No. 3 Kentucky reloads with 4 talented freshmen
Kentucky lost six players from last year’s national championship
team and is again projected to be title contender this season.
Yes, Wildcats coach John Calipari signed another talented
The high expectations remain after the Wildcats won their eighth
title behind freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and
Marquis Teague. All were first-round NBA draft picks along with
Terrence Jones; Doron Lamb and Darius Miller went in the second
It’s a tough act to follow for freshmen Nerlens Noel, Alex
Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein – but Kentucky is
ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll.
Nearly seven months after Calipari won his first title with a
team anchored by underclassmen, he is eager to see if this group
can go as far as their predecessors.
”We’re just so young,” Calipari said. ”If we had to play a
game right now, we’d probably be the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth
team in our league. Now, let’s hope in two months that that’s not
”I like our talent. I like our size. I like our length. We have
some guys with pretty good speed. We’re just not a good basketball
team right now. Too many young guys that we’re trying to bring
Replacing a lineup that accounted for 92 percent of last year’s
offense definitely gives Calipari room to exlpore many options with
an incoming class that includes three McDonald’s All-Americans. The
Wildcats are taller than last year’s squad and have just as much
quickness, in addition to veterans ready to fill a variety of
Leading the way is 6-foot-10 forward Noel, considered the
nation’s top recruit. His offensive and shot-blocking skills have
already drawn comparisons to Davis, That’s high praise considering
Davis earned many of the nation’s top awards and was the NBA’s top
Noel acknowledges the comparisons to Davis, but said, ”this is
a different day (and I’m a) different person. I’m bringing my own
game to this team and interested in winning games.”
Poythress, 6-7, is considered one of the nation’s most versatile
forwards and can play several positions. The same has been said
about 6-4 guard Goodwin, who gives Kentucky another excellent
Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot center, lacks the accolades of his fellow
rookies but brings athleticism that has Calipari considering
pairing him with Noel. Calipari could even play a trio of big men
with a lineup that features Noel, Cauley-Stein and 6-10 sophomore
Kyle Wiltjer, the Wildcats’ leading returning scorer at 5.0 points
Just don’t ask Calipari how this group stacks up against last
year’s team – one he describes as a once-in-a-lifetime squad.
”Comparing this team to that team in March is not fair,”
Calipari said. ”They’re not going to be (that team). We’re going
to turn it over. We’re going to get pushed around.
”Defensively, we’re going to have breakdowns. Offensively,
we’re going to look like `what in the world are they doing?,’ and
it’s going to be the process we go through.”
And like any Calipari team, the question is whether that process
is for the short or long term.
Of the 15 Wildcats that have gone on to the NBA since Calipari’s
arrival in 2010, eight left after their freshmen season. The
departure of last year’s entire rookie class has ratcheted up
questions about this year’s recruits, all of whom are already being
projected as high NBA draft choices on various web sites.
At the top of the list is Noel.
He was the subject of an NCAA probe into the funding of his
unofficial visits to Kentucky before being cleared to play earlier
this month. While that has eased the concerns of Big Blue Nation
for the time being, neither he nor his fellow freshmen have said
specifically how long they’ll stay.
”That’s a hard question to answer,” Cauley-Stein said. ”A lot
depends on how you feel at the end of the season.”
No matter what they decide, Calipari has dealt with turnover
”I wish I had the whole team coming back,” he said. ”I wish I
had teams for three and four years, but that’s not the way it is.
I’ve talked enough about how I can’t stand this one-and-done stuff,
but it is what it is. I’m not going to cheat the kids. I’m not
going to have kids stay that need to leave.
”We just deal with what’s left. It’s funny. We’ve had kids
leave every year, and our teams have been good, if not better. So
they’re chasing their dream, and it’s not hurting us.”
As that guessing game continues, Calipari is teaching the
Wildcats how to play defense while trying to figure out his lineup
and where the offense will come from.
There’s potential for all four freshmen to have breakout
seasons, along with opportunities for two transfers now eligible to
get minutes and for a group of returnees to step up their
Julius May, a 6-2 guard, could play a significant role for
Kentucky. A graduate student who averaged 14.1 points and 2.5
assists last season at Wright State before transferring, he could
provide the veteran leadership needed along with Twany Beckham, the
Wildcats’ only senior.
”More often than not it could be me (speaking up), but other
guys have spoken up at other times,” Mays said. ”We have a young
group but a very mature group, and that’s important.”
Sophomore Ryan Harrow, also 6-2, is also eligible after
transferring from North Carolina State and is expected to
contribute at point guard. Wiltjer provides a backup big man,
needing to improve his scoring and defense.
In guards Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson, Sam Malone and Beckham, the
Wildcats have players capable of filling in where needed.
”This is all exciting,” Calipari said. ”I mean, think about
it. It would be boring to have the same team every year, I think.
We’re coming in and have no idea. I have in my mind things that I
think will work, and they may or may not work.”
One thing that never changes are the championship
”I like what they’ll look like in March in my mind,” Calipari
said of the Wildcats. ”Right now, that’s the only thing I can live
with. I have a vision of what they’re going to be in March, and
that’s what I try to drive them to.”