#5 Kentucky Wildcats
Last Year: 32-6 (12-2 SEC) Elite Eight
John Calipari completely renewed this Kentucky program since he arrived on the scene in 2009. Following a slump in the Billy Gillispie era, Coach Cal has only missed the NCAA tournament once while in Lexington. He has also reached the Final Four four times in five years from 2011-2015. The Wildcats have won both the SEC regular season title and conference tournament five times each. Basically, under Cal this team has been in a tier of its own in the SEC. They almost always decimate the competition aside from Florida who also wins from time to time. But no program in the conference and arguably the entire country has the history and prestige that this one does.
After turning no-name programs into national powerhouses at Memphis and UMass, Cal has had no problem recruiting at Kentucky. He is known as the coach to play for if you want to make it to the league and for good reason. Forty-two players coached by Cal have been drafted, four of which were the number one overall pick. Cal revolutionized the recruiting game by being the first to adopt the “one-and-done” philosophy. With that, every year there is almost a completely new starting lineup playing for the Wildcats and this year is no exception.
Eight players left the program this past season for various reasons, five of them declaring for the draft. All were equally important to this Kentucky team and so choosing one over the other regarding the impact they had is not really fair. De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, and Bam Adebayo all led the team in most statistical categories.
All four were Kentucky’s four leading scorers. Three of the four also led the team in both assists per game and steals per game. What else do these four guys have in common? They are all underclassmen with three of the four of them being freshman. But don’t worry Kentucky fans, you have another group of freshmen waiting to replace them and repeat the process all over again.
Where do I even begin? Six five-star players and two four-stars make up this recruiting class. But really that has come to be expected from Calipari’s style of coaching. Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington, and Jarred Vanderbilt are all forwards who come in at 6’8 and at least 200lb. It’s never bad to have size on your side in the frontcourt. Couple this with 6’11 250lb Center Nick Richards and it will be a long game for anyone who wants to challenge Kentucky inside.
The backcourt looks to be just as deadly with Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo running at PG and SG respectively. Green’s ability to run the floor and make plays is improving, but where he really shines is his shooting ability specifically from mid-range. Diallo is an interesting addition as well considering he has spent significantly more time with Cal and the returning Kentucky players than any other newcomer. Diallo joined the Wildcats in January of this past year. Although he never got the opportunity to play in a game, he has spent a good amount of time practicing under Cal against now NBA players Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Given that second year experience is rare in the Kentucky program, Diallo will likely be the guy that the new freshman look to for guidance.
This Wildcats team is really no different than any other year. A top recruiting class full of one-and-dones looking to lead this program to yet another Final Four. The biggest question is how will this team’s chemistry mix? Since year in and year out Cal replaces half of his roster, the biggest obstacle they have to overcome will naturally be learning to play together.
That is a large reason why the 2014-15 squad was able to make an undefeated run to the Final Four. They returned several key players that had a year of experience playing with each other under their belt. So yes the talent is there. This season Kentucky boasts the number two overall recruiting class. But getting eight new players to come together quickly is another challenge that Cal will have to face.