Even for Kentucky in the one-and-done John Calipari era, the 2017-18 rebuild/reload is a massive undertaking. The Wildcats will feature eight freshmen (another No. 1 recruiting class) and could start five newcomers after losing eight members from last season’s Elite Eight and SEC championship team.
“I’m telling you, hey, it’s going to be hard,” Calipari says. “We will be the youngest team, most inexperienced team in the country. This may be my youngest team ever. But you know what? I love the challenge of it because we have kids that will share, that are going to give it up for each other, that are comfortable in their own skin, come from great homes, understand they’re on a mission. They want to get better.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: John Calipari
2016-17 RECORD (SEC): 32–6 (16–2)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to North Carolina 75–73 in the Elite Eight
F Bam Adebayo (13.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg)
G Isaiah Briscoe (12.1 ppg, 4.2 apg)
G De’Aaron Fox (16.7 ppg, 4.6 apg)
G Malik Monk (19.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
Get ready for Calipari to overuse the term “positionless players” this season. Versatility and willingness to play wide open and without constraints of set positions and pace will be Kentucky’s advantage in the frontcourt and perhaps in recruiting pitches moving forward.
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Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt all stand 6'8" or taller and can play in the paint or on the perimeter. Knox, a 6'9" Florida native, is the most polished of the trio offensively and should start from Day 1 at small forward. Washington, a 6'8" forward, can defend the rim as a center, dribble like a point guard and has 3-point range. Vanderbilt, a 6'8" forward, is versatile and has potential, but he will be sidlined for at least the first six weeks of the season after injuring his left foot in late September.
Nick Richards, a 6'11" native of Jamaica, has a background in volleyball, soccer and track and field but committed to basketball full time when he moved to the United States during high school.
Sophomore Wenyen Gabriel made 23 starts as a freshman and could remain a contributor with an improved 3-point shot and better defensive awareness. Sacha Killeya-Jones appeared in only 15 games as a freshman, but the former McDonald’s All-American remains one of the youngest players on the team and has upside as an athletic option with good shooting touch.
Sophomore Tai Wynyard figures to be the most physical option in the paint. The 6'10" son of a lumberjack starred for the New Zealand team at the FIBA World Cup in July.
Hamidou Diallo will be key on and off the court this season. The 6'5" freshman guard from Queens, N.Y., enrolled at UK in January and — though he didn’t play in games — practiced against the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk for months and spent weeks with Calipari playing for USA Basketball at the FIBA World Cup. Those experiences have given Diallo a head start on learning what Calipari expects on a daily basis and create leadership in a backcourt that will be otherwise occupied by newcomers.
Freshmen Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will handle point guard duties. Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo have the versatility and length to play the 1, 2 and 3 positions. Freshman Jemarl Baker is considered to be one of the best pure shooters in the 2017 signing class.
For Kentucky, the narrative remains the same: Plenty of talent exited, and plenty of talent enrolled. Winning the SEC title is the expectation, and anything short of a national title will be a disappointment.
“Nobody can really guard us,” Washington says. “I don’t expect a lot of teams to man us this year because we’re too long and we’re too tall. We can all shoot, dribble and pass. We can do it all. It’s going to be scary for us this year.”