The Hoosiers appear to be a different team than the group that competed in Puerto Rico, but it’s hard to forget their 18-point loss to the Rebels.
No. 25 Ole Miss, IU’s toughest opponent to date, will probably be booking a trip to the NCAA Tournament in March and is likely the fourth-best team coming out of the Southeastern Conference.
On the other hand, IU’s Saturday opponent, Kentucky, is the No. 4 team in the country.
Although John Calipari’s Wildcats probably should have lost to both Miami (Ohio) and Stanford last month, the Big Blue are 9-0 and coming off impressive wins versus North Carolina and Connecticut.
The biggest reason for UK’s success, of course, is freshman John Wall.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams called Wall “the best point-guard prospect I’ve seen since Jason Kidd.” Last night, UConn’s Jim Calhoun said the talented guard is “at least as good as Derrick Rose.”
Already being projected as the No. 1 pick in June’s 2010 NBA Draft, Wall looks to have a bright future in the pros.
For now, however, he is too busy hitting clutch shots, dishing the rock to his teammates, grabbing boards and recording more thefts at Kentucky basketball games than former Wildcat and recent ticket scammer Edward Davender.
In plain English, the North Carolina native is averaging an astounding 19 points, 7 assists, nearly 4 rebounds and 3 steals per game.
IU guard Maurice Creek and forward Christian Watford might be two of the best freshmen in the Big Ten, but Kentucky’s star freshman is probably the best player in all of college basketball.
Sure, Wall averages 4.8 turnovers per game and turned it over a combined 14 times in the past two games, but the kid can flat out ball. Kentucky was at its weakest versus both North Carolina and UConn when Wall was not in the game. He is a game changer and has late-game composure unlike any other freshman at the collegiate level.
“We’ve got to get him from the start and be aggressive with him,” sophomore guard Verdell Jones said. “We can’t back down and we won’t back down. I think our guards are ready for this matchup.”
While I question what the Wildcats might be capable of doing in a big game without Wall, the future pro is one of several talented players on Calipari’s team.
It starts with 6-foot-9 big man Patrick Patterson, easily one of the most underappreciated players in the game. In his senior year of high school, the five-star recruit was overshadowed by transfer O.J. Mayo.
At UK, it was Joe Crawford and then Jodie Meeks who received most of the hype during Patterson’s first and second seasons. Patterson is again flying a bit under the radar because of Wall, despite posting 16.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
Patterson has plenty of help in the post from another extremely talented freshman, DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins, Rivals.com’s second-ranked 2009 recruit behind only Wall, has averaged 14.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks through nine games this year.
“DeMarcus Cousins is a work horse down low, so we have to really guard him down there and just rebound,” Jones said of the former McDonald’s All-American. “He’s a great offensive rebounder.”
On the wing, Darius Miller can pass, shoot and drive for the Wildcats, assuming more of a role-playing position on this year’s squad. Not to be forgotten is Eric Bledsoe, Wall’s partner in crime in the backcourt.
Bledsoe, also a point guard, was a top-25 recruit last season and could be the starting point man on almost any team in the country.
Four-star junior college transfer Darnell Dodson is the team’s top-scoring option off the bench, while freshman Daniel Orton and senior Ramon Harris have also been solid contributors for the deep Wildcats.
In terms of quality team basketball, the Big Ten will present IU with a lot of challenges this winter. But as far as pure talent goes, Kentucky will be the Hoosiers’ most difficult test.
IU made a statement in New York on Tuesday, but Saturday’s game against a loaded Wildcats squad will ultimately prove if they can hang with the big boys.
UK 81 - IU 72
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