Just like everything during John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, the legacy of the 2016-17 Wildcats is going to be complicated to figure out.
After Kentucky dropped a thrilling 75-73 game against No. 1 seed North Carolina in the South Regional final on Sunday, the college careers of freshmen Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are likely finished. All three freshmen are perhaps destined to be first-round NBA Draft picks in June. The trio also helped form one of the most important groups of freshmen to ever play for Calipari at Kentucky.
The Kentucky national-title winning group in 2012 is obviously No. 1 on that list and the 2014-15 team that started 38-0 comes in close second place. You could also make a solid case for the 2013-14 Kentucky team that rallied together and made the national championship game as a No. 8 seed or the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins led-team that also made an Elite Eight. But the 2014 team was also dysfunctional enough that they lost to South Carolina in the regular season before the Gamecocks became nationally-relevant. Cousins remains a polarizing figure who wasn’t particularly popular outside of Big Blue Nation.
This 2016-17 Kentucky team was special because their freshmen somehow lived up to the immense hype while also being incredibly fun to watch. Winning the SEC regular season, conference tournament title and making an Elite Eight are great memories for Wildcat fans to have. Basketball fans in general get the individual memories of Monk’s white-hot scoring runs, Fox’s dazzling two-way play and Adebayo’s raw power around the rim.
Monk’s 47 points against North Carolina in the regular season and 30 points in the second half a home win over Florida are two of the most memorable individual scoring performances in college basketball over the last five years. Fox will be remembered for many things as well, but destroying Lonzo Ball and UCLA for 39 points to shatter the freshman NCAA Tournament single-game scoring record is about as special as it gets.
Adebayo doesn’t have the signature individual performance to match his fellow freshmen, but with over 100 dunks on the season, there were many times that he made his presence felt in the Kentucky lineup.
Replacing those three players is going to be tough but that is what Calipari is accustomed to doing. The McDonald’s All-American game tips this week and four more future Wildcats will take the floor. Five-star shooting guard Hamidou Diallo has already been practicing with Kentucky during the second semester while redshirting for next season.
Replacing the future NBA players is actually going to be the easy part for Kentucky.
Finding senior leadership like Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis is going be the difficult thing to replace. Those two in-state seniors provided the valuable experience of playing with so many gifted freshmen over the last four years while being selfless teammates who got better over time.
Both Hawkins and Willis have replaceable games and skill levels. But it seemed like Hawkins came off the bench countless times during his Kentucky career to give the perimeter a spark off the bench. After a slow start to his career, Willis developed into a capable rebounder and floor spacer at forward who knocked in a lot of big shots during the last two years.
Seeing a role player like Isaac Humphries step up in the Elite Eight is a positive sign for next season but Kentucky is going to miss the veteran presence of Hawkins and Willis more than they know.
While most Kentucky teams under Calipari have had a few veteran holdovers each year, the 2017-18 team might be seriously lacking in that department outside of Humphries.
If Isaiah Briscoe leaves to go pro as many assume, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard will all be back but they’ve barely played any meaningful minutes and none of them are guards.
Unless Calipari opts to bring in a graduate transfer — which he’s done in the past with Julius Mays — Kentucky is basically going to have to start from scratch with another ridiculous freshman core. Expectations will mean that Kentucky should be a top-15 team with a chance at an SEC title. The glaring lack of experience also means that Calipari will have to get a very young team to come together immediately.
This is the status quo for John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. And while they’ve had disappointing results in individual seasons while falling short of the Final Four again this season, it’s hard to say the model is anything other than wildly successful.