Ranked No. 1 in both preseason polls, Kentucky basketball is out to avenge last season’s debacle. And, for all the justified hype surrounding John Calipari’s amazing recruiting class, it’s the veterans who suffered through 2012-13 who have the most to prove.
One of those returning standouts is towering sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. An admirable replacement at center last year after Nerlens Noel went down, Cauley-Stein will lead this season’s Wildcats defense with both great instincts and remarkable athleticism.
Herein, a closer look at both the old and new stars in Lexington, including the complete 2013-14 roster and predictions for how the year will end for this crop of one-and-done freshmen.
PF Julius Randle: At 6’9” and 250 pounds, freshman Randle is a devastating offensive weapon. He’s far more mobile than his size suggests, and he’s comfortable on the perimeter as well as in the post.
PG Andrew Harrison (at right): Huge for a point guard at 6’6”, 215 pounds, Harrison is the primary reason this year’s Wildcats won’t fizzle like last year’s. The freshman is a fine scorer, but it’s his playmaking and leadership skills that Kentucky really needs.
SG Aaron Harrison: Andrew’s twin brother, Aaron Harrison, has plenty of point guard in him, too. When he’s not spelling his brother at the 1, he’ll provide a first-class jump shot to punish defenses that double-team Randle in the post.
C Willie Cauley-Stein: Absurdly fast and agile for a 7’0”, 244-pound center, Cauley-Stein relied primarily on his athletic gifts as a freshman.
He didn’t do much scoring, but he blocked an impressive 2.1 shots per game and pulled in 6.2 rebounds a night (second to Noel in both categories).
He’ll be a major weapon in an improved Kentucky fast break while also anchoring what should be a ferocious defense.
SF Alex Poythress: Poythress became Coach Calipari’s pet project last year because of his inconsistent scoring, but he was far from a bad player. He averaged 11.2 points per game in a balanced offense while also grabbing 6.0 rebounds a night.
This year’s ‘Cats have many better offensive options to turn to, so Poythress won’t face as much pressure to carry a major scoring load. That situation may turn out to be ideal for a player who rarely forced the issue with the ball in his hands as a freshman.
Projected Rotation: The Harrison twins are locks to start in the backcourt while Cauley-Stein and Randle will handle the low-post chores.
Small forward is the unknown, with incumbent Poythress facing a stiff challenge from freshman swingman James Young. Whether Young starts at the 3 or not, expect him to be the main backup at guard when either of the Harrisons needs a breather.
Up front, hulking Dakari Johnson (yet another freshman) will be the main reserve option, but fleet-footed classmate Marcus Lee will also see some time.
Full Roster: Willie Cauley-Stein, E.J. Floreal, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dominique Hawkins, Jon Hood, Dakari Johnson, Tod Lanter, Marcus Lee, Brian Long, Sam Malone, Jarrod Polson, Alex Poythress, Julius Randle, Derek Willis, James Young
Alex Poythress: One of the recurring themes of Kentucky’s miserable 2012-13 campaign was the attempt to maximize Poythress’ offense.
Although he posted respectable numbers (11.2 points per game, second on the roster), he rarely showed the aggressiveness of an elite scorer.
Now the fourth option in a stacked starting five, Poythress needs to make plays or get out of the way. If he doesn’t attack the rim or keep the ball moving on offense, Coach Calipari will likely have to bench him in favor of Young.
Dakari Johnson: The Wildcats’ top frontcourt reserve is also the odd man out on a roster otherwise filled with speedsters. At 7’0”, 265 pounds, Johnson is far more comfortable in the half court than racing up and down the floor with the guards.
If he can adjust to the pace Kentucky wants to play, all will be well. On the other hand, if he struggles with his conditioning over the long haul, it will rob the ‘Cats of a great low-post weapon on both ends.
Best-Case: Without a doubt, this is a team that’s capable of winning it all. It wouldn’t even be that surprising to see it equal the record 38-win total of Anthony Davis’ 2011-12 Kentucky squad.
Obviously, that kind of run would include an SEC title and probably an SEC tournament championship as well.
Worst-Case: Suppose Florida runs neck-and-neck with the Wildcats in the SEC, splitting the home-and-home series. After sharing the league title, UK gets upset by a fired-up Tennessee squad on a neutral floor in the conference tournament.
Then, like John Wall’s 2009-10 Wildcats, this year’s collection of inexperienced stars gets booted in the Elite Eight thanks to one bad shooting night against the wrong opponent.
Growing pains and a scary non-conference schedule will saddle the Wildcats with a couple of losses heading into SEC play.
Once there, though, their superior size and speed will become decisive advantages, and they’ll win the conference by a couple of games over Florida.
An SEC tournament title will lock up a No. 1 seed, and they’ll roll into the Final Four without being seriously tested.
A Final Four rematch with Louisville will be the de facto (and maybe the actual) national title game, with the now-seasoned ‘Cats avenging a December loss to the Cardinals and reclaiming the national championship.