While the preseason No. 1 ranking has been a recurring reality in Lexington, Kentucky, there has been a bit of a role reversal this year with the Kentucky Wildcats and John Calipari. This is what can make Big Blue’s 2014-2015 squad so special.
Calipari, who annually brings in more McDonalds All-Americans than Ronald McDonald actually serves McRibs, normally occupies the role of bringing a brand new unit together. However, that is not the case this year. The Wildcats’ fan base is learning the meaning of the word “sophomore.” After finishing as the national runner-up last season, Kentucky learned the value of experience in March from the team that beat the Cats. Connecticut was led by senior Shabazz Napier. This year, several Wildcats turn the table and will have experience in their own right.
In other words, hype will be nothing new to this Kentucky team or staff… just for different reasons.
In addition to returning an experienced squad, the Wildcats are also returning a team that gets the absurd questions about beating an NBA squad, the questions special teams get. However, the roster Kentucky brings into the season is equally absurd: Kentucky boasts nine former McDonalds All-Americans. With this much talent, there is no doubt that Kentucky will be good and deep. The only question is whether or not the Cats will be a generationally good team and run the table.
Let’s meet these hyped-up chaps, shall we?
The hype started when the brother tandem of Aaron and Andrew Harrison decided to return to school, passing up the first round in the NBA Draft. This is a decision that rarely, if ever, happens under Calipari, due to the types of prospects and talent he recruits. Aaron was certainly Reggie Miller-like clutch in the NCAA tournament. He hopes to maintain the type of offensive ability he showed last March. Andrew, on the other hand, aimed to put in work this offseason by losing – weight that is. By slimming down, Andrew intends to be more consistent in 2014-’15.
Behind the Harrison twins, Calipari adds the freshman duo of slick passing Tyler Ulis and sharpshooting Devin Booker off the bench. Both Ulis and Booker finished in double figures against Buffalo on Sunday. Dominique Hawkins provides a nice lockdown defender for the squad as well.
Not only is the frontcourt skilled, but it is big at every position, reaching deep into their bench. The Wildcats feature seven players who are listed at 6-8 or taller. The group is headlined by Willie Cauley-Stein, who was solid on both ends of the floor last season, but was dominant on defense by rejecting nearly three shots per game. Dakari Johnson joins the frontcourt as the second seven-footer on the roster, and has the potential to have a similar ability as a rim protector.
The group also returns Alex Poythress from last year’s squad. Poythress, as a junior, supplies some nice leadership for the team. However, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns have the potential to be great at 6-10 and 6-11, respectively. Lyles and Towns complement each other very well: Towns has the ability to stretch the floor a tad better, but Lyles is a stronger back-to-the-basket scorer. In the opener, Lyles had 14 points in just 17 minutes, while Towns had eight points and eight rebounds. In the Buffalo game, Towns started and played 10 minutes, while Lyles came off the bench and played 20.
With all of this talent, the toughest dilemma facing Calipari isn’t whom he should play, but how to distribute minutes and deploy lineup combinations to best maximize the talent of his players. This is something Calipari has not had to do much of since coming to Kentucky. The chemistry and the rotations could be a volatile topic with that much talent — this is the in-season touch Calipari is graced with. While Calipari is looking to spread out the ability with platoons, it is highly likely — if not certain — that defined roles and rotations will be forged. However, there is quite a bit of unselfishness in evidence in the early stages of the season.
In the opener on Friday against Grand Canyon, eight players took between six and 10 shots to spread the wealth around. In Sunday’s game against Buffalo, nobody took more than nine shots, and seven players finished between six and nine attempts. Dealing with egos is nothing new to Calipari, and few do it as well in college basketball, which makes him a great fit for this specific challenge.
Kentucky plays a pretty brutal out of conference schedule, which will begin with Kansas tonight. The schedule also includes Texas, North Carolina, UCLA, and Louisville. While running the table may be difficult, the non-conference schedule certainly gives the Wildcats an opportunity to gain experience against other national elites. This will be valuable as, outside of Florida, the SEC does not appear to be very strong.
While there is no doubt that Kentucky will compete for title No. 9 this season, it will likely be viewed as a failure if the Cats do not accomplish that feat.
It says a lot that this could be the best team Calipari has even compiled. However, there are a lot of great teams on paper. The ultimate story of this team — which will determine if it becomes legendary — will play out in March and April.