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Top 25 Countdown: No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats

Oct 31, 2012, 9:00 AM EDT

John Calipari

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 38-2, 16-0 SEC (1st); Won the National Title

Head Coach: John Calipari

Key Losses: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, Doron Lamb

Newcomers: Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays

Projected Lineup:

G: Ryan Harrow, So.
G: Archie Goodwin, Fr.
F: Alex Poythress, Fr.
F: Kyle Wiltjer, So.
C: Nerlens Noel, Fr.
Bench: Willie Cauley-Stein, Fr.; Julius Mays, Sr.; Twany Beckham, Sr.; Jon Hood, Jr.

Outlook: As is the norm for this Kentucky program, there aren’t going to be many familiar faces on the Wildcat roster heading into the 2012-2013 season. Gone is just about everyone significant from last year’s team, with all six of Kentucky’s key players getting drafted in 2012.

What that means is, once again, Coach Cal is going to have to build his team from the bottom up, and he’s going to have to do it quickly — in just nine days, he’ll be kicking off the season with a trip to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to take on Maryland, heading to Atlanta just four days later to take on Duke. The learning curve for this group is is non-existent.

There’s no question about the talent level and NBA potential on this crop of ‘Cats. Nerlens Noel isn’t the second coming of Anthony Davis simply because he doesn’t have the same advanced perimeter skills that Davis did, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noel is a dominant interior force on the defensive end of the floor. He may even be a better shot-blocker than Davis was, and surely his ability on the offensive end will develop as the season progresses.

What’s scary is that, thus far in the preseason, the excitement for this group seems to be more about Willie Cauley-Stein than Noel. Cauley-Stein is seven-feet tall and was a wide receiver in high school, which should give you a bit of an idea of his athleticism. He’s very raw, maybe even more so than Noel, but with those two taking the floor at the same time, opponents may not be able to get a shot off within 10 feet of the rim.

Joining them up front will be Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. Poythress is a guy that may have the most potential for success this season, as he seems to be one of the more polished freshmen in the class. He’s a 6-foot-7, athletic combo-forward that has really put on muscle-mass since arriving on campus. He could have the same kind of impact as Terrence Jones did as a freshman, minus the attitude issues. Wiltjer could be the x-factor for this group. He’s by far the best perimeter shooter on the roster, and the fact that he’s a 6-foot-9 forward makes him a tough matchup. The question mark with him is simply how he well he’s going to be able to defend and rebound.

In the back court, Ryan Harrow takes over the point guard role. A transfer from NC State, Harrow spent last season redshirting and practicing every day against Marquis Teague. He’s not the same kind of talent as Coach Cal’s last five point guard recruits, however, and it will be interesting to see just how successful he ends up being in the role. Archie Goodwin will likely be the best perimeter scoring threat. He’s a hyper-athletic, 6-foot-5 slasher that understands how to get to the rim and score. Kentucky may end up needing him to be a guy that averages about 15 points given some of their other question marks offensively. Julius Mays, Twany Beckham and Jon Hood are the other guys that could end up seeing time in the back court.

The biggest question mark I have with this Kentucky group is simple: How well does this roster fit together? Cauley-Stein and Noel are, essentially, the same player — big, tall, athletic shot-blockers that can’t do much offensively besides dunk the ball. But Kentucky’s best lineup is probably going to be with both of them on the floor together because I’m not completely sold on Wiltjer being a good fit for Cal’s system. This is a group that is going to have to thrive on athleticism and defense, especially early in the season, and those are the two biggest weaknesses for Wiltjer.

The problem with leaving Wiltjer off the floor is that he’s really the only guy that is the kind of shooter that cannot be left open; Kentucky has no one to play the role that Deandre Liggins and Darius Miller have the past three seasons. Poythress seems like a better fit at the four than at the three, but he needs to play the three because Kentucky isn’t very deep in the back court. That means that either Cauley-Stein or Wiltjer is going to have to play major minutes unless one of Beckham, Mays or Hood can prove that can be a defensive stopper and three-point marksman.

Predictions?: There’s plenty of talent here, and if there is anything in Calipari’s coaching repertoire that rivals his ability to recruit, it’s his ability to convince elite talents to buy into playing a specific role for the betterment of the team. I don’t doubt that he’ll find a way to get his best five players on the floor at the same time; one of the most interesting subplots to the college basketball season as a whole will be to watch what he does to make that happen. I don’t think that Kentucky is as safe of a bet to win the SEC as a lot of people are giving them credit for simply because I believe Missouri is being severely underrated. That said, as long as Kentucky as this much talent on their roster and Coach Cal making their decisions, they have to be considered a top three team and a national title contender.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

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