Wiedmer: College basketball looks to special night

Wiedmer: College basketball looks to special night

November 12th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari caused quite a stir last week when he said "it's unfair" that his latest collection of one-and-done momentary students - who are ranked No. 1, by the way - face the second-ranked, grizzled veterans from Michigan State in the opening game of tonight's State Farm Classic.

Playing along with Cal, Spartans coach Tom Izzo tweeted Friday: "I agree. I think he should forfeit. If Johnny doesn't want to play it, I'll take a win."

Playing along with Izzo, Cal said Sunday, "I officially forfeit the game so [Tom] can go to Chicago and shop. We're not very good right now."

It's all a joke, of course. Beginning at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN, the Wildcats and Spartans actually will be the warmup act for the fantastic freshmen finale between Jabari Parker's Duke Blue Devils and Andrew Wiggins' Kansas Jayhawks.

If you haven't had time to check the latest NBA draft projections, Wiggins -- who is widely regarded as some genetic blending of LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Teen Wolf -- is overwhelmingly projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in next summer's draft.

In fact, www.draftexpress.com currently has Wiggins at the top, with fellow Jayhawks rookies Joel Embiid at No. 6 and Wayne Seldon at No. 14.

Kentucky freshman Julius Randle is expected to go second, followed by Cats classmate Andrew Harrison at No. 8 with sophomore graybeard Willie Cauley-Stein at No. 15.

Poor Duke and Sparty. The Blue Devils' only top-15 pick at the moment is Parker at No. 7, and MSU sophomore guard Gary Harris is slotted for the 16th pick.

But what really makes this must-see television is that the Elias Sports Bureau -- which is pretty much the bible of sports facts and statistics -- believes this is the first time in at least 30 years that two regular-season games matching four of the top five teams in the Associated Press poll will be played on the same day in the same building. Only No. 3 and defending NCAA champ Louisville is missing.

Though it wasn't the regular season, four of the top five teams were in the same building for the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, the only time all four No. 1 seeds -- in that case, Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA -- advanced to their sport's final weekend.

An interesting sidenote for Tennessee fans concerning UK's No. 1 ranking and the Spartans' second spot: Then No. 2 UT's victory at Memphis during the 2008 regular season was the last 1-2 matchup.

Yet regardless of what happens tonight -- assuming Cal doesn't forfeit -- all eyes will be on Kentucky for the foreseeable future. That's what happens when you bring in a recruiting class some rank as the best ever assembled, with six McDonald's All-Americans. Especially when your coach daydreams in public about a 40-0 season.

There's also history in the form of UK's 2012 season, which relied heavily on freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. That squad went 38-2, won UK its eighth NCAA title and actually led to Cal's "40-0" comment in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning following that championship inside New Orleans' Superdome.

But that's also where Big Blue Nation should use much caution in comparing 2012 to this season. Yes, Randle is a beast, but it's arguable that he's that much better than 2012 sophomore Terrence Jones. There's clearly more depth than the 20011-12 squad had, but Cal rarely has been comfortable going 10 deep. That's more former UK boss and current Louisville coach Rick Pitino's style, and he would surely have a field day with these Cats.

Pitino's not walking through that door, however. This is Cal's school now and he's hung the same number of NCAA banners from Rupp Arena's rafters as Pitino did at UK -- one.

And the biggest single reason for that banner -- 2012 national player of the year Davis -- also is why this team may not be as good as that one. Davis was a once-a-generation player, capable of deciding games without scoring by his rebounding and defense. Good as this UK team is, it seems to lack anyone who can begin to mimic AD's shot blocking.

Throw in the 25-hour-a-day, eight-days-a-week motor of perpetual motion machine Kidd-Gilchrist, and those are two titanic talents these Cats seem to lack.

So even if sophomore Alex Poythress from Clarksville, Tenn., can replace the sixth-man heroics of then senior Darius Miller; even if Andrew Harrison can duplicate Teague's NCAA tourney averages of 13.3 points and 4.9 assists; even if Andrew's twin Aaron can come close to shooting guard Doron Lamb's 13.7 scoring average, the 2013-14 Wildcats are far from a lock to win this year's NCAA crown, much less go 40-0.

Nor are Michigan State, Duke and Kansas the only threats to the Wildcats' title run. Defending champ Louisville might actually be better if juco point guard and Memphis native Chris Jones is as good as advertised. If Florida ever gets freshman Chris Walker eligible and everyone else healthy, the Gators could deny UK even an SEC championship.

Don't sleep on 2013 runner-up Michigan, Arizona or North Carolina, either. All have the talent and coaching to reach the Final Four in Dallas come April.

But all that's for later. When No. 1 versus No. 2 is the undercard, you'd be unfair to yourself to forfeit watching the first great night of college hoops in what promises to be a truly magical season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.