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Jimmy Dykes is an ESPN broadcaster of 17 years and a regular commentator on SEC basketball telecasts. The wealth of his knowledge about the sport and conference is well-rooted, having played basketball for the Arkansas Razorbacks and serving as a assistant coach during the Eddie Sutton years at UK.
College basketball fans know him for his enthusiasm and trademarks phrases such as, “drive the nail,” “cautious closeouts” and “violent cuts”. Dykes brought Big Blue Madness to the national ESPN audience Friday and was able to spend some time with head coach John Calipari and the Cats at practice earlier that day. He spoke with the Kernel about his time in Lexington and how he feels this season will unfold.
Question: What are your thoughts this year’s Cats?
Dykes: You can’t deny their talent when they step on the floor. They are going to be the youngest team in college basketball — again. Those aren’t normal freshmen. They are going to be a great defensive basketball team, much as Calipari’s teams have always been even back to his last two or three years at Memphis. They are going to be a terrific shot-blocking and rebounding team. Their offense is going to grow as the year goes on. I don’t think they know yet exactly how they are going to play offensively, but defensively they can be really, really good. I was impressed by what I saw.
Kentucky basketball is a strong brand right now. With their recent verbal commitments for 2013, you just don’t see an ending to it. All you can see is a continuation to what they are doing — Calipari and UK.
Q: Was there any player that surprised or impressed you Friday night?
Dykes: I got to watch them practice Friday afternoon over at the Craft Center before Madness, so I got a better feel for the real practice and what they look like.
I wouldn’t say one guy jumped out, but I saw a lot of good things out of all of them.
We know what Kyle Wiltjer is — as dangerous of a 6-foot-10 kid on the perimeter that the college game has right now because of how well he shoots the ball. But he has a post game too. He is a lot more versatile than people realize.
Ryan Harrow will be at the point guard spot. The first thing that sticks out is that he isn’t as big as past UK point guards that Calipari has had. He is a good player. Although he is small, he can still get in the lane and make hard layups.
Archie Goodwin is probably as close as they have to a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in terms of his toughness, edge and competitiveness. He is a machine as far as endurance and plays through contact. He will be a major factor.
(Alex) Poythress is a man on the wing. His ability to get to the rim, make shots and get fouled is going to be very important.
The two kids inside, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, are going to be hard to score against around the rim because they are so quick off their feet. They are active, hunt the basketball and aggressively look to block shots. How quickly they come together offensively to get some points out of that position will be important to follow.
The pieces are there. It just a matter of how quickly they come together defensively, are they going to be coachable all season long and are they going to be unselfish like they were last season.
I don’t expect them to rattle off 38 wins, which was the best all-time in college ball. But I think by the time March rolls around, they will be very difficult to handle in the NCAA tournament.
Q: Calipari has stated multiple times that the Cats could start off 0-2 and still have a great season. Is there really a chance they could start off 0-2?
Dykes: Absolutely. Maryland and Duke — those two teams will be ready to play, especially Duke. I saw them practice Monday at Ft. Bragg (N. Car.). They are an older, veteran team. They are ready to play right now. They have their offensive, defense and out-of-bounds plays in already. They are accelerated much further along than UK. UK is playing catch-up for that game against Duke. There will not be any question concerning UK’s season, however, even if they do start off 0-2. The UK fan base may panic a little bit, but Calipari, his staff and their players won’t.
Q: Who would make up your extremely early Final Four picks?
Dykes: I would say that right now, Indiana and Louisville would be two of my teams that would have the best chance of being in the Final Four. After that, there are 15 or 20 teams — UK being one of them — that can slide in to that third or fourth slot. There are a lot of unknowns and question marks in college basketball this year.
Q: Who do you think wins the SEC?
Dykes: There are four teams that would be the odds-on favorites — UK, Florida, Tennessee and Missouri. Florida has some experienced, older talented players back. Tennessee has everybody back from a team that came within a whisker of getting into the NCAA tournament last year — they are another team with experience and size. Missouri’s transition to the SEC is going to be really good for them. They have a dynamic backcourt with Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey. That is a good basketball team, that I think will be a major player in the SEC race.
Q: What needs to happen for UK to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament and make the Final Four in Atlanta?
Dykes: I think for almost everybody it will be about the same. They have to stay healthy. They have to be playing their best basketball in March and get better as the season goes on. As a young team, you would think they would do that. I think if UK has a chance to get there they once again will have to be a great defensive team. They can’t just be really good, they have to be great defensively. They are built to do that. They have to be great getting the ball off the backboard and scoring in transition. If those kids are coachable, unselfish, don’t have their own individual agendas and live and die on every last word that Calipari tells them, then they have a chance. If they break off and do their own thing and get selfish, then they don’t.