Kentucky Basketball: 5 Effects Roster Changes Will Have on Wildcats in 2014
Since John Calipari took over the Kentucky basketball program, each year has been greeted with a new set of talented, future NBA players coupled with brand new challenges. As last year proved, an elite team like Kentucky is prone to the inconsistencies of freshmen that can lead to a down year.
Though the loss of Julius Mays, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel—who could potentially be the third overall No. 1 pick under Calipari at Kentucky—is the least severe blow he's received when it comes to losing players to the NBA draft, it still hurts—slightly.
Noel's value to Kentucky and his elite skill at the college game were no more evident than how Kentucky imploded once he went down with a torn ACL.
Now with arguably the greatest recruiting class in the history of Kentucky, and maybe ever, joining a stacked roster, the question has to be asked: What will be the effect of Kentucky's roster changes?
One Less Elite Defender
Nerlens Noel followed the path of previous big men at Kentucky. He was an elite shot-blocker who completely altered the game from the defensive side of the ball.
Noel led the nation in blocked shots with over four per game last season and also pitched in more than two steals when he was on the floor. His 2.08 steals per game led the Wildcats and was good for 35th in the country.
When a player is nearly seven feet tall, that is unheard of. The fact was Noel may have been a better overall defender than Anthony Davis and will be near impossible for one person to replace in 2013-14.
Willie Cauley-Stein will spearhead the team's interior defense along with Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. While I think Cauley-Stein will play more minutes than Lee, don't be surprised if Lee becomes the next great shot-blocking center at Kentucky.
As a senior at Deer Valley High in California, Lee blocked nearly seven shots per game. Expect he and Cauley-Stein to combine to fill that void left by Noel, while Dakari Johnson will be more of a bigger body in the lane. He will be better at post defense than blocking shots.
There won't be one player this year who can alter a game completely like an Anthony Davis or Noel did. But the team defense will be overall better.
A Lack of Vocal, Experienced Leadership
Julius Mays was a different kind of one-and-done player at Kentucky under Calipari. He was a fifth-year senior, who transferred to Kentucky from Wright State only after transferring there from North Carolina State.
Mays didn't let the one year in Lexington deter him from being the vocal leader on last year's team, however. While on the court, he was often seen gesturing for what offensive set was to be run as well as constantly talking to teammates in the huddles and heading to timeouts.
Referred to as Uncle Julius by Big Blue Nation and a big brother by Archie Goodwin, Mays is no longer there to carry the leading scorer off the court on his back, and a void has to be filled with someone's voice.
Can it be a freshman to fill this open spot? Sure, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist showed that he was capable to be the leader of a national championship team as a freshman. However, with all the talent coming in to Lexington, it would be better for a player like Alex Poythress to be the leader for the team.
While Kyle Wiltjer has seen it all in his two years at Kentucky in winning a national title and then losing in the first round of the NIT, it won't be a surprise to see a reduced role for the sharp-shooting big guy from Portland.
Poythress is expected to contend for the starting small forward spot, and even if he loses that role, he very well can become the Darius Miller from a couple years back. Miller played starter minutes despite being the sixth man and provided leadership to the younger players.
Once No Wings, Now Plenty to Go Around
Last year the wing players consisted of Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin. There was no bench. When one of these players went out, someone was forced to play out of position.
In 2013-14, Poythress very well could be the one coming in off the bench to spell some of the other wing players. Joining Poythress on the wing this year are McDonald's All-Americans Aaron Harrison and James Young.
The three-headed monster are all bigger players, with Aaron Harrison being the shortest at 6'5", and all rebound extremely well for their positions. Poythress was second on the team last year in rebounds.
All three players shoot the three-ball extremely well, with Harrison and Young both being noted for their deep-threat capability.
They just aren't offensive players either, as the three players are athletic enough to guard three, maybe four positions on the floor. With their size, length and speed, they can disrupt shorter guards from getting to the rim or shooting over them, while also being able to body the bigger wing players.
There won't be any worry about depth this year, especially if a certain unsigned recruit decides on Kentucky over Florida State. Even if Andrew Wiggins doesn't decide on Kentucky, if there are any injuries or all three players are in foul trouble, Jon Hood is able to slide in and play some minutes as he has done in the past.
This will be the biggest strength for Kentucky this year as Calipari's defense is determined by being able to switch screens and have athletic wing players to trap and rebound.
No More Point Guard Questions
Kentucky fans won't be clamoring for Jarrod Polson to start at the point guard position this year, except for maybe Senior Day.
This is solely because of the arrival of the next great high school point guard to come learn the college game under Calipari in Andrew Harrison. Additionally, Ryan Harrow decided to transfer to Georgia State, alleviating Big Blue Nation of the disaster that was the Harrow era at Kentucky.
Harrison is a 6'5" point guard from the Houston area who has a unique skill coupled with tremendous size to be a player like Tyreke Evans for Calipari. The one difference is Harrison has a better jump shot coming out of high school and is a better passer than Evans was.
Also coming to Kentucky in 2013-14 is Dominique Hawkins, who was named Mr. Kentucky during his senior year at Madison Central in Richmond, Ky.
With Hawkins and the experienced Polson battling for the backup spot, there is no doubt the point guard position is in safe hands this year. While expectations are high for Harrison, there is always the chance he doesn't grasp Calipari's dribble-drive offense, and the coaching staff has more options to play this year.
Expect Harrison to play a heavy dose of minutes each game, though, barring injury or foul trouble, and I'll predict he will be the best point guard under Calipari at Kentucky.
Hope for a 9th Title
While Kentucky did have a high preseason ranking heading into the 2012-13 season, there were more questions and concerns about the depth and talent of the roster. It couldn't be more opposite heading into the 2013-14 season for the Wildcats.
There is depth at every position this year, with eight McDonald's All-Americans on the roster and experience with Wiltjer, Cauley-Stein and Poythress all returning to Lexington. It has a resemblance to the national title team when four McDonald All-Americans joined Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb and gelled together to compile a 38-2 record.
There is arguably more talent on this year's team, and it has given Big Blue Nation a reason to be loud and strut with their chests out again. CBSsports.com has Kentucky ranked No. 1 in its Top 25 (and one) for next season.
As the team two years ago proved—as well as the Michigan team that lost in the national championship game—a team that has freshmen playing serious minutes can compete and win at this level. The game is completely different now, with teams all across the country losing players early to the NBA draft.
So if you're a Kentucky fan, enjoy the time leading up to the season as the hype may never be higher for you. And if you're a Kentucky hater, well, you may want to wait until Kentucky has its first slip when the season tips off.
Either way, it's going to be a fun and interesting ride to see how a group this talented can mesh and succeed with minutes being split.