The formula never changes. John Calipari loses most of his roster to the NBA. He does not flinch for a second. He merely collects another top-three recruiting class, plugs in extremely capable and eager replacements, and the University of Kentucky becomes a wise bet for the Final Four.
Five fresh starters will crackle into the Wildcats’ lineup this season after UK lost seven players to the NBA (six drafted, four in the first round). That followed a 38–1 season that ended with a jarring 71–64 loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Don’t expect 40–0 talk this winter, but this team looks just as capable of doing what the 2010 (Elite Eight) and 2011 (Final Four) teams achieved.
UK has more than its usual number of veterans (five), the best freshman center prospect in the nation (Skal Labissiere), the breakout Canadian star of the Pan Am Games (Jamal Murray) and a fearless guard with New York City DNA (Isaiah Briscoe).
Calipari has done more with less, but this team will not have the overpowering inside strength and depth of the 2014-15 squad.
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Labissiere, a native of Haiti, will remind more people of Anthony Davis (best case) or Nerlens Noel (worst case) than Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s an elite athlete and a creative scorer, but not the low-post beast that Towns became, in part because he’s only 215 pounds. Labissiere told one interviewer that he tries to model his game after Davis, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony. Labissiere brings question marks, however, has he has not yet been cleared to play by the NCAA.
The time is now for Kentucky’s three returning frontcourt players. They have all been spectators while teammates starred and moved into the NBA. Alex Poythress, in his fourth season, missed most of last year with a torn knee ligament. Poythress showed flashes of pro potential as a freshman and sophomore and has the physique to play with anybody. He’ll make a jump when he becomes more aggressive and plays through contact.
Opposing coaches have watched Marcus Lee dominate in short stretches and wondered why he didn’t play more. Lee can block shots with anybody, but his offensive game disappears away from the rim. He must prove he can score on more than dunks and rebounds.
Derek Willis is the true mystery man. Calipari has compared his physical skills to former NBA All-Star Bobby Jones, but in two seasons Willis has made 10 field goals while playing 114 minutes. Willis has shown the ability to make 3-point shots. He’s one of only four guys 6'8" or taller, so Calipari will need him to rebound.
No. 1 Kentucky Facts & Figures
Last season: 38-1, 18-0 SEC
Postseason: Final Four
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
SEC Projection: First
Postseason projection: National champion
Kentucky’s backcourt could be improved and tempt Calipari to employ a three-guard set. Some argued that Kentucky was a more fluid and dynamic team when Tyler Ulis played point guard last winter. This season the team belongs to Ulis. He’s a relentless on-the-ball defender who transforms turnovers into layups and dunks. Few defenders can stay in front of him. He also makes shots — 81 percent from the foul line and 43 percent from the 3-point line. His only negative is his size at 5'9".
Calipari could easily play two or three point guards. Murray was Canada’s best player in the Pan-American Games, scoring 22 points to lead the Canadians past the U.S. before they lost to Brazil in the gold medal game.
Briscoe, another freshman, arrives from Newark with the New York City toughness in his game. He’s a conditioning freak who enjoys boxing, cycling and yoga.
Calipari filled out his recruiting class with shooters Mychal Mulder, who excelled at Vincennes (Ind.) University, and Charles Matthews of Chicago.
Don’t overlook junior Dominique Hawkins, who has been used to increase the defensive pressure and change the tempo the last two seasons.
Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe should follow the John Calipari-Kentucky tradition of moving to the NBA after one college season. Labissiere is a motivated kid who survived the 2010 Haitian earthquake and is determined to provide a better life for his family. Murray was UK’s final commitment but plays like a guy who could average 15 per game. Briscoe is a dynamic athlete. Charles Matthews and Mychal Mulder must earn their minutes by making 3s.
Key Losses: G Devin Booker, C Willie Cauley-Stein, G Aaron Harrison, G Andrew Harrison, C Dakari Johnson, F Trey Lyles, F Karl-Anthony Towns
Top Players: G Tyler Ulis, G Isaiah Briscoe, G Jamal Murray, F Alex Poythress, F Skal Labissiere
After last season, anything was going to be a retreat for the Wildcats, who were overpowering around the rim, intimidating on defense and unbeaten in the SEC.
The primary question for this team: How formidable will the low-post game be in half-court sets?
Calipari has already said he will junk the platoon system he used last winter. That means he’ll pick his top eight guys and let his stars average more than 30 minutes.
Expect this team to play faster than the 38–1 team and push the tempo because of the playmaking skills of Ulis, Murray and Briscoe.