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February 6, 2012
Calipari's Best Team Yet
Talent Plus Balance

by John Gasaway


The last moment when No. 1-ranked Kentucky looked like anything remotely resembling a normal team was around 3:50 local time on the afternoon of January 28. The Wildcats were on the road that day to play LSU, and with 3:19 remaining in the first half UK led the Tigers by just one point. LSU's Anthony Hickey had just stolen the ball from Kyle Wiltjer, leading to a Storm Warren dunk on the other end. The Tiger crowd was going crazy, but, though no one knew it, that was as close as Trent Johnson's team -- or anyone else since -- would come to catching UK. "We came together and stayed composed," John Calipari said afterward. UK's composure allowed them to finish strong that day and go on to record a 74-50 win.

Since that moment in Baton Rouge, Kentucky has gone on a 204-122 run over 152 possessions spread across a little more than two-and-a-half SEC games, outscoring their conference opponents during that stretch by (take a deep breath) 0.53 points per possession. No, those opponents have not been especially daunting (the Tigers, Tennessee, and South Carolina). Still, two of those three games took place on the road and, anyway, once you're talking about a scoring margin that exceeds half a point per trip, you're looking at dominance that can get the job done against tougher opponents as well.

Or at least that's the theory. We're about to find out if theory translates into practice. To date UK's played the second-easiest conference schedule of any SEC team, but things will now become far more interesting. The 23-1 Wildcats host Florida tomorrow night, and then travel to Vanderbilt on Saturday, playing their two primary conference rivals back-to-back. On the eve of what promises to be a crucial five-day stretch for the Cats, let's take a close look at what has all the markings of a team ticketed for the Final Four.

This might be Calipari's most dominant team.
I don't mean "most dominant" within its own conference, because Kentucky will be hard pressed to dominate this year's SEC the way Calipari's Memphis teams used to simply blow away the rest of Conference USA. For example, Calipari's 2008 team, the one led by Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, outscored C-USA by 0.29 points per trip. And while UK's current scoring margin in SEC play is more or less identical (0.28 points per possession), the calendar says it's early February and the Wildcats have the meat of their schedule still to come.

No, I mean simply if I had to choose two of Calipari's teams to square off for the title of Coach Cal's best ever, I'd match up this group with that 2008 team. The scoring margins recorded by both are way beyond anything we saw from Calipari's first two teams in Lexington, and you might remember those teams reached the 2010 Elite Eight and 2011 Final Four, respectively. Right now I would rate Anthony Davis and company as the strongest of Calipari's three Kentucky teams. That's how good they've been to this point.

Add the defense of 2010 to the offense of 2011, and you have Kentucky in 2012.
The 2010 Kentucky team that starred John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson played much better defense than many observers realized at the time. In fact relative to what was "average" for the SEC in 2010, that UK team was actually a hair better on D than this group is this season -- and if you've seen the Wildcats this year you know that's saying something. But even with Wall doing his thing on offense, that team couldn't come close to what Calipari has this year in terms of scoring efficiency. In this respect the current edition of Kentucky more closely resembles last year's high-scoring team. Calipari always has talent, of course, but this season he has something that he hasn't been able to claim before: the SEC's best offense and its best defense, both within the same team.

Forget potential, Davis is present-tense amazing.
By now we're used to seeing Calipari's players go at the top of the NBA draft, but "the next level" is famous or infamous for drafting on potential, something this coach's stars always possess in abundance. In the case of Anthony Davis, however, there's no need to fall back on "potential" to explain why he will likely be the first player chosen in the 2012 draft. His impact on a game is already phenomenal.

You've seen the 6-10 freshman's amazing shot-blocking, and you've also seen opposing teams more or less give up on scoring in the paint as a result. Well, your eyes are telling the truth: the rest of the SEC has made just 40 percent of its twos against this defense. (Actually 39.7 percent, which is both more accurate and more impressive-sounding.) Likewise, you already know that Davis has been able to wreak this havoc without committing many fouls, meaning he's on the floor for an additional seven minutes per game compared to what the NBA-bound but foul-prone Cousins managed two seasons ago.

What you may not realize about Davis, however, is that he gives every indication of being able to do whatever's necessary on offense. Thus far he's made 69 percent of his twos while playing a supporting role in UK's balanced offense. At the same time he's been able to draw fouls, shoot reasonably well at the line (70 percent), and clean up the offensive glass -- all while taking excellent care of the ball. The Wildcats are hardly lacking for options on offense, of course. Between Doron Lamb's excellent three-point shooting and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's relentless slashing into the paint, there's been little occasion to think of "offense" where the subject of Davis is concerned. Even so, I think Kentucky will at some point play a close game (gasp!), and when they do I look forward to seeing Davis getting his fair share of touches on offense with the game on the line.

But is Kentucky better than Ohio State and Syracuse?
Right now you might be saying: Wait a minute. Didn't you just say last week that Ohio State is the best team in the country?

Yes, that was me. If you're keeping track, the Buckeyes have outscored the Big Ten by almost exactly the same margin that Kentucky has recorded in the SEC. Meantime Syracuse has been 0.19 points per trip better than the rest of the Big East. While I happen to think OSU is the top team in the country at the present time, all three scoring margins mark a team as clear national-championship material. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning the lack of "great teams this year" (the bemoaning happens annually), please ask that person for me if they've seen any of the above -- and most especially if they've watched what might be John Calipari's best team yet.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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