LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky coach John Calipari is setting the bar high for his next group of prized recruits.
Calipari believes the incoming class has quickness and defensive skills reminiscent of his 2012 NCAA championship team.
But as he always does, Calipari warns the group’s transition to major college basketball could be “ugly” at first.
The Wildcats will undergo another major overhaul after finishing 27-9 and losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. High-scoring guards Tyler Ulis – a consensus All-American – Jamal Murray and 6-foot-11 post player Skal Labissiere have departed for the NBA draft, and Calipari believes junior forward Marcus Lee is committed to staying in the draft pool.
Kentucky’s group of top recruits includes All-Americans Edrice “Bam” Adebayo (6-9); De’Aaron Fox (6-3); Sacha Killeya-Jones (6-10); and Malik Monk (6-3). The Wildcats have also signed 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel.
One of the priorities for the newcomers will be to establish an inside game that Kentucky lacked last season. But Calipari is used to managing the shortcomings of talented freshmen classes; it’s been a hallmark of his seven seasons with the Wildcats.
“I think we’re going to be a pretty good team again,” Calipari said during a news conference Wednesday. “You have a big backcourt, our returning vets have had good experience. You have a beast and we missed a beast for a year, and then you’ve got those long athletes we always have…
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re going to be ugly early, we should be great defensively and be a great shot-blocking and rebounding team. We’ll have to figure out how we’ll play.”
Kentucky’s regular rotation will return seniors Derek Willis, who developed into a regular offensive contributor last season; and guard Dominique Hawkins, a defensive specialist. Also back for Calipari are 7-footer Isaac Humphries; 6-10 Tai Wynyard, a midseason arrival who did not play; and guard Mychal Mulder.
Whether Lee will be back is unclear. He is participating in the NBA combine that began Wednesday in Chicago. Guard Isaiah Briscoe isn’t at the combine but Calipari said he has worked out for three clubs. Neither has hired an agent and both have until May 25 to decide whether they will return to school.
Briscoe (9.6 points per game) would be the Wildcats’ top returning scorer if he comes back, and Calipari said his prospects “just come down to shooting the ball and being a more consistent shooter.”
Kentucky will also have to replace the 37 combined points per game from Murray and the 5-9 Ulis, who also provided floor leadership. One player who could play a major role in filling that scoring void is the 6-9 Willis (7.7 points). Calipari said after he became a starter, Willis developed into a confident perimeter scorer and that “he’s not the same guy that walked on this campus.”
The coach said Kentucky’s offense might not be a major issue early if the Wildcats defend, but he can’t say enough about the team speed of next year’s squad.
“Do you remember our (2012) team when we rebounded and the ball was in the basket?” Calipari asked. “This team has that kind of speed. Now, they have to get in great shape. I want to be a great team from defense to offense. … Then we’ll worry about how we’re going to play when a team doesn’t let us fly up and down.”
Notes: Kentucky’s exhibition schedule will begin Oct. 14 with Big Blue Madness open practice and the annual Blue-White scrimmage a week later. The Wildcats will play Clarion, Calipari’s alma mater, on Oct. 6 and Asbury on Nov. 6.