New look 'Cats set for historic repeat

The Kentucky Wildcats begin defense of their NCAA title against the Maryland Terrapins on Friday night in the Barclays Classic in Brooklyn.

If Kentucky cuts down the nets again in Atlanta this spring, they will do something that no Division I basketball team has ever done: win back-to-back NCAA tournament titles with zero returning starters from the previous season.

History favors the Wildcats to open the 2012-13 season with a win. The last eight defending national champs have won their first game following their title-winning season. The last to lose was Syracuse, which fell to Charlotte in its first game of 2003-04.

What Kentucky returns from 2011-12

Kentucky lost all five starters from last season and returns just 6.6 percent of their scoring from 2011-12. Their top returning scorer and rebounder is Kyle Wiltjer, who averaged 5.0 points per game and 1.8 rebounds per game.

Kyle Wiltjer Catch-and-Shoot Plays

Last Season

In limited minutes last year, Wiltjer showed glimpses of the talent that made him a five-star recruit, pouring in a career-high 24 points against Loyola-Maryland.

He shot 43.2 percent from long distance last season, fifth-best in the SEC (min. 75 three-point field goal attempts).

Largely because of the talent around him, Wiltjer excelled on unguarded catch-and-shoot plays, attempting 45 of his 71 catch-and-shoot field goals while unguarded. He made more than half of his unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts, compared to less than 35 percent of those plays when guarded.

What’s new for Kentucky in 2012-13

John Calipari has re-loaded by bringing in the No. 2 recruiting class for 2012 (according to the ESPN 100 rankings), including the top-ranked player in the country, Nerlens Noel.

Kentucky 2012 Recruiting Class

ESPN 100 Ranks

Noel will need to have big game to match the debut of last year’s freshman phenom and No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Anthony Davis.

Davis had 23 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks, joining Sam Bowie (1979) and Terrence Jones (2010) as the only Kentucky players with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in a debut.

Last year’s national title run was fueled by a defense that allowed the lowest effective field-goal percentage and the seventh-fewest points per possession in the nation. The key was their ability to defend the rim, leading the country in both blocks per game and block percentage.

The Wildcats lost the nation’s leading shot blocker in Davis, but their defense in the middle shouldn’t suffer. Noel averaged 3.9 blocks per game as a senior in high school and is capable of replacing Davis’ ability to act as a “one-man zone defense,” blocking shots both in the paint and on the perimeter.

Series history

This will be the 14th all-time meeting between Kentucky and Maryland, with the Wildcats owning an 8-5 advantage. However, the Terrapins have won the past two matchups, including the most recent meeting in the Sweet 16 of the 2002 NCAA tournament when Maryland won 78-68 en route to an eventual national title.