Last season was one to forget for the Kentucky Wildcats.
They were seemingly on the cusp of gelling everything together when star center Nerlens Noel’s ACL dashed their postseason dreams. None of us knew it at the time, but Kentucky would never fully recover from Noel’s injury. He wasn’t a vocal alpha-male presence, but he was the closest thing to a leader.
Sure, there were some guys that shined in the moment but lacked the consistency. Senior graduate student Julius Mays was essential for the Wildcats to have any hope of making the postseason. His game-winning free-throws against Florida, and his 24 points against Missouri late in the season kept Kentucky at least in the discussion for the NCAA tourney. Both players are gone and have signed professional contracts.
Who will lead the charge for Kentucky in 2014?
With Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress returning to school, combined with an astronomical recruiting class, there is a lot of talk about the Wildcats hanging banner No. 9 this season. After Kyle Wiltjer’s decision to depart from the program in favor of Gonzaga, Kentucky was left without a significant piece from their 2012 championship team. Cauley-Stein and Poythress will provide the experience of going through a season and knowing the rigors of the SEC, but neither of them played in the NCAA Tournament.
Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller had all been to a Final Four before becoming the experience factor for the 2012 team. Cauley-Stein is capable of leading the charge, but I don’t see him being the vocal leader. Alex Poythress’ game is quite similar, more action than words. These guys will be very important pieces for a title run, but I don’t see them being leaders as much as followers.
If it’s not the returning sophomores, could it be the point guard? Andrew Harrison will be a major upgrade from Ryan Harrow, who transferred out of Kentucky due to family issues. Harrow’s lack of strength and command hurt Kentucky’s chances to spring board themselves into the championship picture.
Harrison is tough mentally and physically, having a real bulldog mentality. He led his high school to the state championship, can he do it at the next level? I think he can, and will be a leader because of his position on the floor. Think of Kentucky in 2010 with John Wall or 2011 with Brandon Knight, Harrison will become the head of the snake and lead a potent attack.
Out of all the highly rated and talented recruits Kentucky is bringing in, Julius Randle is the one that headlines them all. The 6’9” power forward will be an alpha-male on this team. He will command respect for his size, speed and strength. Randle will be a huge force in the paint standing beside Willie Cauley-Stein and fellow freshman big man Dakari Johnson.
He has all the physical tools to be a dominant presence, and he has the leadership abilities to take charge at the next level. Kentucky has not seen this dominant of a presence since maybe DeMarcus Cousins in 2010. Anthony Davis was dominant in 2012, but he wasn’t a physically dominating force. Randle has the bulk to carve out space on the low block and force defenders under the basket. Davis relied on his finesse and length to make up for his wiry frame.
Regardless of who becomes the leader for Kentucky in 2014 it can’t be John Calipari. He’s the coach and that’s all he needs to be. The coach cannot score the points, protect the rim and go to battle. Calipari will orchestrate yet another swarming attack on college basketball.
He has every tool at his disposal minus some questions with three-point shooting. As we saw last year, Calipari cannot be the vocal leader, floor general and coach. This season, he will have the leader Kentucky so desperately needed and have another shot at a national championship.
Brian Lewis is an SEC Basketball Writer for RantSports.com. You can add him to your network on Google for more of his work.