LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Physical post play was lacking at Kentucky last year, though establishing an inside presence shouldn’t be an issue this season.
The Wildcats are tall, long and athletic once again, and this year the big guys appear ready to mix it up in the paint.
But Wildcats coach John Calipari shot out his annual caution on Thursday, warning everyone not to expect too much too soon from his latest collection of highly prized recruits.
Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Sacha Killeya-Jones, both 6-foot-10, and 6-9 forward Wenyen Gabriel are part of Kentucky’s six-man freshman class that includes 6-3 guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Calipari’s son, 6-0 Brad, is a walk-on.
Killeya-Jones, Adebayo and Gabriel join a Kentucky frontcourt that returns 7-foot Australian Isaac Humphries and 6-9 Derek Willis, with 6-10 Tai Wynyard ready to play after being redshirted. Calipari is mulling over his rotation, but the Wildcats eagerly await imposing their will on both ends of the floor.
“I love contact,” Killeya-Jones said during media day. “I’ve never shied away from contact.”
That was definitely a concern last year for Kentucky, which finished 27-9 after going 38-1 behind a formidable rotation of 7-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles.
Contact didn’t seem to suit 6-11 Skal Labissiere, who entered the NBA draft along with Kentucky guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. Humphries was more willing to battle but he began the season as a 17-year-old and was adapting to American basketball. Opponents seized opportunities inside, where they pounded the vulnerable Wildcats.
“Our guards did their job well, but we needed more of an inside presence,” said Willis, who averaged career bests of 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. “I think it’s going to be more difficult for teams to match up with us this year.”
Calipari looks forward to making that happen offensively and defensively with a roster he said is fast and will score, rebound, block shots and defend. But one player that the coach and teammates agree does all those things well is Adebayo, whose wide shoulders, muscular frame and looks somewhat resemble NBA All-Star big man Dwight Howard.
Calipari stopped short of comparing this roster to previous teams and reiterated his wait-until-spring philosophy for the Wildcats’ development. But he sees Adebayo capable of doing big things.
“He’s just getting better every day and it’s going to be a process just like it was for any of our big guys,” Calipari said. “He’s still learning, still fades some, but he’s skilled, he can pass and flies up and down the floor… We can go boom, bing, lob, dunk and it’s him. And he may have rebounded the ball.”
The 255-pound Adebayo grins when hearing the praise and downplays the facial comparisons to Howard, saying, “I just don’t see it.” But if early workouts have offered any hints, he’s eager to embrace the college game’s physical challenges.
“Bam is the strongest guy I’ve ever had to play against,” said Humphries, who also weighs 255. “He’s one of those people where you really have to think about what he’s going to do. It’s going to be great for me.”
How the Wildcats control the paint and the basket against non-conference heavyweights such as UCLA, North Carolina and Michigan State remains to be seen, to say nothing of what lies ahead in Southeastern Conference play. But as predictable as Calipari’s annual cautions are about early expectations, Kentucky will be one of the teams to beat in the SEC.
“We can rebound, block shots and run the floor,” Adebayo said. “We can stretch the floor a little bit, and we all play together. Isaac is playing well. We can play together, and now we’re really focused on what we can do together.”