The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 2, Kentucky.
1. Where will the offense come from?
The Wildcats will defend and will be one of the most athletic teams in the country. Both of those traits are hallmarks of John Calipari’s teams, and that won’t change this season. But no one will be sure, perhaps even Calipari himself, who will be the primary scoring catalyst on this team. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are gone after one year apiece in Lexington. Those two gave the Wildcats the scoring punch to get to the doorstep of the Final Four last season. Now that they’re in the NBA, though, Calipari will have to go back to the drawing board. The Wildcats will generate offense from their defense, as they always do, but that won’t be enough to have them in the national championship discussion at a meaningful point in the season. It would be silly to bet against either Calipari, or a team with as much talent as the Wildcats will have, but don’t be surprised if there are some ugly nights early in the season in Lexington while this team figures out its offensive identity.
2. Can Calipari rebuild on the fly?
Calipari has seemingly already answered that question in his long, illustrious career, but past is not always prologue. While he regularly brings many of the top recruits to Lexington, there isn’t an Anthony Davis or a Karl-Anthony Towns on this year’s Kentucky team. The projected starting lineup includes some combination of Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, Nick Richards and P.J. Washington. Five of those six players are true freshmen, and Diallo didn’t play a game in his first season in Lexington. It’s hard for any group of individuals to mesh into a cohesive unit with that many new parts, let alone when each member of the group is a teenager. Again, no one has gotten rich by doubting Calipari, especially during his tenure at Kentucky. Still, this is going to be one of his toughest jobs yet. With Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries and Bam Adebayo also leaving school early, and Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins graduating, Kentucky’s returning minutes leader from a season ago is sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, who played 17.8 minutes per game.
3. Can Kentucky remain atop the SEC?
The Wildcats’ primacy in the SEC has rarely been challenged during Calipari’s time in Lexington. Yes, the Florida Gators have typically been a capable foe, but Kentucky has won five regular season and tournament championships in Calipari’s eight years, including sweeps the last three years. This could be the rare season that the Wildcats are pushed by multiple teams. The Gators are neck and neck with the Wildcats in most early top-25 rankings, and are, in fact, the top-rated team from the SEC in some versions. Alabama is expected to compete for the regular-season title next year, with Avery Johnson bringing in his best recruiting class since becoming the head coach in Tuscaloosa in 2015. Given Kentucky’s dearth of established players at the collegiate level, it will be hard for the team to hold onto its iron-clad grip of the SEC’s trophies. This could be a team that immediately comes together, or it could be like Calipari’s 2013-14 squad, which suffered through fits and starts, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed, and then made the Final Four. Or it could be the rare down season in Lexington, like when the team had to settle for an NIT berth in 2012-13. A tougher-than-usual SEC will test these Wildcats.