- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In preview season, it is never exactly easy to predict what Kentucky is going to be. The reasons for this are obvious: Ever since he arrived at UK, John Calipari has suffered dramatic, by-design annual personnel turnover. So Calipari, in his typically amenable spirit, will switch things up. He'll run his vaunted dribble-drive motion when his team's perimeter players can dominate. Or, as in last year's dominant run to the NCAA title, he'll slow things down, run more off-ball action (as well as dribble handoffs and ball screens) and take advantage of conventionally skilled post scorers. Or he'll use some combination therein.
But within all this stylistic variance, there is one thing you know about Calipari teams: They are going to defend.
After two games of the 2012-13 season, I am not ready to revise that prediction. Say it with me: Small sample size. But even so, it's clear the Wildcats have a long way to go on the defensive end.
On Tuesday night in Atlanta, UK allowed Duke to score 1.17 points per possession. Before we go further, let's be clear: A hearty portion of that credit has to go to the Blue Devils. Duke returned all of its most efficient pieces (and waved farewell to the ball-dominating Austin Rivers) from last season's No. 11-ranked offense (per KenPom.com), while also adding freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who appears to be a better outside shooter than Rivers and one who doesn't need to dribble the ball for six seconds beforehand.
With the exception of Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, these Blue Devils have all been playing together for years now. Their offense is a matter of habit, not discovery. They get out in the secondary break, they space the floor, they find open shooters, they make shots. The Blue Devils already have the look of a top-five offense, and those freshmen are only going to get better.
Which, of course, brings us to Kentucky.
The Wildcats were not by any means bad Tuesday night. In fact, @UKCoachCalipari is right: His team's improvement between Friday's near-upset versus Maryland and Tuesday's loss to Duke was perfectly evident. There is some obvious talent here. Kyle Wiltjer is hitting shots and passing the ball better than anyone probably knew he could. Alex Poythress is going to dunk on a lot of dudes' heads this season. Archie Goodwin has the chance to be legitimately great. And that Nerlens Noel/Willie Cauley-Stein frontcourt has the length to form a daunting defensive interior.
But the Wildcats clearly aren't there yet, especially on defense. Through two games, they've allowed their opponents to rebound 45.9 percent of their misses -- which was goosed especially by Maryland's 52.8 percent offensive rebounding rate -- which ranks No. 296 in the entire country. They have been nearly as bad at forcing turnovers. They didn't guard the Duke or Maryland perimeters all that well. Had Maryland not had an abysmal shooting performance, the Terps would have built a comfortable lead. And Tuesday night, even when Mason Plumlee left the game in the second half with four fouls, Duke kept finding ways to score. As John Gasaway said toward the bleary tail end of our Tip Off Marathon chat last night, it was borderline disorienting to see a Calipari-coached team fail to get stops in crucial moments of a big game. It simply doesn't happen.
Even so, Kentucky fans (at least the ones in the chat, and those responding on Twitter) seemed to take it all in stride last night. They knew they were missing starting point guard Ryan Harrow (though Goodwin looks like a candidate to take Harrow's job if the latter proves unsatisfactory), and knew that for as much talent as this team has, it pales in comparison to last season's once-in-a-decade group. That seems just about right. Despite the huge expectations involved with this program at this point, even the most die-hard supporters have to acknowledge the Wildcats are exceptionally young even by Calipari's extreme standards.
Rest assured, they'll get better -- quickly. That's what Calipari does. But it's a project; one that won't be half as easy as 2011-12 made it look.