Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl thought Kentucky’s home-court win streak would end this year and said so in October. Yet the current ESPN college basketball analyst thought it would likely be Florida or Missouri, not Baylor, that gave UK coach John Calipari his first Rupp Arena loss.
“I actually thought Kentucky might even lose twice. I¿just didn’t think it would happen before SEC play started. Baylor was talented enough to pull it off, but I was still shocked it did.”
“I don’t want to sound like ... because we guess all the time and don’t know it all .. but I¿felt some factor would make Kentucky take a step back this year,”¿Pearl said. “There’s no Darius Miller. No Terrence Jones. No Doron Lamb. I played (coached) against those guys. I know how tough Miller was. He killed Tennessee. He gave it to us not just with offense, but with defense and toughness. Lamb was a clutch shooter. Every time Anthony Davis went to block a shot, Terrence got the backside rebound or Calipari took him out.
“I¿enjoyed that Kentucky team last year as much as any team I¿have watched play, period. They were that much fun. I enjoyed them as much as any team I have ever seen in college basketball. I knew it was a rare team and I¿knew there would be a lot of change with this year’s team.”
Since Pearl has been out of coaching only two years, he recruited and/or watched many of the current Cats play in high school.
“I remember (point guard) Ryan Harrow in AAU. I know what a terrific scorer he is and know he needs to be aggressive offensively,” Pearl said. “That’s who he is and always has been. He does not have to be molded in John Calipari’s point guard mold. Yes, he needs to be a leader and play unselfish. But he needs to score to be effective. That gets the rest of his game going.”
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin came to Pearl’s camp at Tennessee.
“I was one of the first to offer Archie (a scholarship). I¿love him,” Pearl said. “He’s absolutely a great scorer. Great prospect. Great kid. He’s way too hard on himself. But I knew it would be hard for Archie to be the best offensive player on the team and hard on Kentucky if he was the guy they were counting on to be the best offensive player on the team night in, night out.
“I loved Archie Goodwin. He called me after games. He was so hard on himself. I spent most of my time trying to get him to stop being so hard on himself, and he loved to be coached. He wanted to be coached. He wanted the input. I knew after watching him play it was only a matter of time before my phone would ring and it would be him. It must be great to coach him.”
He watched freshman Alex Poythress of Clarksville, Tenn., and calls him a “rare specimen” much like Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, UK starts last year who went one-two in the NBA draft, were during Kentucky’s national championship season.
“But he grew up in Clarksville. He did not play the same level of competition that some players have,” Pearl said. “He has a ways to go. That does not mean he’s behind. It means he’s a fantastic freshman but his game is not as mature as what Kentucky is used to seeing. Kidd-Gilchrist as a high school freshman was dominating the AAU circuit. As a sophomore, he was a man among boys. That’s not the case with Alex. Too much is being asked of him.”
Pearl credits Calipari with a “great find in Willie Cauley-Stein who may wind up the best pro” on the roster. He’s also been impressed with freshman Nerlens Noel.
“He’s a terrific defender. He’s improved offensively. He’s showed great character,” Pearl said. “I like his body language. Like his energy level. Like the fact he likes to defend and block and change shots and rebound. He is probably behind offensively in the post, but he is scoring with his back to the basket some. I think he is on track to be a really great player.”
Even though he still believes Florida will win the SEC, he doesn’t see the Gators as unbeatable because of the “offensive weaponry” they have lost the last few years.
“This is one of best defensive teams that (coach) Billy Donovan has had. But there is not one single guaranteed first-round NBA draft pick on that team,” Pearl said. “There are a bunch of guys who will play professionally. I¿like their roster and think he has done a great job, but there is not one first-round pick on that team. Offensively, they are showing some limitations and can be guarded. Defensively, their zone will bother Kentucky. But Billy is also due to beat Cal.
“I would put Florida and Missouri neck and neck with Kentucky third. That is where I¿had Kentucky at the beginning of the season. I think Tennessee will compete for fourth and the next team could be Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, LSU. Who knows?”
For Kentucky to win the league, Pearl still believes Harrow is the key. He noted what happened the second half at Louisville when UK¿almost overcame a 17-point deficit before losing and one reason was the late scoring of Goodwin.
“Archie is a scorer. He can make plays off the ball but Harrow has got to run the club and run the break. Let Archie get on wing and get the ball. Throw the ball ahead to Archie and good luck stopping him,” Pearl said.
“I loved the way coach Cal just beat the life out of Ryan on ESPN (in the preseason all-access show). He called him everything but a little girl, but I¿loved the way those two interacted in the Louisville game. That continues to tell me that there might not be any coach in the country better at motivating kids and understanding kids. He put Harrow through a lot, but he’s responding. That was an encouraging sign and showed the chemistry on this team. That’s why Harrow is such a key for them.”
Pearl expects Kentucky to be in numerous close games during SEC play, especially on the road.
“They have to figure out how to win close games,” Pearl said.
Winning those games could help UK’s NCAA Tournament seeding even though it might not matter that much to the Wildcats by March.
“At Tennessee, I needed a good seed to advance. Kentucky doesn’t need that. They could make history. They could go to the Final Four as an eight or nine seed,”¿Pearl said. “They could win a lot of games in the SEC, but right now their highest RPI win is Maryland. They’ve got to beat Florida and Missouri. It’s almost unfortunate for Kentucky that the league RPI¿is down. That’s why they could be a 7-8-9 seed. But what No. 1 seed would want to go against them in the second round (of the NCAA). They could be scary good by then.”