Michael Kelley (@hmmm_mikekelley)
A national championship banner will unravel from the rafters as the Lafayette men’s basketball team awaits tipoff this evening. These banners are the norm at the famous Rupp Arena—home to the defending national champions, the No. 3-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. Seven others reside there, portraying to all that visit the dominance and prestige of Kentucky basketball.
In front of their faithful for the first time since their 67-59 victory against Kansas in the national championship game, the Wildcats (1-1) will be pressed to impress on national television against none other than the Lafayette Leopards (1-1). The matchup is part of the Barclays Center Classic Tournament.
For the Lafayette players, both young and old, the experience will be surreal.
“The sea of blue,” said senior PG Tony Johnson, when asked about the first thought that comes to mind in regards to Kentucky. “You watch the big games, the primetime games, and you happen to see all the white and blue in the crowd. There’s nothing like 24,000 people screaming at you.”
Forward Dan Trist cut straight to the chase. “The defending national champions,” he said, laughing. “They have a lot of NBA picks…so many guys. They’re all animals.”
One of those “animals” on Kentucky is Trist’s primary responsibility – 6-foot-10 forward Nerlens Noel, the ESPN No. 1 recruit in the class of 2012. Known for his hi-top fade hairstyle and ferocious dunks, Noel is a sure bet to be a lottery pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
Some may ask the purpose of playing Kentucky in what is sure to be a blowout. But Lafayette refuses to see it that way. Every experience is a learning opportunity for a team as young and as inexperienced as Lafayette is.
“We want to compete with them,” Johnson said. “We can’t look at their ranking – we have to get better at what we do.”
Kentucky thrives off the fast break, an aspect Lafayette will look to limit by slowing down offensive possessions.
“Every bad shot is almost a turnover against a team like that,” Trist said. “We almost start our defense on how we play our offense. We’ll take good shots if we have them. If we don’t, we need to pull it back and try to get good looks.”
When Kentucky does have the ball, Lafayette will primarily defend in either a 2-3 or a 1-3-1 zone, allowing for constant help defense.
But at the end of the day, regardless of the outcome, the 13 members of the 2012-2013 Lafayette basketball team will share the experience of a lifetime.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” forward Seth Hinrichs said. “They have [alumni] that will be coming back. They’re champions – that atmosphere will be electric.”
Tony Johnson vs. Ryan Harrow: Harrow was forced to sit out against Duke on Tuesday because of the flu, but all indications point to a healthy Harrow returning to Coach Calipari’s lineup tomorrow night. In his first collegiate game against Maryland, Harrow was held scoreless, but contributed two assists.
Joey Ptasinski vs. Archie Goodwin: Lafayette Coach Fran O’Hanlon has called Ptasinski the second-best defender on the team behind Johnson. That praise will be put to the test against a talented Goodwin, who is averaging 16.0 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game, and 3.0 assists per game this season.
Seth Hinrichs vs. Alex Poythress: When asked about the 6-10, 239-pound Poythress, Hinrichs simply replied, “I’m going to have my hands full.” That he will, as Poythress is averaging 14.0 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game through two games this season. Shooting an impressive 60 percent from the floor, Poythress has the ability to step out for the occasional three pointer and can also pound it down low. Although early, many observers are pitching Poythress as a more highly skilled version of recent NBA draftee Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Levi Giese vs. Kyle Wiltjer: The height and size of Kentucky is endless. Just like Poythress, Wiltjer boasts a 6-10, 239-pound frame and an array of offensive moves. Averaging 12.0 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game, Wiltjer is shooting 57 percent from the floor (8-of-14) and 62.5 percent from beyond the arc (5-of-8).
Dan Trist vs. Nerlens Noel: Trist is coming off a career high 30-point performance against Long Island University-Brooklyn on Monday, but will quickly be forced to forget about that performance with the talent and intimidation that Noel possesses. Through two games, Noel is averaging 10.0 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game, 3.0 steals per game, and 3.0 blocks per game – not the stat line of someone who critics labeled as a “one-trick pony” prior to season start.
Notable Reserves: Perhaps a Wildcat starter gets into foul trouble. Good for Lafayette, right? Not for long. Coach Calipari will simply turn around and point to one of the players that make up a seemingly endless bench of depth. At seven feet tall and 244 pounds, Willie Cauley-Stein is a load and is averaging a respectable 6.0 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game, and 1.0 assist per game. For the guards, Julius Mays is a senior leader who averages 7.0 points per game, 1.5 rebounds per game, and 2.0 assists per game.
A Noteworthy Stat: The average weight of the top eight players on Kentucky is 226 pounds compared to the 197 pounds for Lafayette.