Southeastern Conference Television analyst Joe Dean Jr., who was an assistant coach at Kentucky under Joe Hall, admitted going into last season that he thought a case could be made that Kentucky might be only the fifth best team in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. Of course, the Wildcats went on to win the SEC tournament and advance to the Final Four, something Dean says many friends who are his friends didn’t let him forget.
“I may never live that down, but going into last season, and even for part of the season, Kentucky just did not look like a Final Four team,” Dean said. “This year, it’s not that way.”
Dean shared these insights on Kentucky, which plays Kansas on Tuesday night in New York:
Question: What do you see for Kentucky this year in the Southeastern Conference?
Dean: “Obviously it’s late October and lot to be determined by the new players, but John Calipari’s track record tells us he is pretty good at bringing in new players and getting a lot of good performance out of them. I¿have them picked as the No. 1 team in the SEC without a doubt. With Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller back, and they are all really, really good players and good leaders, they will be good. If the new guys perform the way I think, they will be very good.
“I am a big John Calipari fan.¿I think he is a very underrated coach.¿I think he is a great teacher, motivator.¿I have watched him in practice and how the kids pay attention to him. They work their tails off and he knows how to get the most out of these guys. We have seen this from him for a long time, and especially what he has done at Kentucky.
“I think the Big Blue Nation has a right to feel very, very good about their chances to win it all this year.”
Question: How good is Calipari not only at recruiting players, but developing players when he gets them?
Dean: “I think we have seen a lot of very good high school players come into college programs and not meet expectations. Since John Calipari has been at Kentucky, all these freshmen have come in for the most part and either met or exceeded expectations for the most part and put themselves in a position to go to the NBA.
“I live in Birmingham and when Eric Bledsoe came out of high school, there were people who questioned how good he really was. A year with John Calipari, he is a first-round NBA draft pick. To me, that says it all.”
Question: How important is Darius Miller to UK’s national title hopes?
Dean: “Every championship team has to have a player like Darius Miller. He is not the best player on the team. He’s not the most gifted athlete on the team. But he does everything well, he is a team player, he has the respect of his teammates and he is kind of the glue to the team. You have to have a guy like that. And he’s a home-grown Kentucky young man. That means he cares and it means something to him and he can convey that to the freshmen and how important this is and the tradition of Kentucky basketball. I think Darius is probably the key to the Kentucky team for all those reasons.”
Question: How much does his experience, especially in Southeastern Conference play, mean to Kentucky?
Dean: “The experience of going around the SEC, he can share that with the players. As great as Kentucky’s program is, when they go on the road they always have a bullseye on their back. They are the other team’s biggest game every night. Some of those freshmen coming in really don’t understand that. It’s hard to assimilate that in practice until you experience it. Darius Miller knows when he goes into somebody else’s arena, it is their biggest game. Full house, the whole nine yards. You have to be more mentally tough than anyone else.
“Joe Hall used to talk about that all the time. That you have to demand so much of the Kentucky players because they are put on such a pedestal by the fans and if you allow them to let all that adulation to seep in, they will become complacent. When you go on the road to Starkville, Miss., or Gainesville or Nashville you will get your butt kicked if you are not mentally tough enough to handle that.”
Question: What improvement would you expect out of sophomore guard Doron Lamb this year?
Dean: “I think putting the ball on the floor. Kyle Macy talked about in the Blue-White Game that at one point out of all the points he had scored, he only had one 3-point basket. That shows he’s taking it to the basket, shooting mid-range jumpers and getting to the foul line. I think to become a complete offensive player, you have to be more than just a stand still shooter. I think he is working to be that so if the defense comes and crowds him on his 3-point shots, he can take it and make some plays.”
Question: How much fun it is to coach a team with as many offensive weapons as Kentucky will have?
Dean: “To play with other great players is a joy. Every athlete wants to win. When you are on a team where you can make a pass or throw a lot to the basket and the play will be completed, it is a lot of fun. That’s probably why a lot of these guys go to Kentucky. They know coach Calipari is going to allow them the freedom on offense to do the things they can naturally do and use their talents.”
Question: Would it stun you in March if Kentucky did not win the SEC?
Dean: “It would surprise me to be honest with you. I think Vanderbilt is a very good team, but over a 16-game schedule can they have a better record than Kentucky. I personally don’t think so.”
Question: Is there a better player in the conference than Terrence Jones?
Dean: “No. You have to put him right on top as the best player. There are some other very good players that will challenge him for the player of the year awards, but he has the whole package and ranks as the best player going into the season.”