SEC Burning Questions: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by David Changas on November 6th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC SEC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Is this Kentucky Team Just Too Young to Contend for a National Championship?

As has been the case since John Calipari arrived in Lexington eight years ago, there are a lot of new faces who will take the floor at Kentucky this season. And as is also always the case for the Wildcats, those new faces are all supremely talented. Last year Calipari signed another superb class filled with five-star talent, this time raking in a total of six players ranked among the top 26 of 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. That group includes Hamidou Diallo, a freshman guard who enrolled in January of last year, redshirted, then nearly decided to enter the NBA Draft before withdrawing late in the process. Even by Kentucky’s one-and-done standards, this team is exceptionally young — perhaps the youngest group that Calipari has ever had. The only returning player who so much as averaged double-figure minutes last season was sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, who was a role player on last year’s Elite Eight squad. But this is Kentucky, so, per usual, any excuse that involves youth will not be accepted by either Kentucky fans or by Calipari himself. And there is good reason for that optimism — this group is plenty talented.

Wenyen Gabriel is John Calipari’s only returning player with significant experience. (Zimbio.com)

The 2017-18 version of the Wildcats is exceptionally athletic and big. In addition to Gabriel, Kentucky expects production from freshmen big men Nick Richards and P.J. Washington, as well as Jarred Vanderbilt, who has recently has been cleared to begin conditioning after a September foot injury. Sacha Killeya-Jones, a 6’10” sophomore who played limited minutes as a freshmen, will be asked to step up as well. In the backcourt, Calipari will rely on highly-regarded guards Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to mesh with Diallo to distribute and score. The loss of Jemarl Baker, touted as one of the best shooters in the Class of 2017, will be felt, as he is expected to be out for at least three months after undergoing knee surgery in late October. Regardless, the expectations in Lexington are that the Wildcats will contend for a Final Four berth and another National Championship. Calipari knows that the bargain with fans is that his reliance on one-and-done talent — and therefore youth and inexperience — will never be an excuse. He has routinely won SEC regular season and tournament titles throughout his tenure in Lexington, and while those things are nice, the only thing that really matters to Wildcat fans is what Kentucky does on the national stage in the Big Dance.

Kentucky has missed the Final Four in each of the last two years, and despite 27 players on NBA opening night rosters this season, he still only has the 2012 title to his credit. His very best teams have combined sensational play from freshmen with savvy veteran leadership (see: 2010, 2012, 2015), and the teams that failed to make a deep run into March have usually lacked the latter. For this year’s team, Calipari’s challenge will be to endure the inevitable growing pains from a group that returns fewer than 10 points per game so that it is ready to peak in the NCAA Tournament (see: 2011, 2014). There is enough talent in place for another run to happen, but this year’s version of the Wildcats will present Calipari with perhaps the biggest challenge he has had since arriving in 2009, and whether he is able to again produce when it counts will go a long way toward setting the mood of the fans in the Bluegrass State.

David Changas (133 Posts)


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