hides his offensive gunner best on defense. Heslip is 13-34 from distance thus far this year, but Wiltjer is right there at 14-34. Scott Drew has to dread the prospect of Heslip guarding Goodwin; likewise, Calipari won't like to see Wiltjer banging around inside with Rico Gathers.
Aside from conference tilts against Kansas, Baylor won't face a more athletic, talented team than Kentucky. But luckily for Baylor, they draw the Wildcats early in the season. Jackson will need to lead the team and keep them composed, constantly putting his big men in good situations and flustering Kentucky's inexperienced back-court. If Baylor can hit some choice shots and get a couple key Kentucky players in foul trouble, I could see them pulling the upset. I'm not predicting it, though. In the end, I think Kentucky's talent level is still a cut above Baylor's, and they'll pull away late, 78-67.