Just like last year, the key question for this year's Kentucky basketball squad is, "can talent triumph over inexperience?" But don't dismiss their seasons as perfectly symmetrical. The 2011 Wildcats booked non-conference victories over Notre Dame and Louisville, but didn't start the season tallying 19 straight wins and a No. 1 ranking. Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight have been great, but not to the otherworldly level of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Finally, a coveted SEC championship remained out of reach, thanks to a dismal 2-6 SEC road record.
Yet year two of the John Calipari regime has had its pluses. With a wealth of shooters and quick-twitch guards Kentucky has shifted back to Calipari's patented DDMO (dribble-drive motion offense), relying on perimeter spacing to create offensive flow. The stretch offense is magnified by the stellar play of hybrid 4 Terrence Jones, who often looks most comfortable on the perimeter. The concept works similarly on defense, where Calipari uses the long wingspans of Jones, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, and DeAndre Liggins to frustrate offenses. Liggins, in particular, is a grade A defender. But on both sides of the court, the talent void is in the middle, where Kentucky could have used the services of Enes Kanter. That's not to dismiss senior Josh Harrellson, who has done a valiant job holding down the fort. But when Harrellson can't maximize his talent and gets in foul trouble or bouts of ineffectiveness, Kentucky often struggles.
When Harrellson and company are in sync, you can envision a Final Four run. When the shots don't fall and freshman-itis appears, a first round exit looks equally likely. Because of this, the Wildcats probably have the highest beta of any team in the tournament.
Key wins: Notre Dame, @Louisville, Florida, @Tennessee
Key losses: UConn (neutral court), @North Carolina, @Ole Miss, @Arkansas
Player(s) to watch: Terrence Jones (SEC Freshman of the Year), Brandon Knight (team leading 17.7 PPG), Josh Harrellson (X-factor)
Top 25 Matchup Wheelhouse: Kentucky can keep pace with talent, so long as their opponent gives space to shoot and has a tendency towards mental lapses. The smallish Syracuse and Louisville zone defenses wouldn't be well equipped to handle the scoring barrage that Kentucky can bring.
Teams in the Top 25 to fear: An experienced-laden team that has a multiplicative frontcourt will be able to slow down and frustrate Kentucky. Think Pitt or Wisconsin.
-- Kevin Berger
See our printable 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket.