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Kentucky loads up on freshmen again. Kentucky should be really good again.

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Yep, John Calipari has the most talented team the league again, and they’ll be really really tough to beat. Previewing the preseason #1 team in the SEC — the Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky Preview 2014

#1 Kentucky Wildcats

Last Season: 27-9 (13 - 5) #6 in KenPom

My Prediction: 15 - 3 (1st in conference)

A Sea of Blue’s Prediction: 17 - 1 (1st in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 16.3 - 1.7 (1st in conference)

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kentucky vs Indiana Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: John Calipari | Eighth Season 217 - 47

John Calipari doesn’t hide who he is. A lot of people say Cal rubs them the wrong way, but I find him refreshing. He knows he can recruit, and he has the full faith and credit of Big Blue Nation behind him which helps. But more than that, he knows the game of college basketball. He knows the multi-billion dollar industry that profits on his guys while not paying them and he tells them he’s going to help them get their piece. So he’s turned the University of Kentucky into a minor league basketball program. They host scouting combines, ESPN specials, and he gets guys into the pros. Perhaps it’s the adage of what people want college athletics to be instead of what it is that makes people dislike Cal, but there’s no denying that his players love him.

I also think Cal doesn’t get much credit for being a good Xs and Os coach because of his recruiting prowess. Winning 82% of your games, no matter of the level of your recruiting, is still pretty damn good and it takes a good coach to get there. Kentucky teams are always disciplined on defense and share the ball on offense and they rarely beat themselves. When Kentucky shows up for a game, they’re typically getting their opponents best effort. They contend with a constant target on their back of expecting to win every game at home, and thousands of people showing up to hopefully watch them fail on the road. And Calipari does this on an annual basis with a roster made of almost exclusively with underclassmen. When you take all of that into account, that .822 winning percentage looks pretty extraordinary.

SEAT TEMP: ICE COLD

Kentucky 10 year look SEC Preview
Kentucky 10 year look

Not making the tournament is more of a thing than making the tournament in Lexington, and an 80% trip rate is still not quite where you expect UK to be. Calipari has the Cats in a position where they should make the tournament every year, and this year won’t break any streaks.

WHO LEFT?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov
Jamal Murray Professional 36 .870 .251 .201
Tyler Ulis Professional 35 .885 .211 .408
Marcus Lee Transfer 36 .539 .080 .037
Alex Poythress Graduated 31 .503 .110 .050
Skal Labissiere Professional 36 .389 .082 .039
Charles Matthews Transfer 36 .254 .021 .016
E.J. Floreal Left for Track 11 .011 .000 .000
36 .690 .758 .752

The exodus of underclassmen struck the campus in Lexington like clockwork in April. When was the last time one of those coveted 5-star recruits graduated? Well it happened to Alex Poythress who finished his eligibility after a solid career, but went undrafted and is now trying to stick with the Indiana Pacers. Jamal Murray was drafted though, he went from a high 4-star ranked combo guard a few years ago to reclassifying, jumping up a class and bursting onto the scene last year before being picked 7th overall by the Denver Nuggets. The curious case of Skal Labissiere, who many pegged as the undeniable lottery pick heading into his freshman campaign only to struggle to find his footing. Skal was still picked at the end of the first round and could still turn into a fine NBA player. Tyler Ulis turned in an All SEC player of the year kind of season as he upped his scoring and leadership for the Wildcats and got selected in the 2nd round. Marcus Lee was a good player for Kentucky but opted to transfer to Cal for his final season, mostly because he saw the minutes being eaten up by younger players. Charles Matthews did the same thing, as he left for Michigan, where he can (and probably will) develop into an outstanding college player. That’s not what Kentucky breeds though, they breed NBA players. E.J. Floreal was a walk-on who decided to stick with track this year.

WHO’S COMING BACK?

name year pos GP %min %pts %ov
Isaiah Briscoe sophomore cg 34 .751 .113 .162
Derek Willis senior cf 32 .409 .086 .047
Dominique Hawkins senior wing 26 .171 .021 .022
Isaac Humphries sophomore post 23 .144 .015 .005
Mychal Mulder senior wing 23 .061 .004 .010
Jonny David senior cg 9 .007 .001 .000
36 .309 .241 .247
NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Kentucky vs Texas A&M Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

ISAIAH BRISCOE | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

Also as usual, Kentucky doesn’t return much. Isaiah Briscoe took on a bit of a role for the Wildcats a year ago. A physical combo guard from the East Coach, Briscoe was highly coveted by a lot of schools but chose Kentucky and chose a lesser role on a loaded team. Briscoe struggled with his shooting a year ago, and he’ll have to do a whole lot better than 14% from 3-point range and 46% from the free throw line if he’s going to be a draft pick, but Briscoe brings a lot to the table even without shooting because of his ability to get to the rim and finish through contact. He’ll also be asked to take on a big leadership role this season and could be the difference maker with an exceptionally talented team.

Speaking of difference makers, Derek Willis emerged as one last year for the Wildcats. The Kentucky offense became stagnant without Willis in the lineup to stretch the floor and draw out opposing big men away from the basket to allow Briscoe and Ullis to penetrate. Isaac Humphries faces competition down low but has showed big time ability in stretches. Another year of strength and conditioning and development and you’ll see Humphries play a big role this year and in the future. Mychal Mulder was a highly rated Junior College pickup who Calipari likely added for depth, as Mulder never really saw the floor, he could have played just about anywhere and had all sorts of offers, but he’s now looking at a quiet end to his college career. Tai Wynyard was a late addition so he redshirted and will get his first action this season. He’s a big powerful New Zealander and somebody who I’m not exactly sure how he’ll fit into the roster, but it would be a bad idea to discount him. Last to mention is Dominique Hawkins, who will be a bit player and hard to keep off the floor because he isn’t a star on a team full of them.

WHO’S COMING IN?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr De'Aaron Fox 6'3 171 3 PG
Fr Malik Monk 6'4 187 5 WING
Fr Bam Adebayo 6'9 232 11 POST
Fr Wenyen Gabriel 6'9 200 13 POST
Fr Sacha Killeya-Jones 6'10 210 26 POST

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Midnight Madness Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

BAM ADEBAYO | FRESHMAN | POST

You probably could insert just about anyone out of this recruiting class in this spot but I chose Adebayo because of his potential. Adebayo is a powerful player who has quick turnaround game from 15 feet and in and is an explosive leaper around the basket. He’s got great bounce on his second jump and it’s easy to see why so many scouts were drooling over him as he came up the high school ranks. Adebayo will be pivotal for the Wildcats because they’ll need a guy who can finish around the rim, and a guy who can clean the glass. But Adebayo won’t be the only freshman counted on to make a major impact. In fact, he might not even start!

De’Aaron Fox is the highest rated player in the incoming class and for a good reason. He’s got everything you want in a point guard. He’s got great length and athleticism which makes him an outstanding defender. He possesses great passing ability but can score the ball and he’s a bit of a streaky outside shooter but has the form and technique to develop into a dead eye shooter. Joining him in the backcourt is Malik Monk, another player who can do just about anything he wants. He’s a high level athlete and is capable of leading the Wildcats in scoring because he’s got similarities to Jamal Murray to him. Monk spurned his hometown Arkansas Razorbacks to join Kentucky so he’ll have plenty of incentive to show out this season. Wenyen Gabriel exploded up the charts last year and went from a low 4-star to an undeniable 5-star post player and fell right into the clutches of John Calipari. Gabriel is still developing but he does a lot of things right. He’s an exciting presence in the middle with the ability to block and alter shots, he’s got a decent set of post moves and a developing shot from 15 feet and out. And Sacha Killeya Jones, the lowest ranked guy in the class is, well… another great basketball player. He’s big, fast and can shoot the ball from the outside. He handles the ball well for a big guy and has good touch around the floor. Really, talking about Kentucky’s incoming recruiting class is just kind of depressing unless you’re a Kentucky fan.

DEPTH CHART

Point Guard Combo Guard Wing
De'Aaron Fox Isaiah Briscoe Malik Monk
Dominique Hawkins Mychal Mulder Sacha Killeya-Jones
Combo Forward Post
Derek Willis Bam Adebayo
Wenyen Gabriel Isaac Humphries

There’s a lot of bigs. Willis and Killeya-Jones will probably have to spend some time on the wing and those are some big guys. I’d expect you’ll see a lot of Fox, Briscoe and Monk on the perimeter, and those three figure up to the task. Still it would be good for Kentucky if Mulder stepped up and was able to figure into the rotation.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 26 - 5 | KenPom Projected Record: 25 - 6

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Villanova vs North Carolina Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CON SCHEDULE: Michigan St, Duquesne, Arizona St, UCLA, Valparaiso, North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas

As usual Kentucky lined up one of the best schedules in the country playing four teams that are certain to be in the top 25 and several figure to be top 10. Michigan St, UNC, Louisville and Kansas were all in the KenPom top 7 a year ago and figure to be strong again this year. Kentucky would have to fall pretty flat to miss the NCAA tournament considering their talent, and this is a schedule that is set up to challenge them early and often. I think if you’re Calipari you’d be happy if you get a split out of the four top games and take the others heading into conference play at 10-2.

CONFERENCE: Texas A&M (2x), Florida (2x), Georgia (2x), Tennessee (2x), Vanderbilt (2x), @ Ole Miss, @ Mississippi State, @ Alabama, @ Missouri

When you’re the best team you’ll have always have the proverbial target on your back. Kentucky doesn’t really catch much of a break with their scheduling, outside of Tennessee their other opponents are potential contenders for the NCAA tournament. I’m projecting Kentucky to finish at 15-3, but there is enough talent on the roster for them to go undefeated in conference. It’s just really difficult to go end to end without taking a loss, and as I said above, every Arena they go in will be packed hoping for an upset. We’ll see how many can win.

OVERVIEW

Normally I’d start the summary by talking a little about the Wildcats from a season ago, but with Kentucky that always feels a little weird. They’re always a completely different team from one season to the next, and this season is no different. The continuity is minimal but the talent is extreme, and that is what makes Kentucky who they are. Lose Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and more… no problem. Not for John Calipari anyways.

Kentucky 15-16 Shot Chart
Returning players shot chart
shotanalytics.com

When you have the talent the Wildcats have, good times are usually expected in Lexington and this year won’t be any different. The projections are rolling in and just about everyone has Kentucky at the top of the conference. Last year the expectations were a little more tampered after coming off their historic, nearly undefeated record and restocking with good but less than the normal Kentucky level of talent. Calipari did a masterful job of maximizing what he had, this year he won’t have to work so hard.

The guard depth is a concern. And when you have youth there is always a question about how they’ll adapt to the college level. One of the reasons for the relative struggles of last season were the 2015 class didn’t have the talent or depth of other classes, the 2016 class doesn’t have the same problem. It’s been labeled the best class since 2007 class which featured a dozen or more guys still in the NBA today. So when you’re rolling out five players in the top 15 of that class, you won’t have a whole lot to worry about. There may be a few bumps along the way, and I don’t foresee any undefeated seasons happening, but it’s hard not to see this Kentucky team being a dominant force in the SEC.

Beating Kentucky is atop the wish-list of every team in the SEC. This season it won’t be easy. With De’Aaron Fox speeding up floors and Malik Monk knocking down shots from the outside, and with a host of talented big men, the Wildcats are likely to sit atop the league again this season. There are weaknesses but they’re the kind you can withstand in a flawed league. The strengths are obvious the only question remains how far will it take them? I don’t see a National Championship in this team’s future, I just think they need more depth for that. But an SEC title, a three seed or better in the NCAA’s? Yeah, that’s probably on deck.


About the preview: Each SEC site was asked to submit one representative to pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, here is the Google Form we used:


GLOSSARY

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team