By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
As the Cats prepare for their 2017-18 basketball season, many observers rank them as a top 5 team. However, not since the 2012-13 season has Coach Calipari had to replace so much scoring, rebounding, steals, and yes, talent from the prior season than he must replace from the 2016-17 squad.
Yes, Coach Calipari is sending out the message about how young his team is, and how long it will take for this group to round into a team capable of competing in March. However, this time, Coach Calipari’s warnings are entirely valid.
This team consists of seven true freshmen and one red shirt freshman, three sophomores and one red shirt sophomore, and two walk on Juniors. The only player on the roster who logged significant time last season is Wenyen Gabriel who played in 38 games, starting 23, and logged 676 minutes (17.8 min/game) while shooting 40.5% from the floor, 31.7% from outside the arc, and 61.8% from the line while getting credit for11 steals, 34 blocks, 26 assists, and 29 turnovers.
To be sure, the incoming freshman class is fully stocked with raw talent. But, two of the seven incoming freshmen are currently sitting out due to injuries. Jarred Vanderbilt sustained a foot injury during an all star appearance last Spring, and sharp shooter Jemarl Baker is also out of action for the near term. That leaves Coach Calipari with a shorter than anticipated bench at a time when he may need the bench more than ever before.
During last Friday’s Blue-White scrimmage, two of the Freshmen distinguished themselves on the offensive end. P. J. Washington and Kevin Knox showed ability to score in a variety of ways. Only one player emerged from a defenseless exhibition with defensive prowess with 8 blocked shots, Nick Richards.
Coach Calipari has as tough a rebuilding job with the 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats as he has faced since 2012-13, and perhaps upon his arrival in the Spring of 2009.
2017-18 UK opponents in the preseason top 50 are #5 Kansas in the third game, #29 UCLA, #16 Louisville, #43, and #7 West Virginia from the array of 13 non-conference opponents. In the SEC, the Cats will face Tennessee twice, #15 Texas A&M twice, #38 Vanderbilt twice, #8 Florida twice, #48 South Carolina, #21, #46 Auburn, and #23 Alabama. That will be 15 (4 nonconference and 11 SEC) basketball games against teams in Pomeroy’s preseason top 50.
Last season, the Cats played 11 (5 nonconference and 6 SEC) regular season games against teams that ended the season in Pomeroy’s top 50. On first blush, these young Cats will face one of the toughest regular season schedules that any Calipari team has faced in his tenure.
For the record, Pomeroy has tagged this UK team as the #2 team in the nation in the pre-season ratings. Pomeroy projects a 29-2 record against this schedule, with losses at West Virginia and at Florida. Furthermore, my ANE projections provide an identical forecast for the 2017-18 regular season.
As has been the case every year, Coach Calipari has said that while he likes this team, he will need time to learn how this team should play before they have any chance to be worthy of such a high preseason ranking. That learning process has begun. Following the Blue-White game, Coach Calipari expressed concern about conditioning, the ability of any of his players to play a full 40 minute game at this point, the absence of “motors” for several of his freshmen, and of course the usual laments about their poor defensive skills.
On Friday night, Coach Calipari will see his players perform against a live opponent for the first time. These exhibition games will provide significant input to Coach Calipari about how his team should play together, and this season, the Cats will have the benefit of the two traditional exhibition games (Thomas More and Centre) and an exhibition with D1 opponent Morehead.
Thomas More will appear in Rupp Arena on Friday, October 27, 2017. These exhibition games are about the Kentucky team, and identifying the areas that Coach Calipari must emphasize over the next 14 days as the Cats prepare to open their quest for a return to the Final Four in search of the program’s 9th National Championship.
Let the journey begin with the exhibitions, just as it has every year within my memory.
Over the past 8 seasons, the Cats have averaged a 42 point victory over its first exhibition opponent (97-55) and for those same previous eight (8) seasons, the Cats have improved between their first and second exhibition games to a 63 point average margin (115-52). This and the second exhibition game the following Sunday are about effort and improvement. The measuring sticks are the margins of victory and the degree of improvement between the first and second starts. It is unclear how the bonus exhibition game against Morehead, sandwiched between the two traditional exhibitions will affect this relationship.
For the past eight “First Exhibitions” the opponents have been Campbell (74-38), Pikeville (97-66), Transy (97-53), Northern Kentucky (93-61), Transy (76-42), Pikeville (116-68), Ottowa (117-58), and Clarion (108-51). This year, based on how prior exhibition games have played out and the relative strength of Thomas More, this game shapes up to be a 46 point game, 99-53 if the Cats are on par with the previous seven Calipari led teams at the end of October.