- The Wildcats bring in another uber-talented recruiting class featuring De'Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, among others. But can they gel in time to take Kentucky deep into March?
Using our off-season Power Rankings as a guide, SI.com is asking three questions for each top-10 team in the country. After looking at No. 10 Xavier, No. 9 Arizona, No. 8 Virginia, No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 6 North Carolina, here is No. 5 Kentucky.
How long will it take the new talent to gel?
You’ve heard this story before: After losing multiple talented underclassmen to the NBA, Kentucky brings in a new, loaded recruiting class that, along with a few returnees, is expected to be a national title contender. But while the Wildcats have had a lot of success using this strategy, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
This year, John Calipari welcomes the No. 2 recruiting class, which includes four players (guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk and forwards Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel) ranked in the top 15 and a fifth (Sacha Killeya-Jones) ranked 27th. They’ll join sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, senior forward Derek Willis and sophomore forward Isaac Humphries, and the big question will be how long it will take everyone to play cohesively.
Kentucky will be tested early, with a Nov. 15 matchup with Michigan State on deck and UCLA, North Carolina and Louisville looming in December. The Wildcats’ talent is obvious, but 2015’s No. 1 recruit, Skal Labissiere, is a good reminder that not every five-star freshman plays up to his incredibly high expectations. Some may start slow before settling in, and when you rely primarily on freshmen, as Kentucky will, there’s always an element of risk.
Do the Wildcats have enough outside shooting?
Last season saw a three-point revolution in college hoops—the year even ended, fittingly, on a buzzer-beating three. And while champion Villanova shot 36.2% from behind the arc for the season—ranking outside the country’s top 100 teams—it should be noted that the Wildcats shot 50% from three in their six-game run to the title (and in only one of those games did ‘Nova shoot less than 46%).
Kentucky started out slow from the perimeter last season before recovering to finish the year at 36.6% on three-point attempts. But three of the Wildcats’ four best three-point shooters are gone, and Willis (44.2% from the arc) is the only returning player who shot better than 28%. As Luke Winn noted in his off-season power rankings, incoming guards Monk and Fox don’t bring the level of pre-college shooting that Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis or 2014–15’s Devin Booker did, and there may not many other options for Kentucky. Briscoe will be looking to rebound after making just five of his 37 attempts last year, and it remains to be seen whether Mychal Mulder, billed as a sharp-shooter in junior college, will have more than the bit role he did last season.
How much will Kentucky miss Tyler Ulis?
The Wildcats were often a two-man show last year: one put on by Ulis and one by Murray. Each averaged more than 35 minutes per game, and combined, they accounted for 47% of the team’s points, took 52% of its shots and 66% of its threes. Ulis was the team’s heart—the floor general who took a year of experience in a limited role on Kentucky’s 38–1 juggernaut two years ago and turned it into a first-team All-America sophomore season. His 7.1 win shares on last year’s team were higher than Karl-Anthony Towns’s 6.4 in 2014–15, and his 5.4 offensive win shares ranked fifth in the nation.
That means Fox, assumed to be Kentucky’s next starting point guard, has big shoes to fill. Fox isn’t Ulis 2.0—for one thing, he has roughly five inches on the undersized guard—and if the incoming frontcourt is as good as advertised, he and Monk don’t need to be as dominant as Ulis and Murray were. But by virtue of his position Fox will need to emerge as a freshman leader, and the sooner he does that, the sooner Kentucky’s new era will officially begin.