This preview and more on Kentucky and the SEC are available in the Athlon Sports 2013-14 College Basketball Preseason Annual. The magazine is available online or on newsstands everywhere.
No. 1 Kentucky Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-12 (12-6 SEC)
Postseason: NIT first round
Coach: John Calipari (123-26 at Kentucky)
SEC projection: First
Postseason projection: NCAA runner up
It’s not often — likely never before, in fact — that a team coming off a first-round NIT exit is dreaming, talking even, about the possibility of going 40–0 and winning an NCAA championship the next season. Only at Kentucky. Only under John Calipari, the pied piper of college basketball.
“When we won the national title, we did that tour” around the state with the trophy two years ago, Calipari said, “and after that it was over. Rear-view mirror was taken out. Moving forward. I would tell you the same with this season. There were things that I wish had been different, (but) part of last season was the beginning of success for the coming year.”
The veterans, sophomore forward Alex Poythress and center Willie Cauley-Stein, who passed up first-round NBA money to return to UK, learned some valuable lessons about leaning on hype over hard work. Calipari hopes they’ll be a steadying influence on his latest bumper crop of incoming freshmen.
It was a particularly healthy harvest, eight scholarship newcomers, an unprecedented six of them McDonald’s All-Americans. On paper, it is the best of Calipari’s five straight national-best recruiting classes. In theory, it is the greatest haul of all-time.
This is as impressive a collection of talent as you’ll see: seven players who were rated 4-star recruits or higher, five McDonald’s All-Americans. Just in the frontcourt.
Poythress is a freak athlete, an inside-outside threat who Calipari said learned last season “where he’s going to have to take everything to be the player that he wants to be.” Cauley-Stein is a legit 7-footer with skills, an effective shot-blocker and eager rebounder.
They’re joined by four incoming burger boys — James Young, a 6-7 sharpshooter; Julius Randle, a 6-9 power forward (emphasis on power); Marcus Lee, a 6-9 shot-blocking prodigy; and 6-11 Dakari Johnson, who will be one of the few true centers in the SEC.
Randle has already drawn rave reviews this summer from Calipari and several former Cats who are now in the NBA who played against the 5-star freshman in pickup games. Some think he’ll challenge Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins for the top spot in next summer’s draft.
“He’s a beast,” Calipari says. “He’s an alpha beast who will drive the team. Has a little bit of Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist) in him."
The Ryan Harrow experiment failed miserably last season, and Calipari failed to have a one-and-done, first-round NBA Draft pick at point guard for the first time in six years. Harrow, who transferred to Georgia State after the season, couldn’t handle the pressure at UK.
“With what I just went through, I wanted a tough point guard,” Calipari says.
Enter freshman Andrew Harrison, who is (you guessed it) another McDonald’s All-American, rated the top point guard prospect in the Class of 2013. He’s joined by twin Aaron, the nation’s top-rated shooting guard.
The latter is an adept scorer, but at 6-5, 210 pounds, also “should be and will be and is expected to be and will be demanded to be a lock-down defender,” Calipari says. As for Andrew: “My hope is by the end of the year, he’s just like some of the other point guards we’ve had. You look at him and say, ‘Hey, he can do things that other point guards can’t do at his size.’”
The Harrisons will get help from senior Jarrod Polson, a former walk-on who earned a significant role last season, and fellow freshman Dominique Hawkins, a bulldog who willed his team to the state championship en route to winning Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball.
Nine newcomers join the roster, including a record six McDonald’s All-Americans — guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, forwards James Young, Marcus Lee and Julius Randle, and center Dakari Johnson. Guard Dominique Hawkins and forward Derek Willis were finalists for Mr. Basketball in Kentucky. Preferred walk-on E.J. Floreal is the son of UK’s track coach and a freaky leaper who had Division I offers.
Factoid: 15. John Calipari has lost a total of 15 conference games in his last eight seasons as a head coach. Six of those losses came last season.
Last season’s roster had elite talent, but not enough of it. The roster was so thin, practices suffered and Calipari couldn’t afford to bench slackers.
“Two years ago, we did not have one bad practice. Not one. Last year, we had about five good practices,” he says. This year: “The bench will be my friend.”
If competition fuels a team that is, on paper, among the most talented the sport has ever seen, who knows what might happen? Calipari isn’t shying away from 40–0 talk.
“We’re chasing perfection. We’re chasing greatness. We’re chasing things that have never been done in the history of our game,” he says.
2013-14 Preseason Top 25
4. Michigan State
8. Oklahoma State
10. North Carolina
11. Ohio State
14. New Mexico
15. Notre Dame
25. Wichita State