We have played 10 seasons of basketball under Head Coach John Calipari. If I were to ask fans to rank the teams in the Cal Era from best to worst how do you think it would go? For most people, the Championship team led by AD & MKG (insert THEY TOOK THE 4TH AND 5TH MOST SHOTS!!! quote here) and the 38-1 squad will be the first mentioned. Generally, Cal’s first team, with John Wall, Boogie, Bledsoe, etc. will get thrown out next despite falling short of the Final 4. If we accept those three teams as the “best 3,” it does get a little less clear from there. Does it have to be the 13/14 team that made the final led by Julius Randle & James Young? Remember, that group lost 11 along the way before getting hot in March. What about the Brandon Knight led group that also made the Final 4? Well, I’m here to tell you that this year’s team, on paper, could be entering into that conversation in Year #11 of the John Calipari era.
I did a deep dive into which Kentucky teams had the most returning minutes played with the hypothesis that the results would mirror with the best (and worst) seasons. The results were very telling. Let’s start at the bottom. While there can be some debate about which team is the best of the Cal Era, the worst team is pretty obvious. After the Nerlens Noel injury, the 2012-2013 team missed the NCAA tournament and finished 21-12. After looking at the numbers, it really isn’t much of a surprise. That group returned only 567 minutes from the season before. For reference, that is roughly 100 less minutes than Immanuel Quickley played by himself last season.
The 2nd fewest wins of any season under Coach Cal came from the Knox, SGA led team in 2017-2018. That team finished 26-11 before bowing out to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 (pretty solid 2nd worst team)! Once again, this team returned only 867 minutes, about 500 fewer than the next Kentucky team on the list. Now, let’s flip the focus up to the best teams in last 10 seasons.
We will all remember the 2014-2015 season for the pursuit of perfection. Even though the season ended prematurely in Indianapolis at the hands of Wisconsin, that team was special. They were led by the most veteran group under John Calipari, returning 5217 minutes from the prior season. The Harrison Twins alone brought back over 2500 minutes of backcourt experience from a team that played for the NCAA Championship the season before.
The first Calipari season, in 2009-2010, comes in next on the list with 4491 returning minutes. However, that is actually a little skewed because only Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller played more than they did the prior season. For example, Perry Stevenson logged over 1000 minutes for Billy Gillespie and only 259 under Coach Cal. The 2012 Championship team returned 3933 minutes and is the only team to have returned 3 players that played over 1000 minutes the prior season (Jones, Miller, Lamb). While it isn’t exactly shocking to anyone, it is interesting to see how much correlation there is between returning minutes played and success, especially in the 1-and-Done Era.
This year’s Wildcats will be the 4th most veteran group that John Calipari has coached in Lexington. Led by backcourt mates Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, this team will return 2995 minutes from the Elite 8 run last season. Does this guarantee 30 wins or a Final 4 run, obviously not. However, when you can solidify a strong recruiting class with a backcourt that has a season under their belt, plus E.J. Montgomery and Junior Nick Richards there is no reason to believe this group won’t make a leap this year. The only more experienced teams Coach Cal has had either flirted with perfection, won a National Championship, or won 35 games with arguably as much pure talent as any Kentucky team.
Kentucky fans have become accustomed to leaning on Freshman talent and that will continue to play a vital role this season. However, it has been the returning players that have served as a better indicator of success over the years. Adding in veteran Nate Sestina (861 minutes for Bucknell) gives the Wildcats even more experience that I chose not to factor in to my research (which I held constant for other transfers like Julius Mays, etc.) Personally, I’m very excited for football season to start, but this has me looking to at the calendar with high expectations for November and beyond.
Here are the results of my research:
2014-2015: 5217 Returning Minutes (Aaron Harrison) leading returner in parentheses
2009-2010: 4491 Returning Minutes (Patterson)
2011-2012: 3933 Returning Minutes (Jones)
2019-2020: 2995 Returning Minutes (Hagans)
2018-2019: 2456 Returning Minutes (Washington)
2016-2017: 2250 Returning Minutes (Briscoe)
2013-2014: 2150 Returning Minutes (Poythress)
2015-2016: 1727 Returning Minutes (Ulis)
2010-2011: 1411 Returning Minutes (Miller)
2017-2018: 867 Returning Minutes (Gabriel)
2012-2013: 567 Returning Minutes (Wiltjer)