John Calipari’s best Kentucky teams have blended star freshmen with at least a couple of experienced returning players in the primary rotation, and UK fans will hope Calipari has found that blend again this season. Minutes after UK’s season-ending NCAA Tournament loss to Indiana in March, Calipari called his 2016 signing class “maybe the best ever that I’ve had.” Then guard Isaiah Briscoe turned down the NBA Draft to return alongside senior forward Derek Willis, senior guard Dominique Hawkins and sophomore forward Isaac Humphries, among others. Now expectations are as high as ever in Lexington.
All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: John Calipari
2015-16 RECORD (SEC): 27–9 (13–5)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Indiana 73–67 in the second round
2016-17 PREDICTION: First in the SEC
F Skal Labissiere (6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
F Marcus Lee (6.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
G Jamal Murray (20.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
F Alex Poythress (10.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
G Tyler Ulis (17.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 7.0 apg)
Kentucky’s biggest weakness last season was the lack of a dominating post presence on the low block or defensive glass. Five-star recruit Bam Adebayo will go a long way to addressing that issue, but he will also have help from classmates Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones.
“You have a beast,” Calipari said of Adebayo in May. “We’ve missed a beast for a year — like an absolute beast that you know if he gets it, he’s either going to dunk it or dunk your arm.”
Underrated isn’t a term often associated with five-star recruits, but some evaluators pegged Killeya-Jones with that description due to his status as the lowest-ranked recruit in the class. Both Killeya-Jones and Gabriel boast extended shooting ability that could have them compete with Willis for minutes. Humphries and redshirt freshman Tai Wynyard offer more physicality to the group in the competition for reserve minutes.
Willis could be the key player on the entire roster after being credited for helping spark Kentucky’s midseason turnaround last season. His offseason started on an embarrassing note with an arrest for alcohol intoxication in a public place after he was found passed out in the street outside the open driver’s door of a vehicle. UK assistant John Robic later pointed to Willis as a source of leadership. Willis could play as a stretch-4 or small forward after shooting 44.2 percent (53-for-120) from 3-point range in his breakout junior season.
appears likely to start three guards. Briscoe, who will take on much of the leadership responsibility lost with Tyler Ulis’ decision to enter the NBA Draft, figures to start alongside freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. After shooting just 13.5 percent from 3-point range as a freshman, Briscoe hopes to show NBA teams he can provide more of an offensive threat with his jump shot while also serving as the Wildcats’ primary ball handler more often.
Briscoe may play more with the ball in his hands after Ulis’ departure, but Fox is the favorite to play the majority of the point guard minutes. Fox may remind some fans of Briscoe, as his speed, driving ability and defense are considered strengths while his shot remains something of a question mark. Monk is among the most explosive athletes in the entire 2016 class and should provide no shortage of highlight-reel dunks to go along with NBA range from the perimeter.
Hawkins has proven capable of helping Kentucky as a defensive stopper and played a key role off the bench in the 2014 and 2016 NCAA Tournaments. He will compete with former junior college transfer Mychal Mulder, a senior with a reputation as a 3-point-shooting specialist who struggled to make an impact in his debut season, to be the first guard off the bench.
De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo are projected to start and are considered candidates to be 2017 NBA Lottery picks. Wenyen Gabriel could give Kentucky four starting freshmen if he beats out Derek Willis for the No. 4 spot. Sacha Killeya-Jones should compete for minutes off the bench. Walk-on Brad Calipari will hope to use his outside shooting to prove capable of helping at some point in his UK career.
Losing five-star center Marques Bolden to Duke in May should decrease any talk about the 2016 class being among the best in program history, but the new freshmen will face plenty of pressure. For just the second time in Calipari’s seven seasons at UK, Kentucky failed to reach at least the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament in 2016. UK followed its 2013 NIT season with a run to the 2014 title game, so fans have reason to hope for an immediate return to glory.
Freshmen will carry most of the load this season, but Briscoe, Willis and the rest of the veterans will have much to say about the team’s ceiling. If those returners can fill the same roles that Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller did in 2012, UK will be in the discussion for another national championship.