Last season: 38 - 1
My Prediction: 15 - 3 (in conference)
ASeaOfBlue's Prediction: 15 - 3 (in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 15.2 - 2.8
Just about every hyperbole that's uttered about John Calipari is true, depending on your perspective. He's everything wrong with College Basketball, and everything right. He's charming or arrogant, a great coach or a terrible one. A wonderful recruiter or a cheater. Whatever they say about Calipari, he wins and wins a lot. He turned UMass into a National Title contender, rescued Memphis from the doldrums to make them a National Title contender, and then took over Kentucky and won a National Title. He's won 77% of his collegiate games, and lately has done so with teams full of underclassmen. He gets some of the most talented rosters in the country to play together, and in most cases they win a LOT of games. He also takes players, earns their trust, and puts them in the NBA. Whatever you think of Calipari, he does what he's paid to do, and he does it well.
WHO THEY LOST
Who's gone is a long list. Defensive Player-Of-The-Year Willie Cauley-Stein tops the list. Stein improved by leaps and bounds during his time in Lexington, and he ended up as the 6th pick in the NBA draft. Trey Lyles impacted the Wildcats in a lot of ways last season, as the versatile forward got drafted by the Utah Jazz at 12. Former Mizzou basketball recruit Devin Booker followed Lyles at 13 to the Phoenix Suns. Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson were both 2nd round picks, and Karl-Anthony Towns was the first player selected overall. The only player not drafted was Aaron Harrison, who signed with the Charlotte Hornets after the draft. Seven players who played for Kentucky last season are now playing professional basketball with NBA teams. I guess that makes sense as to why they won 38 games in a row and nearly won a national title.
WHO IS COMING BACK?
Ulis is the top guy, he was a table setter for the Wildcats a season ago, and a bit of a departure of Calipari's trend of having a lineup where everybody was 6'10 or taller. He'll be the key to making this whole thing turn this year. Alex Poythress comes back after tearing his ACL is what he was hoping to be his breakout season. Poythress came to Lexington with all the promise, and after a nice freshman season where he averaged over 11 points a game he got a little lost in the mix of all the talent that comes through on an annual basis as a sophomore. Poythress then played in just eight games before getting hurt. During those eight games he struggled to get on track offensively as he tried to expand his offensive game. Marcus Lee often was overlooked because of the depth on the front line last year, but has springs in his legs for a 6'10 forward. He could be a big player for Kentucky this season as the depth is largely gone. Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins are both very talented guys that likely won't play much due to playing for Kentucky but both could probably start elsewhere in the SEC.
WHO ARE THE NEWCOMERS?
As usual the longest segments of any UK preview talk about who left, and who is coming in. The diamond of the class is Labissiere, but as usual with Kentucky, he's not the only one. Jamal Murray is a terrific young player originally from Canada who was in the 2016 class, and like Montaque Gill-Caesar last year, reclassified and joined the 2015 class and could be Kentucky's second best player by the end of the season. He's a dynamic combo guard who can score off the dribble and also has the ability to create for his teammates, Murray is definitely a guy to keep an eye on this season. Most Mizzou fans will remember Isaiah Briscoe's flirtation with the Tigers last fall, and the physical lead guard will play a big role for this year's Wildcats. With Ulis, Murray and Briscoe the Wildcats have no shortage of ball handlers on this roster. Tai Wynyard is a talented player from New Zealand who hopes to land on the roster at semester break, though it's still up in the air about whether he'll play this year or not. With the quality that Kentucky has, it would make sense to redshirt him the rest of the season and get his ready for next season. Isaac Humphries is a skilled big man from Australia who has been one of the bigger surprises of the practice season and should be able to help right away, though needs a little seasoning as he reclassified from 2016 to 2015 as well (and he's just 17 years old right now). He likely won't play big minutes behind Labissiere and Lee, but he'll still contribute as he has great ability to pick and pop off of Kentucky's ball screen heavy offense. Charles Matthews has reportedly been one of the bigger surprises as the highly ranked 4-star wing looks to compete in a loaded backcourt with JUCO transfer Mychal Mulder, another former Missouri recruit. Mulder's ability to stretch the defense will come in handy with so many guards who can penetrate.
The Kentucky Wildcats are who they are at this point. At one point a few years ago you could question the Calipari method of assembling a team, but I’d say at this stage you really can’t. He’s done a really nice job of putting "seasoned" and talented sophomores with highly talented freshmen to field a top flight team year in and year out. The one down year (the NIT appearance when UK struggled with chemistry and maturity following their national championship year) was quickly met with one of the best recruiting classes in history, a run to the National Championship game, and the next season having one of the most talented rosters in the history of basketball. Last season Kentucky’s practices were likely the most competitive games they played for much of the season. So building the machine that Calipari has at this stage is nothing short of impressive. But how about this year’s version?
There’s no mistaking that this team isn’t as deep or as talented as the team was a season ago (that would have been nearly impossible to accomplish), but they’ll be every bit as dangerous. I love the roster construction of adding a veteran shooter on the wing like Mychal Mulder. Keeping Tyler Ulis on campus and pairing him with a player like Jamal Murray who has limitless potential, and a dynamic post in Skal Labissiere is always helpful. Add in a playmaking guard like Isaiah Briscoe and this year’s Wildcats almost feel like a more constructed roster than last years collection of elite talent. I think they’re probably short one good three-point shooter, but the talent level is high enough it probably won’t matter, and frankly that's probably nitpicking.
There's a challenging non conference schedule awaiting the young Wildcats. They take on Duke early, and also matchup against Louisville, Ohio State, Arizona State, UCLA and South Florida from the major conferences. They also scheduled Illinois State, who's one of the better teams in the MVC. That said it's hard to seeing the Wildcats entering league play with more than one or two losses. The SEC, with familiar faces and familiar teams, could prove to be a tougher stretch for a team that isn't brimming with experience. They'll face challenges from Vanderbilt, LSU and Florida, each of whom they have to play twice and who should finish near the top of the league standings. They also have to travel to Texas A&M, who is the second or third best team in the SEC depending on who you read, they also have a road game at South Carolina who should be much improved Then they'll have to travel to Kansas for the SEC/Big12 Challenge in the middle of the conference slate.
So I certainly don't see another 38-1 run to the Final Four happening, but the Wildcats still have the makings of a #1 seed and a 30-plus win season. They have a ton of ball dominant guards, and enough depth at post that the Wildcats won't have any trouble scoring the ball. And Calipari is known for fielding great defensive teams. When you have all that length on the court, they'll certainly be difficult to score upon. And with that the Wildcats will certainly be the team to beat in the SEC once again.
As good as last year's team was, I don't think it's a stretch to think UK could end up being almost as good if they reach their full potential. That begins at point guard, where Tyler Ulis was arguably the best point guard last year while playing behind (and with at times) Andrew Harrison. Ulis' 3.6 assist-to-turnover ratio per game finished the season ranked third in the country and first in the SEC. He also led UK in assists in 20 games, tied for the most on the team, despite playing two less minutes per game than Andrew.
After that though, it's a big question mark at every position. Everyone expects Skal to be an offensive force, but can he be a defensive stud like Willie and even Karl at times were? And who mans the 4 spot? Don't expect it to be Poythress early on as he's still working he way back from his ACL tear. He's not even getting a full weekly workload right now with the season nearing, so don't expect to see him at his best until closer to SEC play. That means Marcus Lee is going to have to step up and possibly play starter's minutes for much of, if not the entire season after playing sparingly his first two seasons.
Then there's figuring out how the shooting guard and third guard/small forward spots workout. Can Isaiah Brisco adjust to being a guard in an offense where he's not the primary ball-handler after being the No. 1 point guard prospect in this past year's high school class? There's a little more certainty with Jamal Murray will be great wherever he plays, whether that's the 2 guard or on the wing.
It will be interesting to see if Cal plays Ulis, Briscoe and Murray together, or if he opts to have one of them coming off the bench. Speaking of, who becomes the sixth and seventh men is a key story. Charles Matthews and Mychal Mulder are the obvious candidates, but Derek Willis is quietly having a good offseason.
As is the case with seemingly every UK team under Cal, the potential is clearly there, but so too is the uncertainty as to exactly how good everyone will be and how well they'll mesh with each other. I expect this team to have a good start but lose 1-2 games before conference play opens, the most likely candidate being to Duke. Once SEC play rolls around, I think they'll be clicking enough to come out of conference play with no more than four losses and win the regular-season and tournament titles.
|A Sea Of Blue
It's important for babies of all sizes, shapes and types (animal, human, virus, whatever) to open their eyes when born, whether they can see or not is irrelevant, opening their eyes is a big deal. And so it is that at this time of year, Kentucky fans open their eyes really and truly for the first time. The bounce of on an orange ball on the hardwood acts as an alarm clock that they have been hitting the snooze button on since the previous March. Oh sure, you may see Kentucky fans walking around and pretending about something called a Patrick Towles and they'll be able to utter what a "Quarterback" is but look at their eyes, there lies uncertainty. But when it comes to hoops, they are fully awake and aware. For the past 7 months they've been excited about Skal and can now even tell you where Haiti is (the other half of the island that contains the Dominican Republica where they hid in a Sandals Resort that one time they left Lexington) or that they can't wait to see what their Isaiah is going to do when paired with Tyler Ulis. Yes, it's basketball time in Kentucky and while the Wildcats lost errrrything from last year's team, they reload better than anyone.
How Coach Cal does it, I have no idea. Maybe it's voodoo, perhaps it's the bag man, or you never know, he could be a hypnotist, Marcus Camby still has no idea how he ended up at UMass. But that's neither here nor there, Kentucky's got potentially the best backcourt in the nation (yet again) with four guys that could be starting if Cal wants to go super small, but all the talk out of Big Blue Nation is that while we won't see a platoon we won't see Briscoe and Ullis on the floor together...which is garbage. On paper, Kentucky looks to be the class of the SEC once again and the other 13 schools are just trying to keep pace without getting lapped. I don't see this team reaching perfection yet again, but anything less than a top 3 finish would be a surprise. By March the Wildcats should be playing at a level they've become accustomed to, so for those of you who just can't stand Ashley Judd sightings, it's time to look away. They will dance, they will likely win the SEC tournament and go deep into March...then they'll all go pro and we'll run through this again next year. Rinse and Repeat.
About the preview: Each SBNation site was asked for one representative to submit a Game-by-Game pick of the upcoming SEC season to get a different look than if we just asked them to submit a ranking by team, or a prediction for their record. It yielded some interesting results as you can see. If you'd like to see your own results on how the SEC would break down, feel free to take a whack at our Pick 'Em form on GoogleForms. Just email/tweet at me or Chris and we'll send you the results.
GP: Games Played
%min: Percentage of team minutes played that were available
%poss: Percentage of usage, when a player is the cause of the end of possession (turnover or shot)
%points: Percentage of points scored vs team points
%rbds: Percentage of rebounds vs team rebounds
eFG%: Field Goal percentage with added weight of 50% for three point shots made
%3pm: Percentage of 3-point makes to team 3-point makes
ORtg: Average points scored per 100 possessions (if the player was responsible for each possession)
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Coming tomorrow: the Texas A&M Aggies