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This article is not about ripping the NCAA for not giving UK what it wanted. This is not about the process that declared him ineligible. This article is what it means to Kentucky. This article will proceed with the assumption (likelihood, really) that Kanter’s appeal will be denied by the NCAA. Coach Calipari put it this way, and I hope all UK fans will take it to heart:
“I think our fans get to (thinking), ‘Why is the NCAA doing this to us?’ They’re not doing it to us, they’re trying to figure this out,” the coach said. “I want the kid to play tomorrow but I want (the NCAA) to get it right.”
So lets move on to what this means.
I know that the conventional wisdom is that Kentucky is not going to be championship contender without Kanter. That may be so. It may be that Kentucky can find no rebounding, no inside presence, and no post defense without Kanter. It may be that neither Eloy Vargas nor Josh Harrellson can develop into serviceable replacements for Enes Kanter.
If that is so, we can expect Calipari to do what any coach would do in his shoes — play his most talented, athletic players and try to out-athlete and out-talent the competition. We have seen this before, and it works, and can even work very well, but usually not well enough to get a team all the way to the Final Four. But there is always a first time.
If Harrellson and/or Vargas are able to become serviceable, and even competent post players, Kentucky could potentially be much better than they would be without them. The two biggest factors that will be problematic for Kentucky will be rebounding and post defense, and neither of those two specific statistical categories are outside the theoretical ability of either man. The question is, how close can either one get to that archetype?
The Dribble Drive Motion is not terribly demanding of big men, other than to use their bodies to their advantage and run the floor in transition. I think Harrellson and Vargas are capable of growing into DDM big men if they will forget about themselves and sacrifice their bodies for the team. Harrellson is the most likely to be willing to do this right away, but that’s not enough. If Vargas doesn’t experience a Liggins-like epiphany and cast his personal desires away, it will be hard for UK to consistently run the DDM. There is little chance that Harrellson can manage it alone.
Running the DDM with Terrance Jones or Darius Miller at the 5 is not really an option. Neither of these guys have sufficient size to rebound the basketball consistently against bigger players, or the attitude required to perform that way as an undersized player. What it would require is a Dennis Rodman or a Chuck Hayes — guys with either the weirdness or strength of personality, along with the athleticism, to do the little things that stars like Kentucky has do not want to do. Harrellson may be willing, but in many cases, he will be out-athleted. Does he have the strength of will to overcome those limitations? So far, I’d have to say it’s doubtful. But I’m not ruling him out.
Vargas is a better athlete, but he does not like contact. That’s a deal-killer, and unless he can find his inner Undertaker and decide to learn to be physical, and that in a hurry, he will not be able to help Kentucky much this year. A big body who doesn’t have the relentlessness or strength to battle down low is just a liability in the DDM.
This news will require Calipari to rethink how he plays his players. I’m sure he has been doing this for a while now, but he has to consider the likely reality that Enes Kanter will not be walking through that door. The DDM looks like the way to go now, since he has the personnel to implement that offense, and I expect that he will. He will undoubtedly also throw in some hybrid offense and make some defensive adjustments, possibly even some zone to help hide their lack of size on defense. To my knowledge, Calipari has never consistently run a zone defense, so this may be a learning experience for him as well as his young charges.
Looking at the positives, this team will be similar sizewise to the 2006 Villanova Wildcats team that featured Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi, Kyle Lowry and Will Sheridan. All that team did was go 28-5 and get to the Elite Eight before losing to the eventual national champion Florida Gators. One difference is, these players are freshman and Villanova was juniors and seniors. Another difference is, this Kentucky team is much more talented than Villanova was, despite their youth.
In the end, this season is going to be far more demanding on Calipari than last season was. Not only must he figure out how to win without a post presence, he must do so mostly with freshmen. Remember the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times?”
Calipari is living it.