Some freshmen live up to the hype while others struggle to adjust to the speed and rigors of college basketball. And every so often, a special talent comes along who not only meets expectations, but shatters them. Through eight games of what is sure to be his only season in Lexington, John Wall is that special talent.
His numbers are remarkable: 19.0 ppg (56% FG), 7.0 apg, 3.8 rpg and 3 spg. But more importantly, Wall is the primary reason that Kentucky basketball has transformed from an N.I.T. team last season to 9-0 and No. 4 in the nation this season.
After the Billy Gillispie experiment failed miserably, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart needed a hire that would instantly put the program back at the forefront nationally. Recruits were no longer viewing Kentucky as a top tier destination. Fans were restless with the lack of NCAA Tournament success since the program’s last championship in 1998 under Tubby Smith. So Barnhart, with his job likely on the line if he didn’t make the right hire, went to Memphis and hired John Calipari.
Calipari sold Patrick Patterson, Kentucky’s top returning player, on the idea of returning to school to play for a national championship. He quickly assembled the nation’s top recruiting class: Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Darnell Dodson and Gillispie holdovers Daniel Orton and Jon Hood. And in a matter of months, Calipari quickly captured the adoration of Kentucky’s rabid fanbase.
To this point, the script couldn’t have played out much better. The Wildcats have wins over a pair of top 15 teams – North Carolina and Connecticut. They also have character building close calls: An OT win over Stanford in Cancun and and a buzzer-beater from Wall to drop Miami (OH) in their second game of the season.
Patterson, primarily a back to the basket player his first two seasons, is thriving in the dribble drive offense (16.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg). Wall and Bledsoe, a pair of point guards, have seamlessly meshed in the backcourt. And Cousins, a one-time Mike Davis UAB recruit, is nearly averaging a double-double despite consistently finding himself in foul trouble.
What remains to be seen is how this talented group will respond in a true road environment, which they’ll experience for the first time on Saturday in Bloomington.