If you haven’t been humming “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” in your head all morning, then you’re not me. Dez Wells getting eligible has kicked the expectations for this season up a notch, and Maryland will get their first (and one of their only) non-conference tests tonight at the Barclays Center in the #3 Kentucky Wildcats. If Maryland pulls this off, it would be season defining win and would launch them into the top 25. A victory would also make up for two or three slipups in the conference schedule.
Because of how John Calipari handles his program (an assembly line of one year players), it’s awfully difficult to predict what any Kentucky team is going to look like early in the season. It’s a two edged sword: opponents can’t get a good early scouting report on Kentucky, but the Wildcats also don’t have a firm grasp on their own team identity. In the past few years, Kentucky has looked consistently shaky out of the blocks and with this year’s version the youngest in Cal’s tenure (the only returning player who averaged more than 3 minutes per game last season is sophomore Kyle Wiltjer), those jitters should be present in this game. Because I wrote a preview on the Maryland team a few days ago, this preview is going to be very Kentucky centric.
What we do know is that as with any Calipari team, there’s an abundance of talent. Kentucky lost last year’s number one recruit (Anthony Davis), and they brought in a borderline carbon copy in this year’s number one (Nerlens Noel). Obviously the two have been compared, and the common opinion is that Noel’s offensive game is significantly less polished, but his shot blocking ability may even exceed Davis’. If that’s true, the comparisons to Marcus Camby from Cal might be apt, and Maryland could be unwitting guests at a Brooklyn block party tonight. Never mind that an even taller guy will be standing next to Noel in the paint, and no Shawn Bradley will not be the ref. That other blue MonStar will be Willie Cauley-Stein, a fellow 7-foot behemoth and also a top 40 recruit.
In case it isn’t obvious yet, this is the best frontcourt Maryland faces all season (and quite possibly the most talented frontcourt in the country). If the Terps didn’t go 5 deep in the frontcourt, this would be a bigger issue, but the twosome Calipari has anointed “the twin towers” will probably win the rebounding battle, and obviously the more second chances Kentucky gets, the better chance they have of winning.
On top of that, Kentucky has yet another top 20 recruit in 6’8” Alex Poythress, and a very unique piece in 6’10” sophomore (those exist at Kentucky?) Kyle Wiltjer. Poythress is an extremely athletic combo 3/4 forward whose shot is good enough that you can’t give him space. Wiltjer is something of an enigma, and by that I mean he scares the crap out of me. A five star holdover from last year’s team, Wiltjer is a HIGHLY SKILLED big man. His post game is way past where it should be for a sophomore in college, and he shot 42% from three last year. I don’t know how much burn Calipari will give him, but any time he steps on the floor he’ll be a legitimate mismatch for everyone besides Layman and maybe Len.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention electric scoring 2-guard Archie Goodwin. Yet ANOTHER top 20 recruit in the 2012 class, Goodwin is lethally athetic, and capable of getting to the bucket at will. Out of all the matchups tonight, Goodwin vs. Wells should be the most fun to watch. Seriously just YouTube Dez Wells and Archie Goodwin. They both play tenacious defense, and the only thing more exciting than their first steps are their last ones.
Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague. Those are the last five graduates of the John Calipari point guard school (location has varied). Until this season, Teague was the least talented PG in the group, and he was the one that lead Cal to his first national championship.
Well, time to meet Ryan Harrow. Harrow transferred from NC State after the departure of Sidney Lowe in 2010, which made him just as sad as it made me (Lowe was 0-9 against Maryland as a coach, and it wasn’t even that close). Harrow strikes me as the weak link of this team for a number of reasons.
For one, as 4-star freshman at NC State, he was unable to beat out a lightly regarded incumbent senior in Javier Gonzalez. Unless things have changed dramatically in a year, Harrow is not a good shooter (in 2010: 39% FG, 22% 3pt) except from the line (88% FT). These numbers create a defensive blueprint for Maryland: don’t be afraid to help off of Harrow, because allowing him to take outside shots will do more damage to Kentucky than Maryland.
Also, Harrow’s lack of size at just 6’0” 160 lbs is jarring when compared to his predecessors (Rose, Evans, Wall and Knight were all 6’3” 185 or bigger. Teague was 6’2”). If Pe’Shon is recovered enough to stick to the very quick Harrow on offense, he could provide a physical mismatch on the other end of the floor.
Now, if you’re ready for a REAL weakness, how’s this? John Calipari isn’t even sure if Harrow is going to play. He’s apparently battling the flu and listed as questionable. In the highly unlikely event that Harrow doesn’t play, the point guard duties would likely be shifted to freshman 2 guard Archie Goodwin, who’s as talented as he is introverted. Cal’s central belief (at least according to those All-Access Kentucky clips that ESPN is pumping out) is that you have to be loud and demonstrative as a point guard. That is not Goodwin, and that could cause problems even more severe than the lineup shift it would create. If it’s not Goodwin, then Julius Mays could get the start, but he sat out Wednesday’s practice with a knee injury.
It’s redundant, but limiting turnovers is a huge factor in this one, which is why I think Turgeon will opt for a heavy dose of Pe’Shon at the point. Limiting turnovers against any team is extremely important. But because of Kentucky’s propensity to get out and run and their efficiency at converting fast break opportunities, they usually cash in turnovers at a higher rate than most.
By limiting their mistakes, Maryland should be able to prevent this contest from turning into a track meet, the Wildcats game of choice. If Kentucky can stay in transition, their lack of experience becomes significantly less important, and they can just let their supreme athletes take over. Where they’ll be average should be in the half court sets, where these Wildcats (by far the youngest Cal has had at Kentucky, Wiltjer is the oldest as a sophomore) are likely still trying to find the same page in the playbook.
On offense, someone will need to be knocking down outside shots for the Terps, and I have no idea who that’s going to be. There are a lot of retooled jump shots on this team, nobody with shooter listed on their resume, and the closest fits would probably be Dez Wells and Jake Layman. Somebody’s going to have to stretch the Kentucky defense, or else they’ll be able to pack the lane and gamble in passing lanes, both things conducive to their length.
Even staring at the national championship tickets I bought when Dez Wells got eligible, I still can’t convince myself that Maryland can pull this one off. I think Kentucky is overrated due to their extreme youth, lack of depth, and lack of shooters, and a more experienced Maryland team would pose a real threat. But the top 6 or 7 that they do have are ludicrously talented, and there’s no more denying that Calipari is one of the premiere coaches in the game. Again, because these teams are so young, a lot of this is guess work, but I think The Terps keep it close, before Kentucky’s dominance on the board prevails in the end.
UK – 69, UMD – 61
Patrick Guthrie is a University of Maryland alumnus, co-host of the BSR Podcast and contributor at BaltimoreSportsReport.com. You can follow him on Twitter @patguth321.