LEXINGTON, Ky. - In his fourth year in this Mecca of college basketball, coach John Calipari is slacking off. He has just one Kentucky Mr. Basketball on his roster.And there's this: Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats are outside the Associated Press Top 25 for the third week in a row. Oh, the horror!Has Marshall, entering Rupp Arena for a 4 p.m. tip today, caught a break and facing the Wildcats on a rare down slope? The polls think so - even the coaches have downgraded UK to 23rd, 12 spots behind Marshall's opponent of a week ago, Cincinnati.Certainly, the defending national champions are human. The Wildcats (7-3) lost on Nov. 13 to Duke, which is no sin, but then finished the month and started December with a loss at Notre Dame and a home setback to Baylor. Neither team was ranked, and in the following AP poll, neither was Kentucky.
All that provides the Thundering Herd (7-5) zero comfort. Maybe less than that - the Wildcats have resharpened their game by savaging Samford (88-56), pummeling Portland (74-46) and lashing Lipscomb (88-50). A mauling of Marshall could put the Wildcats back in the Top 25, media-wise.But you must know two things about this UK team: It is awfully young, again, and outrageously talented.Again. For his latest recruiting stunt, Calipari brought in two Mr. Basketball award winners and the USA Today player of the year."They're a lot better now than they were a couple of weeks ago," said Herd coach Tom Herrion. "With a coach like Coach Cal, they'll get better and better."That national player of the year is Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-10, 228-pound native of Everett, Mass. He averages 10.7 points and has team highs in blocks (39) and steals (28), and his 21 assists attests to his ability to dish out to an open shooter.
Noel could be the man-child of the bunch, or it could be Tennessee Mr. Basketball Alex Poythress. At 6-7, 239, you can throw out the distinction between small and power forward because he can do both simultaneously. He averages 15 points and 6.2 rebounds, but his big number is a .652 shooting percentage, sixth in the nation after last weekend.Arkansas Mr. Basketball is 6-41/2 Archie Goodwin, who leads the Wildcats in scoring with 15.8 points per game, averages a team-high 4.4 assists and pulls down 5.4 rebounds per contest. Back inside, 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein was "only" the 10th-best center on last season's ESPNU list. Also a star wide receiver at Olathe (Kan.) High School, Cauley-Stein averages 7.6 points and 5.1 rebounds and has blocked 19 shots.Calipari has older stars, too. Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 forward, leads the team in 3-pointers (24 made, .414 percentage), Wright State graduate transfer guard Julius Mays leads the team in minutes (33.0 per game), point guard Ryan Harrow is a North Carolina State transfer who is coming back off an injury, and Jon Hood is that 2009 Kentucky Mr. Basketball who chips in with his five minutes a game. He's the lone Wildcat who was around when Calipari arrived from Memphis."He's probably their best perimeter shooter at 6-10," Herrion said of Wiltjer. "He can really stretch the floor, which makes it harder to guard because he opens up driving lanes. He's a lethal shooter."Shoot, the Wildcats even have a Sam Malone from Massachusetts. Doesn't tend bar, though.Throw in 20,000 or so blue-bleeding fans and it's another basketball party in Lexington. The Herd, still missing its floor leader in DeAndre Kane and struggling in several areas, will have to play its best and more to douse all those cheers.
"We've got to play well, we've got to play strong," Herrion said. "You go out on the road, you've got to do everything better."BRIEFLY: On the D.D. Scarver watch: The junior is 16 of 30 from 3-point range over the last four games, which includes West Virginia and Cincinnati. He is averaging 18.8 points over that span. Fellow juco import Elijah Pittman averages 15 points over those last four games. ... Marshall last played a defending national champion when it took on North Carolina in the game before Christmas 2009. That was a disaster for the Herd, as the Tar Heels romped in the second half to a 98-61 win. ... The largest crowed to ever see the Herd came at Rupp Arena on Dec. 27, 1994, 23,782. That, too, didn't go well for the Herd, which lost 116-75.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.