By Ricky Blair – It is that time of year. The temperature has dropped and the leaves have turned colors and are now falling to the ground. It is autumn in the Bluegrass. But more importantly for folks in Kentucky…it’s the dawn of another basketball season.
Last season was a wild ride. First, we saw the greatest recruiting class of all times along with a possible undefeated season. It turned to be a rough run through both the pre-conference and conference regular season. And just when it looked like all was lost with a late season defeat to a bad South Carolina team, this young team responded with a strong SEC tournament and offered a glimmer of hope. But it was the magical NCAA tournament run that landed the Wildcats in the national championship game. Last season also brought the team back into a positive perspective. With a number of returning players, they have once again sent expectations out the roof.
So, here are five questions to consider as we break down the Cats’ chances of securing a ninth national championship:
Q1: Will the two-team platoon system work?
Well, it’s highly unlikely that UK Coach John Calipari will stick with this approach. It was a fun way to get all the players time on the court in the Bahamas, but it is not a practical system. Calipari has already given hints that he will adjust the group of players according to the game situation. So, yes, look for more players to get into the games during crucial times. But also look for the platoon system to be an earlier season experiment, not something that will last up through tournament time.
Q2: Will playing time become an issue?
Not if the team is winning… and especially if the team is winning by a large margin. Sure, every player wants his minutes, but it is usually not as much a factor when the team is winning. A few losses could make it more of an issue. The platoon system will help early on, but look for the veteran players to log more minutes – especially during crunch time.
Q3: Will juniors Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein live up to lofty expectations?
For Poythress, it has been a tough road. He came in two years ago as a top ten recruit and a McDonalds All-American. He showed signs of what he could be early on by scoring 20 or more points in four of the first five games his freshman season. But as the season wore on, he became less and less of a factor, only scoring in double figures in two of the last 13 games during that freshman campaign. Now a junior, Poythress will need to get the most out of his incredible talent if the Wildcats are to become a truly special team. Cauley-Stein, unlike Poythress, came to Lexington two years ago as more of a ‘project-type’ player. His athletic ability has certainly lifted him up high in the minds of the NBA scouts. But Cauley-Stein is still learning the game of basketball and has yet to understand the intense energy level necessary to consistently deliver results. If he can play high-energy basketball, then the sky is the limit for him and his defensive skills could help the Wildcats to a championship in some of the same ways Anthony Davis did in 2012.
Q4: Will the twins be improved?
Most definitely! Andrew and Aaron were both a little out of shape last year and it hindered their ability to get to the basket strongly. Aaron had one of the most incredible runs of last-second heroics in NCAA tournament history last year. That in of itself should give him confidence for a strong run into his sophomore season. For Andrew, it was learning to pass first that turned him around during tournament time. Now with a leaner, stronger body, he will use that knowledge gained along with his new and improved physique to become the player everyone was expecting last season. Both players will play fewer minutes this season because of the depth of the team, but look for each to excel in their own way.
Q5: The Freshmen…will they contribute:
As with every team since John Calipari’s tenure started here at Kentucky, the freshmen have been a huge part of the Cats’ success. This year will be no different. Even with all the returning players for the Wildcats, it will be important for the freshmen to step up and play significant roles in order for this team to win a championship. Karl-Anthony Towns looks to be the best of the group. At 6-foot-11, his size and versatility will make him hard to defend as the season plays on. Trey Lyles is another versatile freshman who has shown more athletic ability than most people first thought possible. He has a good outside shot and handles the ball well. Slowed by an injury when he first arrived on campus, he is now starting to really show the talent that made him a top ten player coming out of high school. Freshman shooting guard Devin Booker has the ability to be a zone buster for the Wildcats and they will need him to be consistent with his outside shot. And least, but not last, is tiny point guard Tyler Ulis. Ulis, who is small in stature at 5-foot-9, has shown a quickness at the guard position that has been missing over the last two seasons. If he can continue to make his outside shot like he did during the games in the Bahamas, he will give the Wildcats an added dimension that will make them tough to beat this season.