LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky coach John Calipari once again must figure out how to use his latest talented freshman class, which this year is big and fills voids at many positions.
All of which means another season of high expectations at a school where a national championship is always the standard.
After finishing 27-9 and losing in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 last spring, Kentucky appears capable of contending for a ninth NCAA title. This despite losing six players including several regulars such as Associated Press All-American guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, who combined to average 37 points per game last season, and 6-foot-11 Skal Labissiere.
Kentucky landed guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, both 6-foot-3 high school All-Americans who join sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (9.9 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) in the backcourt. All can handle the ball and shoot, giving Calipari some options, compared with last year’s squad run by Ulis.
“This team will probably have three guys having the ball, and we’ll play off them,” Calipari said. “One may have it more, but the other two are going to have it a significant amount of time. So that makes it different.”
But this recruiting class is all about the bigs with the additions of Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Sacha Killeya-Jones – a pair of 6’10” All-Americans – and 6’9″ Wenyen Gabriel.
Adebayo has an NBA body and is fierce around the basket on both ends of the floor. Killeya-Jones and Gabriel are long and guard the rim as well.
The Wildcats also return size with 7-footer Isaac Humphries and 6’10” redshirt freshman Tai Wynyard, giving Kentucky its tallest frontcourt since the 38-1 team that reached the Final Four two years ago. Nobody’s making that grand comparison yet as the team works to form chemistry.
“We all want the same dream, so we just try to accomplish it together,” Monk said. “It’s easy to sacrifice if you have great players around you.”
Other things to watch in Kentucky this season:
MATURE BRISCOE: Isaiah Briscoe worked out with NBA teams last spring to gauge his pro prospects before returning for his sophomore season . He’s more seasoned by the experience, and more muscular. The biggest benefits might be his improved shooting – which Kentucky needs from him after an inconsistent freshman season – and his eagerness to lead. “It forced me to grow up,” Briscoe said of the process. “Being one of the few guys to come back (under Calipari), I’ll be able to lead these guys.”
BLUEGRASS GRAYBEARDS: Kentucky has seniors for the second straight season, both of whom could play bigger roles. Forward Derek Willis is working to add defense to his game after averaging career bests of 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds last season and becoming part of the rotation. Guard Dominique Hawkins just aims to stay healthy after his junior year was limited by injuries. He’s a physical defensive specialist being encouraged to shoot more this season.
COACH’S KID: If things get loud in Rupp near the end of a Kentucky rout, it might be fans clamoring for Calipari to put his son, Brad, on the floor. The 6-foot freshman is a walk-on with an eye toward coaching one day but figures to become a fan favorite for obvious reasons.
RENOVATED RUPP: The Wildcats’ home begins its 40th anniversary season with a new floor and center-hung scoreboard and video screen that has replaced the “Big Bertha” bank of loudspeakers, which resembled an oversized pine cone. The arena has already added high-definition video boards in the corners and other electronic features to enhance the game experience.
KEY GAMES: Kentucky’s always-tough nonconference schedule includes matchups against Michigan State on Nov. 15 in the Champions Classic; a home game against UCLA (Dec. 3); consecutive contests against North Carolina (Dec. 17) and at archrival Louisville (Dec. 21); and a Jan. 28 home game against Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.