The news last Saturday that previously unbeaten Syracuse had lost at Notre Dame was about as welcome as root canal surgery for Kentucky coach John Calipari
, for that meant his Wildcats would ascend this week to the top spot in both major polls.
As if Kentucky—“We’re everybody’s Super Bowl when we come to play,” Cal has said often—needed the target on its back to get any bigger.
“I was trying to get a hold of [Syracuse coach] Jim Boeheim
, I was so mad at him,” Calipari joked before the Wildcats (19-1, 5-0 SEC) practiced on Monday in preparation for Tuesday night’s game at Georgia. “It’s just an added thing.
“I just watched Georgia and Vanderbilt [on tape]. Georgia had Vanderbilt beat at Vandy. I don’t know if they need anything added. They are at home against us, and it will be sold out.”
The No. 1 ranking doesn’t mean as much at Kentucky as it might at other schools. What matters more to Calipari is whether the Wildcats can grab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a platform from which another deep run can be launched. Calipari has led his team to the Elite Eight and the Final Four in his first two seasons. Can the Wildcats take it another step farther in 2012?
Here are some numbers to keep an eye on as the season progresses. If the ’Cats continue to rank among the SEC leaders in each of them, that’s a sign that they’ll be ready for the half-court slugfests to come in the NCAAs:
• Field goal percentage defense. The Wildcats are allowing their opponents to shoot .363 from the field. That leads the league and is second in the nation behind only Wisconsin. It’s hard to stress how impressive that statistic is given the collective youth of this team. Calipari got his players to quickly buy into defending, and it has become a habit.
• Rebound margin. Again, Kentucky leads the SEC (+7.3) and is 15th in Division I in this key statistic. Those half-court slugfests usually include a bunch of rebound opportunities. The team that gets to the majority of them, especially on the offensive glass, often wins.
• Free-throw percentage. Kentucky is shooting .715 from the line, tops in the SEC. Close games are often won by clutch free-throw shooting.
• Assist-to-turnover ratio. This one isn’t bad at 1.03, fifth in the conference, but it can be improved upon. The continued maturation of point guard Marquis Teague will be the key.
BOST’S TOUCH RETURNS:
Mississippi State guard Dee Bost’s
shooting eye had drifted in the later stages of non-conference play and a game or two in the SEC, but it returned as the Bulldogs (16-4, 3-2) bagged a huge road win at Vanderbilt last week. Bost was 8 of 14 from the floor and 3 of 6 from 3-point range in scoring 24 points.
State is more than good enough to win without Bost contributing that many points—as the program’s all-time assist leader (538), he can contribute in other ways—but when he’s shooting as well as he did at Vanderbilt, Bost makes the Bulldogs much harder to beat.
STOKES REPORT, V. 2:
All of three games into his college career, Tennessee freshman Jarnell Stokes
has done more than anyone thought he could do after joining the team on Jan. 11. Even his own parents.
“I mean, if you ask the people closest to me—Mom, Dad—they told me I should redshirt this year because I wouldn’t be good enough right now,” Stokes said.
The SEC freshman of the week award he claimed this week would suggest otherwise. So would the 16-point, 12-rebound double-double he dropped on Connecticut’s Andre Drummond
on Saturday. Drummond had been considered by some pundits to be a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. His coach, hall of famer Jim Calhoun, was impressed with Stokes.
"He's a presence inside," Calhoun said. "He doesn't have to be 7-foot-5. He's got a wide body. He's strong."
How is the 6-8, 270-pound Stokes, he of the size 20 shoe, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds so early in his career, and against such stout competition (Kentucky, at Georgia, UConn)?
“He’s going off sheer talent,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin
said, “and the understanding of how to play basketball. There are still a lot of things he needs to learn … but he’s fit in so well. He does a good job of posting up; he does a good job of facing up. And he’s also a pretty good shooter. I think once he gets his legs up under him fully, he’s going to make shots.”
Back in the old days, an ACL injury might have meant the end of a career, but at best a year on the sidelines. These days, a player can undergo surgery to repair the damage and, in some cases, be back on the court in a few months.
Such is the case for Alabama’s 7-foot, 280-pound center Moussa Gueye
, a junior college transfer who had been expected to start until he tore the ACL in his left knee in an August pickup game. Fortunately for Alabama, the program has access to the expertise of Birmingham-based orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, a pioneer in reconstructive surgery. Gueye underwent surgery in late August, and three months later he was on the court against Jacksonville.
Credit goes to Gueye for his hard work rehabbing the injury, and it doesn’t hurt that Alabama has one of the best strength, conditioning and training staffs in the country. After that short stint of action against Jacksonville, Gueye sat the next four games, but last week he played 14 minutes against Vanderbilt and came up with five points, two rebounds and two blocked shots. He then logged five minutes at Kentucky and contributed three points and a couple of boards.
“He's still learning the system, doing what he needs to do outside of practice and the last few minutes of games,” Bama coach Anthony Grant
said after the Vanderbilt game. “I thought he did a very good job though."
Gueye’s progress could end up being vital to the cause as the Crimson Tide (13-6, 2-3) tries to play its way into an NCAA Tournament bid. He’s a rebounder/shot blocker first, but he’s also got good footwork and a face-up game, which suggests the sophomore, who missed most of last season at Lake Land (Ill.) College while recovering from yet another injury, can contribute on both ends of the floor.
“He’s a big guy that has a good feel for the game, a pretty good skill level and an unselfish nature about him,” Grant told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook last August, before Gueye’s knee injury. “He’s got great upside.”