The following excerpt comes from Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, the “bible” of college basketball now in its 32nd printing. Edited by SEC Digital Network contributor Chris Dortch, Blue Ribbon is a 400-page preview that features full stories on 345 Division I teams. To order a copy, go to www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 877-807-4857.
Key returning player: Kyle Wiltjer (6-9, SO, F)
Wiltjer played in all 40 games as a freshman, and though his time on the floor was limited, the former five-star recruit showed glimpses of why he was that highly regarded.
Consider his 24-point effort in a win over Loyola, or his 19 points against Penn State. Or, just as impressive, the fact he made a 3-pointer in four straight NCAA tournament wins - over Iowa State, Indiana, Baylor and Louisville—despite hardly playing enough to get his shot in rhythm.
“He is as good a shooter as we have, or I've ever coached,” Calipari said during the NCAA tournament. “But you haven't been able to see some of his post game. In the post, his coach and his father have taught him very well. He's got a great post game.
“When he gets stronger from his waist down, I don't know how you guard him. His dad's 7-foot tall. He's grown. He may grow to seven feet. Now all of a sudden, you've got a load in the post who can step out and make threes. He's going to be tremendous.”
That post game Cal mentioned includes a genuine sky hook, ala Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a YouTube video floating around that shows Wiltjer unleashing that particular weapon in the Jordan Brand Classic. A jump hook it ain’t.
That’s what’s neat about Wiltjer. He’s an old soul, basketball-wise, possessor of a back-in-the-day game that reminds basketball fans—at least those of a certain age - of NBA stars of a bygone era such as Dave Cowens, Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Dave DeBusschere.
Calipari says those comparisons haven’t been lost on NBA scouts.
“[NBA] teams have come in and watched us, and they love him,” Calipari said. “They watch him practice, and they say [they] really love that kid. He's going to be good.”
Wiltjer will be asked to provide more, much more, than he had to a year ago. And though transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays have previous Division I experience, Wiltjer is the only player on Kentucky’s roster that has played significant minutes for Calipari. He’ll have to provide a stabilizing influence on the Wildcats’ freshmen.
Wiltjer used the off-season to prepare for the additional responsibilities he’s adding.
“He’s improved his body,” Robic said. “He’s improved his strength. He’s gonna have to be more than just a spot-up shooter. We’re gonna have to throw the ball to him in the post a little bit. We’ll use him in some ball screens.
“He does have a low-post game, but he’s gonna beat you by out-smarting you instead of out-jumping you.”
Key newcomer: Nerlens Noel (6-10, FR, F)
We’ll go ahead and get this out of the way right now. Noel is not the next Anthony Davis. But that’s no knock on the kid. Davis, don’t forget, was one of those once-every-decade players, unique in size, athleticism and skill set. Noel is very good, but he’s not going to win national player-of-the-year honors.
But enough of what Noel won’t do. Let’s move on to what he will do. He’s going to block some shots, a ton of shots. Probably not the 186 Davis blocked last season, but Noel will get his share, and then some.
Calipari always loves to have a mistake eraser on his back line, and he considers Noel - who ESPN rated the No. 1 player and the No. 1 center in the class of 2012 - among the best he’s coached. And like Davis, Noel, with his gasoline hose arms, sometimes seems like a one-man zone defense, capable of blocking shots in the paint or on the perimeter. It’s funny to watch game tape of Noel, armed with his 7-foot-4 wingspan, flying out past the 3-point line and swatting balls back into stunned shooters’ faces.
"I've been blessed three times in my career to have a player that can change the game without really scoring with Marcus Camby, Anthony Davis and now Nerlens Noel," Calipari said. "Nerlens, just like Anthony, is not a finished product. He's got a lot of work to do and we have a lot of work to do to get him to where I think he's capable of being, but he is a special player who I am ecstatic to have an opportunity to work with."
Yes, Noel is a work in progress, but fans are still going to compare him to Davis. So for all those folks, here’s a little nugget you’ll love. There’s at least one thing Noel does better than Davis.
“He’s a quicker jumper,” Kentucky assistant coach John Robic said. “You can’t mention him in the same breath as Anthony [as a shot blocker]. Anthony had great timing, he had great patience, and that’s something Nerlens is going to have to learn.
“But he’s a very quick jumper, and he’s long. He’s a shot blocker. That’s what he does. And he’s going to need to do that for us.”
Noel will also need to score, which before his senior season of high school basketball, he seemed almost reluctant to do. But last year he showed signs - putting the ball on the deck to elude slower defenders, finishing at the rim with either hand, jump hooks, passing from the high post - of becoming a confident offensive player.