For the first time since John Calipari joined the ranks at Kentucky, Calipari will enter the 2014-2015 with more “knowns” than “unknowns.” Calipari is returning key players at almost every position from this past season’s national runner-up finish, while also adding four new pieces to the puzzle. Even without knowing exactly how the incoming freshmen will pan out in the immediate future, Calipari is returning a strong enough core group of players that this team can be successful no matter how long it takes and how many contributions it gets from the new faces. As we head into a long (but not as long as usual, thankfully) off-season, let’s take a look at some of the good, the great, and the unknown…
A versatile offensive big man in Karl Towns: Dakari Johnson provides the muscle down low. Willie Cauley-Stein provides the freakish athleticism and defensive versatility. Now Karl Towns adds a 7-footer who possesses the unique ability to step away from the basket offensively, equipped with 3-point shooting ability and the potential of a nice mid-range jumper. Towns could make for an interesting tog in a pick and pop scenario.
MOST people are at least chilling out with the 40-0 talk: Of course there will still be some people who can’t stand shelving the 40-0 talk, but after the roller coaster of last season– it seems that most people are trying to be at least slightly more realistic with expectations. Even as high as the expectations are, I think most of us learned our lesson from last year.
Slice! : Losing Orlando Antigua was certainly a blow to the recruiting system John Calipari has set up at Kentucky, but the anticipated new hire, Barry “Slice” Rohrssen appears to be a worthy replacement. If nothing else, the man certainly has some spunk– and an acting career. And a cool nickname.
Ability to move to a smaller 3-guard line-up: Kentucky struggled at times last year against teams with multiple small/quick guards (ex: UCONN). Even though James Young was a formidable 3rd guard, the Harrison twins are so tall that having guys like Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis who can hopefully pester the smaller guards from other teams will be a benefit. Think of the defensive combinations Kentucky will have at guard with the Harrison twins, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis AND Dominique Hawkins.
A 2nd year point guard for the first time: If we’ve learned anything over the last 5 years it is that as Calipari’s point guard goes, the team goes. It took Andrew Harrison a while to figure it out, but when he did– Kentucky flourished. For the first time, Calipari will return a point guard with experience.
Marcus Lee gaining valuable experience during the NCAA tournament run: The silver lining to Willie Cauley-Stein getting injured at the end of the year was the experience a rarely used Marcus Lee gained at the end of the tournament. Those minutes and that confidence should provide a huge boost for Lee moving forward.
Willie Cauley-Stein being hungry after missing the bulk of the tournament run: The OTHER silver lining to WCS’ injury is the fact that WCS seemed genuinely sad that he wasn’t a part of the incredible run that team went on to the national championship game. Willie is hungry. And that’s a good thing.
The Rupp schedule next season: After a season that lacked some pizzazz on the home-schedule front, Kentucky will have a more exciting home schedule this season for the fans. Any time North Carolina comes to Rupp, it’s a great environment and a great game. The addition of a Big 12 opponent (potentially Texas) and Providence makes for a well-rounded non-conference home slate.
Defensive versatility: I mentioned it above with the guards, but throw in the combinations defensively with big men and Alex Poythress and Trey Lyles, and Kentucky can throw a number of looks at teams.
Returning 6 key contributors from a National Championship Runner-Up team: How many teams make a run to the national championship game and then essentially return 5 “starting caliber” players (the Harrison twins, Poythress, Dakari Johnson and WCS)? That’s a luxury most teams don’t have.
Having a month of extra practice before the season starts: We saw how much that Canada trip helped the 2011 Final Four Kentucky team. This team already has experience, but an extra month of practice and playing against potential international competition will significantly move along the 4 incoming freshmen.
What hasn’t this group of returning players been through/seen? The returning players from this year’s team will have just about seen it all. Adversity? Check. Injuries? Check. Low points? Check. High points? Check. A deep NCAA tournament run? Check. Experiencing what it’s like to be a UK player when things go well? Check. Experiencing what it’s like to be a UK player when things don’t go well? Check. Entering the season with high expectations? Check. What haven’t they seen?
Two NBA-quality juniors: It’s not necessarily rare to have sophomores return who will eventually play in the NBA, but to have 2 juniors who will almost certainly be in the NBA one day (WCS and Poythress) is a nice advantage.
Better than NBA-length inside: Some NBA teams would croon at the length Kentucky has down low with three 7-footers.
Depth, depth, depth: Kentucky’s 11th and 12th men (as one might predict now) could be Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis. Those two guys would likely start at almost any other SEC school in the league, with the exception of perhaps Florida. Kentucky’s practices will be unreal next season with 10 potential future NBA players lining up against one another every day.
The potential tournament path: Kentucky could find itself playing in Louisville, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. That’s a travel dream for Kentucky fans, who will travel well regardless. The Big Blue will be more than a mist.
Who replaces James Young’s outside shooting/instant offense? Aaron Harrison proved throughout the season and especially in the tournament that he can hit the outside shot, but Kentucky will miss Young’s 3-point contributions and instant offense from last season. Young hit crucial 3-pointers and also provided a spark for Kentucky whenever the offense seemed stagnant. Kentucky has loads of talent coming in, but who will become a reliable outside shooting threat? Booker? Towns? Willis?
Will the Harrison twins thrive without the best individual player on the team needing the ball as much down low?
At times last season it looked like it was tough for the Twins and Julius Randle to co-exist on the court with all 3 playing at their best. The Twins might thrive with a difference make-up on this team.
Alex Poythress taking THE step: Alex Poythress became a big-time player during Kentucky’s NCAA tournament run, making some of the biggest offensive and defensive plays in the most crucial moments. Poythress took steps all season toward becoming a great contributor, but he has a chance this season to be even more than that. Will Poythress become the go-to guy, or one of the main go-to guys on this team? I think it’s out there for the taking.
The rotation/minute breakdown: It’s better to be in a coaching situation where you have to figure out how to spread out minutes with so much talent than to have to try to find talent to fill the minutes. With that said, the biggest question will be how Calipari decides to work the rotation with so many good players. Not the worst problem to have… at all.
Dominique Hawkins’ offense and Derek Willis’ defense: Hawkins is an excellent defender who desperately needs to add offensive weapons to his game to see more minutes. Willis is a great offensive weapon who desperately needs to add a defensive presence to his game to see more minutes. It may not have a huge effect on minutes this season, but for the future– these two areas have to improve for these two Kentucky guys.
Who will lock up the “3 spot?”: Kentucky has so many tools on this roster, but the one thing it lacks is a “true 3.” Alex Poythress and Trey Lyles will have their chances to lock up that position.