The Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy, one of the nation’s top college basketball writers, recently helped select the preseason TSN All-America team. He shares his thoughts on Kentucky freshmen Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel being honored as well as other aspects of UK¿coach John Calipari’s team as the Wildcats get set for Big Blue Madness on Friday night:
Question: What prompted you to select Alex Poythress as a second team preseason All-American? What do you like best about him?
Question: What kept Nerlens Noel off the overall All-American team, but got him on the preseason all-freshman team? What would be your biggest concern about him?
DeCourcy: “Nerlens Noel will have a tremendous influence on how this season's Cats perform, and I think he will be excellent. But just to show you how tough it is for a big man to develop a reliable offensive game, to have a nightly impact at that end, remember where Anthony Davis was at midseason. And Anthony is an uncommonly gifted offensive player. Nerlens is not.
“We expect that Noel is going to be a dominant defensive player. But consider that Gorgui Dieng averaged 3.2 blocks last season for Louisville — and he was not even named to the Big East honorable mention team. Do I think Noel will have a better year this year than Dieng did last year? Yes. But I'm still not certain whether that will elevate him to All-America level.”
Question: Do you see Archie Goodwin as just a slight notch below Poythress and Noel or do you see him not quite on the same level as those two?
DeCourcy: “Archie Goodwin is another excellent prospect. I saw him when he had an injured hand, so I'm not sure how that affected his long-range shooting, but I've been given to understand that is not one of his strengths. He is a superb athlete and driver of the basketball. I'm sure in time he'll be a significant force for the Wildcats and eventually a first-round NBA pick. I'm not sure that happens this year.”
Question: What impact do you think transfer Julius Mays will make on this team?
DeCourcy: “We're talking about someone who already has averaged double-figures at the Division I level, and who was originally recruited at the high-major level. So even though his success came in a lesser league than the SEC, it's not as though no one ever expected he could survive here. I would expect he'll provide a nice touch off the bench, something UK will need. Even with last year's short rotation, bringing Darius Miller off the bench was a huge advantage for the Cats. I don't think Mays will be that good, but then, I don't think any team this season will be as imposing as last year's UK squad.”
Question: Who is the one player that intrigues you the most on this Kentucky team?
DeCourcy: “I guess I'd have to say Willie Cauley-Stein since that's who everybody, especially John (Calipari), is talking about. I saw him in the summer before his senior year and thought he was an impressive athlete for someone his size. In more than two decades of watching players on the summer circuit, I've seen lots of those. What more does he have? Is he hungry? Does he love the game? Will he take some punishment? Does he have any offense? That's what I want to see over the next month or two.”
Question: Does it surprise you that Calipari already seems well positioned to possibly have another top recruiting class? What do you think is his best selling point with recruits right now?
DeCourcy: “Why would it surprise me when this is like the fifth year in a row? It surprised me in the summer of 2011 when I talked to John at the Peach Jam and there were actually people worried about whether UK would recruit well for the 2012 class. And he wound up with Poythress, Goodwin and, after Noel reclassified, the best center prospect. It doesn't surprise me when individual recruits Kentucky is pursuing go elsewhere; as John says, it's not for everybody. But if we got to the end of the spring and UK couldn't find three to five players who want to follow the course of the program's recent freshmen — that would shock me.”
Question: What do you feel are the chances of a third straight Final Four for Kentucky?
DeCourcy: “I honestly think people worry too much about that. So much has to go right for a team to make the Final Four. I know John always talks about playing for seeding, but the way to play for seeding is to develop a team that can win its league. If you win the SEC, Big East, ACC, Big 12 — any of the top six leagues, there's a good chance you're going to be in the picture for a high seed.
“Winning a league is hard. You've got to be functional enough to win a significant percentage of 16-18 games, you've got to be tough enough to play on the road. If you can do those things better than everybody else in the SEC, you've got a shot at a Final Four.
“That should be where the focus of the players — and fans — should be as the season begins. You build toward the league, you control the league, then you think about what comes next.”