Don’t sleep on … Possible surprise players on this year’s team

To suggest there are players on Kentucky’s star-studded 2013-14 squad that are overlooked or undervalued seems wrong.

With seven McDonald’s All-Americans (don’t forget to count Alex Poythress), the top-ranked freshman class and a preseason No. 1 ranking by a number of major outlets, everyone knows there is plenty of talent on this year’s team. In fact, there’s an abundance of it.

Having said that, there are so many quality players on this team, so much depth, that there may be  a player or two who is being overlooked. That’s not to say these guys don’t possess top-level talent, but amid so many stars, it’s easy to assume that playing time will be hard to come by for some very good players. Only so many guys can play.

We all know that freshman stars like Julius Randle and the Harrison twins and returners Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are going to make key contributions, but what about some of the other players farther down the depth chart? Today we wanted to take the time to highlight a few guys who could make bigger contributions this year than some may have initially believed.

The list below only reflects the opinion of editor Eric Lindsey.

Don’t sleep on …

Marcus Lee

Let’s set the record straight from the start: It isn’t like Marcus Lee isn’t a highly touted recruit, and it’s difficult to imagine that the nation’s 19th-ranked freshman could be overlooked. But a bit of perspective is needed in his case. In UK’s 2013 class alone, Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson and James Young were all ranked ahead of him in Rivals’ final 2013 rankings. By that measure alone, one could surmise that Lee falls somewhere behind those guys on UK’s depth chart. And then you watch him play at practice and you see him compete. You see the athletic ability. You see the freakish hops. You see the energy. It’s at that point you are reminded that, while some of the guys at UK were ranked higher than him, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this guy was still one of the best players in the high school last season. He was still a McDonald’s All-American. He still averaged 17.9 points, 19.4 rebounds and 6.9 blocks as a senior. And he’s still every bit as good as any of the guys in this 2013 class. Lee has not only impressed in the first few weeks of practice, he’s drawn comparisons from John Calipari to Dennis Rodman. “Marcus Lee is just all over the place,” Calipari said at a luncheon in Louisville on Monday. “He’s an energy guy. He reminds me of a Dennis Rodman. He’s like Dennis Rodman. Then you start saying, where do I play him because I’ve got to play him because he can guard the point guard, a five, and he runs and blocks every shot. He’s got unbelievable energy.” Coach Cal said he still has a ways to go offensively, but there is no doubt he can contribute on this team right now because of his defensive ability and energy. It’s worth mentioning that his offensive game isn’t that far off either. Watch him grab lobs above the square and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

John Calipari said Derek Willis will have to get more physical to play his position at the college level, but he’s been pleased with his ability to score in practice. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Derek Willis

The first player to commit in the 2013 class has become, perhaps, the most overlooked player in the class. Ranked lower than most of his freshman teammates, Willis has demonstrated in practice that he not only has the ability to hang with some of the top players on this year’s team, he can score on them. Just last week, Coach Cal stopped practice to point out to the rest of the team how effective Willis has been at putting the ball in the basket. At 6-foot-9, 205 pounds, Willis will need to put on some weight to succeed at his position. “He’s stronger and in better shape than he was, but he’s got a ways to go with that,” Calipari said about a month ago. “He’s not playing a position where you can physically not be up to snuff.” But as Calipari also pointed out Monday at the Wildcat Tip-Off Luncheon when he named Willis one of the two most surprising players in practice so far, he’s got a lot of length. “(He’s) playing, competing, not afraid,” Coach Cal said. “Long arms. Like, Julius has trouble getting shots off (against him). If Julius doesn’t get into his body, Julius is struggling getting shots off.”

Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood

For all the praise Calipari showered Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood with at the end of last season for what they contributed, Coach Cal made a pretty startling admission at the luncheon Monday: “When I put them in games the last couple of years, I was closing my eyes,” Calipari said. Coach Cal doesn’t feel that way anymore. Though they don’t possess the ceiling that some of the freshmen do, Polson and Hood have proven time and time again this preseason that they belong on the court with those guys – and not just as practice players. They contribute, they score and they often lead. Hood has been a frequent scorer in the Cats’ scrimmages, and he was so good a couple of days ago that Calipari had to stop practice, take one defender off Hood and put Randle on him to try to slow him down. Hood followed with two more baskets as assistant coach Orlando Antigua yelled in the background, “I see you Hoody!” Meanwhile, Polson just knows how to run the offense. He knows where to go, how to put his teammates in position to score, and when he’s open for a 3, he rarely misses. It’s hard to envision these guys starting on this team, but it’s also hard to imagine a scenario in which they don’t contribute. Calipari may choose talent over experience in a lot of cases, but it’s hard to ignore the leadership these guys will add to this team. “Look, they can give us stuff on the court,” Calipari said. “They’re going to have an opportunity to play and it’s a challenge, but they’re going to have an opportunity. Now I would tell you that the way they handle themselves in all the workouts to drag these guys, trying to finish first in all the runs, trying to push these guys in the weight training, try to explain to them – because they’ve been around – that every game we play is someone’s Super Bowl (will go a long ways).”