LEXINGTON, Ky. – This was undoubtedly the Midnight Madness of a preseason No. 1 team, of a program that considers itself the king of college basketball.
Rupp Arena was filled to capacity, with many of them seeing the ballyhooed freshman class for the first time. A handful of five-star prospects were in attendance, along with several NBA players.
This certainly wasn't the Midnight Madness of a team coming off a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris.
In fact, there was only one mention of what happened seven months ago – and it came from head coach John Calipari during his state of the program speech.
“Last year we learned some very important lessons,” Calipari said. “We were humbled. I was humbled.”
(Side note: That quote came moments after he said, "We don't just play college basketball. We are college basketball." Back to the column.)
Yet there we were, celebrating the debut of arguably the best recruiting class in the history of college basketball – and watching the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
Twelve months ago, it wasn't all that different. Big Blue Madness featured a program coming off a national championship, with another No. 1 recruiting class and a team ranked No. 3 in both polls.
As a result, there's the underlying question heading into the 2013-14 season: last year's disaster can't happen again for Kentucky, right?
In short: no.
I'll let one NBA team's director of scouting explain:
“Every other NBA scout I've run into has asked me if I've been to UK yet. And said, something like, ‘It's just not fair' or ‘We should all get apartments in Lexington.'”
There's that much talent on this year's team – and it should fit better than a year ago.
Last year's team had glaring weaknesses that rose to the surface in key moments. The 2012-13 version of Kentucky struggled with consistency at the point guard position, couldn't keep defenses honest from the perimeter, and lacked solid leadership.
While the season is still a few weeks away, those problems don't seem to be an issue with this year's roster.
A year ago, Ryan Harrow was expected to continue the Calipari lineage of elite point guards – but it was clear from opening night that wasn't happening. Harrow missed four of the first five games of the season, and was up and down during conference play. He transferred to Georgia State after the season – which ended with Harrow scoring five points in nine minutes.
In his place is Andrew Harrison, who is much more in the mold of a classic Calipari point guard than Harrow. He has a terrific size for his position, and is a future lottery pick. He can get into the lane at will, and is adept at creating easy looks for himself and others.
“[It's a] huge difference,” an NBA scout said. “Harrow couldn't shoot or finish with any consistency. They had no one to put the ball in the hands of last year.”
During Kentucky's national championship season, the Wildcats didn't rely all that much on the 3-point shot – but they had guys who could knock it down if necessary. Doron Lamb and Darius Miller each were consistent from behind the arc, making defenses pay when they collapsed on penetration or post players. Last year, the team shot below 35 percent from behind the arc and had only one player make better than 38 percent (Alex Poythress, who made 14 3-pointers).
It was a weakness, and with Kyle Wiltjer transferring to Gonzaga in the offseason, could be something that hinders the Wildcats again this year. With that said, freshmen Aaron Harrison and James Young are both capable of making perimeter shots. Poythress is back, too.
“The perimeter talent is miles better,” the scout said. “The twins and Young are way better and more ready for college ball than Harrow, [Archie] Goodwin and Poythress.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the leadership and late-game factor. The title-winning team had a senior in Darius Miller who led by example, going out and getting things done in the clutch. It also had freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a born winner and leader who had no problem being vocal on the court.
There was a void last season that no one filled. Julius Mays did his best, but there was a complete lack of cohesion for the most part.
Julius Randle could solve a lot of issues in this area. He's someone who will do whatever it takes to win, and he's also a player who can go out and get a bucket down the stretch of games. The team also seems to get along great.
“This is the place where nothing is given, and everything is earned,” Calipari said. “You have to become, not just physically tough, but mentally tough.”
We'll find out almost immediately what this Kentucky team is made of. The Wildcats face top-three Michigan State on Nov. 12, with Providence, Baylor, Boise State, North Carolina, Belmont and Louisville comprising a brutal six-game stretch in December.
“As you know, we are everyone's Super Bowl,” he said.
Last season's team wasn't ready for that pressure – but this year is different. And it felt that way on Friday.