In "First Look," Prospectus updates our preseason expectations for some of the nation's top college teams after getting a chance to watch them in action early in the season.
Wednesday night, John Calipari unveiled his latest crop of prize recruits as Kentucky defeated Transylvania University 97-53 in an exhibition at Rupp Arena. (Sadly, Transylvania was not visiting from the homeland of Vlad the Impaler, but is instead a private, liberal-arts college from central Kentucky.) Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague all impressed in their first games in Wildcat uniforms. Teague was an assist shy of a double-double, Kidd-Gilchrist had 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists and Davis threatened a block-rebound double-double, swatting away eight shots by the Pioneers.
It was difficult to determine which was more mesmerizing during the game: Calipari's dress shirt (blue with a white collar, worn open) or Davis' wingspan, which reaches longer than he will spend in college. Already, Davis is a special shot blocker. Granting that he was playing against outmatched D-III opposition, Davis regularly blocked shots in two ways almost never seen at this level of basketball--sending away three-point shots on the perimeter and others by simply reaching up flat-footed and stonewalling a player in the post.
"I kept yelling to my guys, 'Quit trying to shoot threes over Anthony Davis. He's 6-foot-15,'" Transylvania coach Brian Lane told reporters. "I would have never dreamed we'd have that many shots blow up in our hand from the three-point line. With his athleticism and being that long, it really surprised our three-point shooters. He's 10 feet off of us and still blocking them."
Davis' arms look as if they should belong to some other player about a half-foot taller. They afford him the ability to defend on the perimeter nearly as well as in the paint because he can play so far off of guards and still contest or even block their shots. Davis, who is two years removed from being a 6-3 guard, looks like he's still figuring out how to take advantage of his body. When he gets it down, look out.
Having come off the bench in the first half, Kidd-Gilchrist started after halftime, and Calipari said after the game the freshman would be one of his starters. His well-rounded game ideally complements the other stars on the Kentucky roster. Teague is also assured of a starting spot, and one of the Wildcats' biggest concerns will be keeping him on the floor. Calipari doesn't have a real backup for Teague; sophomore wing Doron Lamb handled that task on Wednesday and will likely continue in that role as part of a four-player rotation on the perimeter that's rounded out by senior Darius Miller. If Kentucky stays healthy, that leaves plenty of playing time for all four players, but an injury could pose serious depth issues.
One way Calipari got creative was by briefly playing Terrence Jones at small forward. Jones spent much of his time on the perimeter, taking advantage of his ballhandling skills, though he got inside enough to score 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting and grab 12 rebounds. The versatility of Jones, Davis (who attempted a three and has some ability as a ballhandler in his own right) and Kidd-Gilchrist gives Calipari the flexibility to ignore traditional positions on offense and put his starters in a variety of different positions.
Playing big does put more pressure on Teague to be a consistent three-point threat. Lamb and Miller are the team's best outside shooters, and only one of them will be on the floor much of the time. On Wednesday, they combined for five triples in 11 attempts; the rest of the team was 2-of-9, including 1-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc for Teague. Expect teams to play zone against Kentucky, or at least a sagging man-to-man that dares the Wildcats to shoot over the top, as was often the case in 2009-10.
I suspect this year's Kentucky group won't be as good offensively as last year's team, which ranked seventh in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. However, I think this might be Calipari's best defensive team since his arrival in Lexington. Given the 2009-10 Wildcats were sixth in the country, that would be quite an accomplishment. With good size at every position and Davis in the middle, Kentucky will be tough to score on as soon as the freshmen get comfortable in Calipari's system.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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