LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari can’t recall coaching a Kentucky team so young.
That’s a major statement considering the Wildcats’ run of “one-and-done” players since he arrived in 2009. This year Kentucky has eight freshmen, no upperclassmen and an average age of 19.43 years, making this group one of Calipari’s most youthful rosters.
That doesn’t mean the expectations change for Kentucky.
Fans will be looking for the Wildcats to contend for a ninth national championship when March comes around. For now, Calipari — as he usually does — cautions there will be growing pains.
“My feet are on the panic button, but my hands are not there yet,” Calipari joked at Southeastern Conference media day. “We are really young.”
Eight players departed from a 32-6 team that lost the NCAA South Region final 75-73 to eventual national champion North Carolina on a last-second shot. Three of them — guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk and forward Bam Adebayo — were lottery selections in last summer’s NBA draft.
That collective group took 93 percent of Kentucky’s scoring and nearly 85 percent of the Wildcats’ rebounding with them when they left. Calipari not only must fill those voids and define roles, but develop a rotation.
It could be bumpy at first, but Calipari is concerned about the long term.
This is not a new challenge for the coach.
Calipari has restocked with another top-three recruiting class featuring five high school All-Americans. Kentucky’s newcomers also have height and length, with 6-foot-11, 240-pound Nick Richards and 6-9 Kevin Knox leading another heralded group.
The coach is working to get the freshmen to mesh with a handful of Wildcat holdovers also coming off their first seasons.
Forward Wenyen Gabriel started 23 games before his playing time diminished in the postseason, but he returns as Kentucky’s top scorer (4.6 points per game) and rebounder (4.8). As he tries to pass along his experience to slightly younger teammates, the 6-9 sophomore also must battle them for minutes.
But he’s willing to play wherever Calipari needs him.
“It’s about seeing where I fit best for this team and how we can win,” Gabriel said. “I am going to do that to the best of my ability.”
Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard, both 6-10, are also back and looking to play bigger roles this season. Their contributions could be critical for a Kentucky team as close to rebuilding that Calipari has had in Lexington.
Of course, turnover happens every season with Kentucky and things usually work out by spring.
“When you have all freshmen, you cannot skip steps,” Calipari added. “It’s one at a time. We may be ugly early. I just hope we’re not awful early and that we do enough to be able to play some of these people we have early.”
Some other things to watch with Kentucky this season:
DIALLO’S DEBUT: Redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo enrolled in January amid expectations of joining Fox, Monk and Isaiah Briscoe in the Wildcats’ backcourt. Diallo practiced and dressed without playing, which didn’t prevent him from flirting with entering the NBA draft after participating in the combine. He ultimately chose to return to Lexington for on-court seasoning and could be the bridge for his young teammates.
SIDELINED: Forward Jarred Vanderbilt (6-9) is projected to be out until January after having foot surgery this fall. The bright side is he’s out of a boot, and the hope is the All-American could resume practicing sooner than expected. “Even though I’m not practicing we still go over film, I’m still tuned in,” Vanderbilt said.
POINT MAN: Freshman Quade (pronounced kwah-Day) Green looms as the early favorite to be point guard, which is a key position for Calipari. To that end Green is learning how it’s done from watching video of Wildcat greats such as John Wall and Tyler Ulis. Especially Ulis. “I still need to watch more film on him,” Green said. “Him, John Wall, the Harrison twins, everybody. But Tyler keeps his feet moving on defense, and sometimes my feet get stuck. That’s what I need to work on.”
NON-LEAGUE SHOWDOWNS: The Wildcats’ first test is Kansas on Nov. 14 in the Champions Classic. December features a three-game stretch against Virginia Tech, UCLA and rival Louisville before they open SEC play against Georgia on New Year’s Eve. Kentucky also visits West Virginia Jan. 27 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
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