I have lost almost all interest in college basketball after Kentucky was eliminated by West Virginia and the sweatsuit loving Bob Huggins. That Kentucky team, which will undoubtedly be no more in the very near future, was my favorite college basketball team in a long time. I liked other teams in the past, but not for the same reasons. It was so obvious that this Kentucky team simply had more talent than their opponents every single game. Not once did they not have the requisite skill to compete. It was only their youth and spotty shooting that eventually led to their downfall (and tremendous dedication to the 1-3-1 defense by the Mountaineers).
I just want to look at this roster, or at least some of the players (apologies to Daniel Orton, you probably should stick around another year, or maybe not, if the predictions are right and you are a top-15 pick). At least three of these players are gone, possibly all four of them. Three of these players are freshmen phenoms, the other is an “old” junior. They are all tremendously talented, no doubt each able to go in the first round of the draft if they choose to come out, each with a distinct possibility of landing in the lottery picks.
How about Eric Bledsoe? Why do I have this feeling that Bledsoe was entirely underutilized this season. He was clearly overshadowed, as was apropos considering he was the other guard in Kentucky’s backcourt.
He is wickedly fast, maybe not as rapid as Wall can be, but he could do more than just nip at Wall’s heels in a race. And despite his listed height of 6’1″ (with the wingspan of a much longer man), he is always set to guard the opponent’s toughest cover. He may not have totally grasped lockdown status on defense, but he is hardly a few notches below.
And his offense isn’t great. His shooting is spotty at best (as should be expected from an incredibly young player), but when he is connecting from beyond the arc he quickly fills up the stat sheet. In Kentucky’s first round game against East Tennessee St. (I know, great defense) he made 8/9 threes on his way to 29 points. However, with his tremendous quickness and strength he has the ability to penetrate (especially when the college zone defenses give way to man-to-man NBA stratagem).
And Patrick Patterson? He could have come out to the NBA last season, but he stuck around. I don’t know exactly how good Patterson is/will be, but he seems at this point a virtual lock to be a lottery pick.
He isn’t dangerous beyond the arc, but he can maneuver in the paint. He has a semi-developed offensive repertoire, his jumpshot greatly improved since his early days spent in Kentucky. He is super efficient in the painted area offensively and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around.
His defensive presence was tremendous this season. Playing the 4 instead of the 5 this season (clearly more logical given his size compared to other 5’s) he has used his athleticism and strength to handle other forwards and his shot blocking prowess to alter shots not caught by Cousins/Orton in the paint (and sometimes Wall).
He took a risk coming back to school with a new coach, new system, and new teammates who would dominate the headlines and ball. But it seems to have worked out for Patterson, who was finally able to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in his collegiate career.
What about Demarcus Cousins? The talented big man has done enough in his first year for some critics to claim he was more important to Kentucky’s success than Wall as well as having a better future pro career than his fellow freshman.
While I don’t agree with the second, it is without doubt that if Cousins was having a terrific game then Kentucky was almost impossible to beat. That is just common sense that applies to all of basketball. If the big guy in the paint is dominating, the defense has to compensate or be squashed into nothingness, and if they do compensate that leaves teammates open to do what they wish to the scrambling defense.
However, Cousins is a big man. I mean big. 6’11” and 280 lbs. of immature big man ready to try to throw the ball through the rim by way of any body part you aren’t afraid to lose by stopping him. His offensive game could use some development, but who’s couldn’t? His defense is at the least intimidating and his help defense is certainly altering.
He is swift for a big man, always willing to throw the outlet pass and sprint up the court in hopes of an easy bucket waiting for him at the other end (and with Wall running the break, it usually is). But, it’s not all roses and rainbows with Cousins. Given his age, it isn’t surprising that he lacks a certain maturity in his personality, but he often takes it too far. Thankfully for Kentucky, most of his complaining was done on the bench and not directly to the refs (something that will certainly land him in contention for most technicals in the season next year).
He has a lot more maturing to do emotionally than physically, which is a dangerous proposition for teams investing in a young basketball player. But he is just too talented to pass up, making the All-America team as a freshman center.
Which leads perfectly into none other than John Wall. If you don’t know by now, he is my favorite college player in a long time. He is just so exciting and captivating to watch. He has “it”, whatever that may be. You can’t take your eyes off of him as long as he is within the frame.
His qualities at this point are known by any and all who even attempted to care about college basketball this year. The upsides are enormous, the downsides seemingly minimal. Some would argue that Evan Turner is the better player, which is fine. That doesn’t, however, make him a better pro prospect. Would you feel more comfortable telling those to who you are responsible to that you passed on Evan Turner or that you passed on John Wall? Unless you are the Jazz, you can’t really justify passing on Wall, and even then, you might try to find a way to make it work.
As a much wiser man noted about Wall, it is as if the college game shackled his play. Forced to mostly operate in the half court offense, his speed and development were partially stifled. That is not to say he didn’t operate the offense well, because he did. But it was on the fast-break where all his tools were utilized. It is as if you took a mustang (horse, not car) and had it plough the fields. Clearly, it would be more comfortable in the open, but it can still get the job done.
And all the positives about him are true. He isn’t fast, he is beyond fast. He has more gears than most teams combined. He makes it look so effortless it is beyond deceiving. He will race from end-to-end, seamlessly blowing by opponents attempting to cut him off, without ever seeming like he is running “hard”.
But all that speed is hard to harness, as evidenced by his tendency to turn the ball over. When full speed (or something close to it), he sometimes struggles to put up a layup with any prayer of going in (maybe LeBron has spoiled my viewing expectations). He often throws passes that are too wild for even his tremendous teammates to fully grasp.
He has been called the greatest athlete as a collegiate point guard ever by people with some clout as college basketball analysts. That quite a hefty praise, considering Derrick Rose had that same distinction just two years ago when he was refining his game at Memphis.
His shooting could be easily improved. Now it is somewhere between irregular and spotty. However, this is hardly different than what Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans experienced in their respective stints in college. His shooting is passable at this point, not dangerous but he connects often enough that you can’t just leave him be at all times. Plus with his driving ability he, like Rose, doesn’t need to be a sniper from beyond the arc right away anyway.
Watching Wall was an entirely different experience than watching any other college players. He was just on another plane in terms of talent than most if not all of his competitors. He grew bored during the season. At worst I can only envision Wall being a good pro. At best, I can’t really even calculate.
Yes, he couldn’t unlock the mystery that was the West Virginia zone defense, but his defense is that of inexperience and youth. Every team schemed to stop him, not Cousins or Bledsoe or Patterson. Him. They were all determined to not let him penetrate the lane and kick it out to a teammate for the open shot. Yet he still succeeded, averaging 16.6 points and 6.5 assists. He was an All-American as a freshman alongside teammate Demarcus Cousins and he set all sorts of Kentucky freshman records as well as notching the most assists in a season at Kentucky, ever. Simply incredible. Of course, this could all look really bad in 5 years if Wall doesn’t pan out like I predict and Turner becomes the next Brandon Roy.
This Kentucky team was incredible even if they weren’t champions. They were certainly my favorite college team to watch this year, if not ever. That love for this college team will surely dissipate as the freshmen declare themselves eligible to fortune and fame, and this ephemeral lust for college basketball will surely rise again next season as some other team (North Carolina?) rakes in multiple All-Americans in search of basketball redemption.