Over five of the last six seasons, Kentucky head coach John Calipari has parlayed his stellar recruiting abilities and a bit of luck into at least a trip to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. The only outlier to the Wildcats and Calipari’s reign was the 2012-2013 squad that wound up losing in the first round of the lesser NIT.
Otherwise, Kentucky has used a concoction heavy on budding freshman talent to claim three Final Four appearances and one national championship since Calipari signed on in 2009. But as with every previous year, the question must be asked: Can the fresh-faced Wildcats and Calipari do it again?
The short answer ahead of Kentucky’s season-opener against Albany on Friday night is, frankly, yes. It's been done before and it can certainly be done again.
The two main reasons being Calipari’s perhaps incomparable skill of getting each of his top recruits not only on the same page and playing within his system, and that this year’s batch of Wildcats eventually may draw comparison to the Anthony Davis-led, national-title winning squad.
On pure numbers of highly touted recruits alone, Kentucky should at least hover in or around the nation’s top 10 for the majority of the season. Entering his seventh season, Calipari has convinced nearly four five-star recruits on average to head to Lexington, with 2013’s class of six standing out as the most in any one year, and that group went all the way to the NCAA title game before falling short to Connecticut.
This season the Wildcats roll out the consensus best class in the nation, led by 6-foot-11 power forward Skal Labissiere, and gifted point guards Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray. All three have a good chance of being "one and done" players, and for good reason: they are quite talented and show a great deal of poise.
After several red flags were raised involving his eligibility for the season, Labissiere’s a lanky do-it-all big man who’s already shown polish on his jumper and post moves, and figures to serve as the Wildcats best weak-side shot blocker. He’s projected as top 5 pick in the next NBA draft, and his game and frame have already drawn comparisons to former Kentucky star big man Nerlens Noel. But Labissiere may have the edge on Noel by demonstrating excellent fundamentals with his footwork and passing skills.
Rated as the No. 10 recruit in the nation by Rivals, Briscoe is as an explosive scorer capable of playing either guard spot, and is a double threat to penetrate and shoot from distance. He also has fine court vision and plays with a great deal of confidence.
Murray was a bit of a last-minute commitment and didn’t even tell Calipari he was joining up until after he made the official announcement on Canadian television. But like Briscoe, the Ontario-born star is powerfully built and has enough size to play on the wing or the perimeter. He is an excellent passer and shooter, who can thrive in the open court.
Throw in four-star recruits like power forward Isaac Humphries, and swingmen Charles Matthews and Mychal Mulder, and the Wildcats once again have a dangerous starting five in their freshman class alone. Humphries might be a player who shows significant improvement as the season progresses.
And just like year’s group, which didn’t lose until the Final Four to a hot-shooting and experienced Wisconsin squad, Kentucky clearly has the talent to make noise in the tournament. All told, the freshmen make up six of the eight roster spots devoted to underclassmen, compared to five juniors. Former highly touted recruit and lone senior Alex Poythress could be the blue-collar big man the Wildcats rely on.
However, the schedule and an improved SEC might have something to say about Kentucky’s aspirations. Though no game is a "gimme," the Wildcats should blow past Albany and New Jersey Institute of Technology this weekend, before facing preseason-ranked No. 5 Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s equally loaded roster.
More difficult matchups won't take place until next month when the Wildcats head to UCLA for its first true road trip of the season on Dec. 3. A little over two weeks later there’s the neutral arena matchup with ever-dangerous Ohio State, and then Jan. 5’s clash with rising SEC power and No. 21 LSU, who nabbed the nation's top recruit that Calipari couldn’t, Ben Simmons.
Simmons became just the fourth freshman in history to make the preseason All-American squad, and the Wildcats will have to face him twice, including the regular season finale on March 5.
There’s also the two dates with No. 18 Vanderbilt, and Jan. 30’s track meet at No. 4 Kansas. Every one of those games, and perhaps even the two matchups with Tennessee, could serve as experience builders for Calipari’s newest young squad before they enter the SEC tournament.
But based off history, these Wildcats are all but certain to get rolling come March. They can expect at least a No. 2 seed in the tournament.
Isaiah Briscoe, G, Freshman, 6'3"
Jonny David, G, Freshman, 6'2"
EJ Floreal, G, Junior, 6'4"
Dominique Hawkins, G, Junior, 6'0"
Isaac Humphries, F, Freshman, 7'0"
Skal Labissiere, F, Freshman, 6'11"
Marcus Lee, F, Junior, 6'9"
Charles Matthews, G, Freshman, 6'6"
Mychal Mulder, G, Junior, 6'4"
Jamal Murray, G, Freshman, 6'4"
Alex Poythress, F, Senior, 6'8"
Dillon Pulliam, G, Sophomore, 6'3"
Tyler Ulis, G, Sophomore, 5'9"
Derek Willis, F, Junior, 6'9"