College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 1 Kentucky begins 2014-15 where it started last season — at the top. Even though last season ended in the national title game, the Wildcats are hoping for a smoother ride this time around. The Wildcats didn’t start looking like a title team until the NCAA Tournament — a good time to do so, mind you — but this year’s group will aim for wire-to-wire consistency.
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After last season, most Kentucky fans promised themselves never to allow that silly notion back into their minds — the idea that this latest loaded collection of Cats could, just maybe, win every last one of their games. The weight of that expectation nearly crushed a team full of freshmen, who eventually lost 11 times.
However, that team did eventually click in time for a wild ride all the way to the NCAA title game. And eight guys from that team who might’ve been drafted instead passed on the NBA and returned for another season at UK.
Plus, four more prized recruits signed up for the circus, bringing coach John Calipari’s roster to this crazy number: nine McDonald’s All-Americans, not counting projected lottery pick Willie Cauley-Stein.
And in a rarity, Calipari has veterans now, six sophomores and two juniors.
“The levels of practice are high,” Calipari says. “They’re not backing down from each other. The younger guys are competing. The older guys are coming.”
And the rest of college basketball should be quivering.
No. 1 Kentucky Facts & Figures
Last season: 29-11, 12-6 SEC
Postseason: NCAA runner-up
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Coach: John Calipari (152-37 at Kentucky, 64-20 SEC)
SEC Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA champion
It’s hardly hyperbole to say no one in college basketball can match the Cats’ combination of size and athleticism inside. With seven players 6-8 or taller, six of them former top-50 recruits, and all with skills that belie their size, Calipari’s frontcourt will overwhelm most.
Veteran forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee play as if on pogo sticks and have gotten in peak condition — Poythress improving his cardio endurance and Lee packing on several pounds of muscle — demonstrated by dominant and dunk-filled performances during the Cats’ summer exhibition trip to the Bahamas.
It was a pivotal trip for Poythress, once considered a one-and-done and now entering his third season at UK.
“He came back to school to prove to the world: ‘I’m one of the best forwards in the country,’” assistant coach Kenny Payne says.
Then there’s the matter of three (almost) 7-footers in junior Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomore Dakari Johnson and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. Johnson, already a rugged rebounder and inside scorer, has slimmed down and is running the floor — and springing up off it — better than ever. Towns opened a lot of eyes in the Bahamas with an unusually polished and multi-faceted game for a freshman. He swished hook shots, skied for dunks, crashed the glass and even delivered a few slick passes not typical of a 6-11 center.
There’s also 6-9 Derek Willis, another high riser who is a strong 3-point shooter. And both Cauley-Stein and 6-10 McDonald’s All-American Trey Lyles, who sat out the summer tour with leg injuries. Good luck to opponents trying to come up with a counter.
When twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison passed on the draft and returned to school, it solidified the Cats’ status as fully loaded across the board. They’re joined by two other former McDonald’s All-Americans: freshman point guard Tyler Ulis, an electric 5-9 water bug, and rookie sharpshooter Devin Booker.
Andrew Harrison looked far more comfortable and in control this summer, taking charge of the team and playing a more aggressive — but still pass-first — style. Aaron Harrison, hero of the Final Four run with three straight clinching 3-pointers, has a much more well-rounded game now. Both twins have lost weight, and it shows most in Aaron, who looks more explosive entering his sophomore season. He had multiple drives and dunks (over defenders) that drew gasps from the crowd in the Bahamas.
The twins will be catalysts for this team, but both Booker and Ulis will help significantly. Ulis handles the ball like it’s on a string, is a breathtaking passer and a surprisingly aggressive defender at his size.
“It’s like he’s a gnat,” Calipari says. “It changes the dynamic of our team right now, because we didn’t have that.”
This team is really, really, really good. Each of Calipari’s teams at Kentucky have been loaded with talent. Some of his teams have had solid depth. This one, however, has talent, depth and experience.
Will this team be the one to run the table? It’s unlikely. But you’ll have trouble finding a game right now they’d be picked to lose. Kentucky is the overwhelming favorite to the win the national title.
Only four McDonald’s All-Americans in this class? John Calipari is slipping, clearly. But 5-9 point guard Tyler Ulis is electric with the ball and will quickly be a fan favorite. Devin Booker has a sweet outside stroke but can also get to the bucket. Trey Lyles, if his undisclosed leg injury is fully healed, will be a force, while 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns can do a little bit of everything and looks like a future top-five NBA Draft pick.