It's really hard to call last season a disappointment for Calipari's Wildcats, but after losing in the Final Four to Wisconsin, that's exactly what it was. From November until their eventual loss, Kentucky was burdened with the pressure of the "best team ever" label, getting only more intense as the season wore on and they continued to stay undefeated. After the supposed dream season came to an end, Kentucky lost 7 key players to early entry in the NBA draft, 4 in the lottery including first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns.
Now it's time to do what Kentucky does best, re-stock with freshman talent and continue to compete for a national championship
Who's Back?The Wildcats have three important players coming back for this season
- Ulis is a 5'9 guard who was unanimously listed as a 5 star prospect coming out of high school across all major recruiting platforms. Last season Ulis averaged 5.6 points and 3.6 assists in 24 minutes a game. These numbers may look low but you have to remember that Kentucky split time between 9 extremely talented players who can all score the ball and make their own shot. Ulis is on the Bob Cousy Award preseason watchlist for the best point guard in the country along with a selection to the SEC preseason first team. Ulis is a true difference maker who will be running the offense for Calipari this year, possibly the most important player on the team.
- Marcus Lee has shown explosiveness in doses. His freshman year he provided an explosion in the NCAA tournament after Willie Cauley-Stein got hurt in the Sweet 16 when Lee stepped up for 10 points and 7 offensive rebounds against Michigan in the Elite 8. His sophomore year was less exciting, with Dakari Johnson, Towns, and Cauley-Stein all in front of him on the depth chart, Lee only saw 10 minutes a game getting about 2.7 rebounds and points a game. Nonetheless Lee is an explosive athlete and a force on the glass that will have a much bigger role on this team
- Alex Poythress is entering his senior season after tearing his ACL after 8 games last season. Poythress is a threat to score off the dribble and will be the first senior that Calipari has had at Kentucky that he signed.
Who Are the Freshman?Great question. Here they are in order of highest ranking to lowest
- Skal Labissiere *****
- Isaiah Briscoe *****
- Jamal Murray *****
- Charles Matthews ****
- Isaac Humphries ****
- Mychal Mulder ***
- Skal Labissiere is one of the best players in the country. If the NBA draft were tomorrow he would be a top 3 pick no doubt. A native of Haiti, Skal averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds, and an astounding 4.5 blocks a game at Reach Your Dream Prep Academy. He's thin at about 215 lbs for his 6'11 frame but is a fantastic athlete willing to run the floor and shoot the ball. In Skal Kentucky gets an elite paint protector along with a proven scorer that will no doubt be a focal point of the team.
- Isaiah Briscoe is a standard combo guard with advanced dribble drive skills and a great shot on top of it. He is 6'3 215 lbs. Briscoe will have no problem running the point as he has great vision and the ability to make his own shot, but will have to improve on the defensive end of the ball as his on ball defense has been criticized over the years.
- Jamal Murray is a Canadian prospect who reclassified in to the 2015 class from 2016 late to play for this season. The question for the 6'5 210 lb guard isn't whether he will be great, it's whether he's already the best player on his team. Several Canadian news outlets see Murray as a future star (The Record) or the best player in college basketball already (The Star). The hype for Murray is building, and he won't even be 19 until February. Because of the guards on the roster already I see Murray as an off the ball two guard, but he will still get several chances to score.
- Charles Matthews is a guard any school would love to have. the 4 star recruit from Chicago chose Kentucky and brings wing scoring and solid defense. Matthews is a guy I could see staying 2-3 years to become more of a focal point and increase his draft stock.
- Isaac Humphries is a 7 foot Australian phenom who weighs 260 lbs and is a force in the paint on offense. While his touch is good, his defense has been criticized as he doesn't protect the rim as well as he should for his size. Possible Dakari Johnson route where he stays for 2 years before he declares.
- Mychal Mulder is another Canadian who North Star Hoops claims to have a 6'11 wingspan to go with his 6'5 frame. He is a freak athlete who can jump out of the gym, and even if he won't see playing time right away he will be a threat in transition some time down the road.
What Does the Future Hold for Kentucky:
It's always hard to predict a Kentucky season because of the year to year turnover, and with the SEC starting to get stronger recruiting classes their conference schedule might start to have more red on it.
Lucky for us we get to see the Wildcats play Duke on the 17th at a neutral site for an early test along with UCLA and Ohio State in the month of December before Christmas.
Right now I think this team lacks a scorer to put the whole game on and ride to the end in the 4th quarter. Sure, they have talented players, every Kentucky team since Calipari got here has. Skal will have to step up in a way Towns did later in the season, scoring in the low post when they needed it most, especially when they were trying to increase a small lead to an insurmountable one.
If I had to predict right now (it really wouldn't be exciting if I didn't) I would say this team has potential to make a Final Four, but I see them falling short. Winning the SEC regular season and tournament, then falling to a team like UNC or Maryland in the Elite 8.