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

freshman class.

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

round.

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

the case.

”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

along.”

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

roles.

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

overall pick.

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

swingman.

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

per game

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

very well.

”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

contributions.

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

expectations.

”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.”