The group that delivered Kentucky’s eighth national championship coasted through last season without picking up any catchy nicknames like celebrated teams of the past.
There was no Fiddlin’ Five, no Unforgettables, no Comeback Cats.
But the young Wildcats shooting for No. 9 seem destined for a label before they ever set foot in Rupp Arena. Get ready for The Replacements.
With last season’s starting five and sixth man Darius Miller off to the NBA, John Calipari will turn to yet another No. 1 recruiting class and two promising transfers to form the core of his title defense.
The expectations are high. ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and CBS already have Kentucky in the top five in their pre-season rankings.
But what can really be expected of a team that counts sophomore Kyle Wiltjer as the only holdover with any substantial experience?
Here we look at what each of UK’s six newcomers will bring to next season’s team, as well as how long they can be expected to stay in Lexington.
And because Calipari surely won’t be content with a fourth straight No. 1 class, there’s info on six of UK’s biggest recruiting targets for 2013 [separate page -- click here], one in-state player who’s already committed to the Cats, and 10 other high school seniors to keep an eye on over the next few months.
Class of 2012
Height, weight: 6-10, 215 pounds
Hometown: Everett, Mass.
Rivals ranking: 2
Scout ranking: 1
ESPN ranking: 1
What he brings: Unparalleled defense. Noel is considered by recruiting analysts to be the best shot blocker coming out of high school since Greg Oden in 2006. He’ll be expected to anchor UK’s interior defense from the get-go, and he’s already set his sights on Anthony Davis’ blocked-shot records. It could happen. After Noel committed to the Cats in April, Davis said of the future UK big man, “I think he’s better than me.”
Question mark: Can he score? No one doubts Noel’s ability to change a game with his defense, but there are plenty of questions about his play on the other end. Davis made it through most of last season by scoring on alley-oops and put-backs, then unleashed a nearly unstoppable array of post moves as the tournaments approached. But Davis also came to Lexington with a better offensive reputation than Noel. For the Cats to contend for No. 9, Noel will probably have to become a scoring threat in the paint.
One-and-done? Not only will Noel almost certainly leave after one season, he could wind up being John Calipari’s third No. 1 overall pick in four years at UK. The most recent DraftExpress.com mock draft for 2013 has Noel going in the top spot, and he’s also the No. 1 player on ESPN’s Top 100 board for next year. If he even comes close to living up to those expectations as a freshman, it’s hard to see him sticking around.
Height, weight: 6-7, 215 pounds
Hometown: Clarksville, Tenn.
Rivals ranking: 8
Scout ranking: 7
ESPN ranking: 13
What he brings: Versatility. Recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer once described Poythress as “a more explosive athlete than Terrence Jones.” He plays hard, runs the floor, can score from anywhere and could end up being UK’s top rebounder. His all-around game stood out against elite competition in the McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic, and he made a late jump in most recruiting rankings as a result.
Question mark: Is he the go-to guy? Poythress looks to be the most accomplished offensive player on this team. He scored more than 40 points in four games as a high school senior, but whether or not he’ll stay in attack mode with so many talented players around him won’t be answered until the season begins. If Poythress doesn’t defer to others, he could well be the fourth straight freshman to lead the Cats in scoring.
One-and-done? If he wants to go, he’ll almost certainly have the chance. DraftExpress.com rates him as the No. 7 prospect and ESPN has him at No. 15. NBADraft.net puts him at No. 4, behind only Noel, UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad and Indiana’s Cody Zeller. Poythress improved his stock by playing well in front of NBA scouts during the post-season all-star events.
Position: Shooting guard
Height, weight: 6-5, 180 pounds
Hometown: Little Rock, Ark.
Rivals ranking: 14
Scout ranking: 14
ESPN ranking: 15
What he brings: Personality. Goodwin is a great player, sure, but he might also follow John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Josh Harrellson as a fan favorite for his charisma off the court. Goodwin stole the show during ESPN’s Signing Day Special, breaking out a dance when Nerlens Noel picked UK and clowning around with the studio crew. His easy-going nature with fans and the media could turn him into the face of this team.
Question mark: Can he consistently hit the three? He didn’t in high school, but he didn’t really have to. His athleticism and ability to drive to the basket allowed for easy scoring chances. Those opportunities won’t be there as often against college competition, and Goodwin will need to develop that long-range jump shot to keep defenders honest.
One-and-done? If his jump shot comes around, he’ll have the opportunity to go pro after one season. DraftExpress.com ranks him as the No. 9 overall pick in next year’s draft, and the No. 2 guard behind Muhammad. He’s the No. 17 player on the ESPN big board, though analyst Chad Ford points to his inconsistent shooting as a negative.
Height, weight: 6-10, 215 pounds
Hometown: Olathe, Kan.
Rivals ranking: 40
Scout ranking: 48
ESPN ranking: 40
What he brings: Front-court depth. As Kentucky kept missing out (or giving up) on blue-chip forwards such as Anthony Bennett, Amile Jefferson and Devonta Pollard, the commitment of Cauley-Stein looked more and more important. Though Calipari said last week he was considering Cauley-Stein as a starter, the more likely starting rotation will be Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer. Cauley-Stein’s athleticism and shot-blocking skills should come in handy off the bench.
Question mark: How much can he contribute? With a likely front-court trio including two freshmen and a sophomore who struggled defensively last season, foul trouble could be a recurring problem in 2012-13. Cauley-Stein will be the first option off the bench should one of UK’s bigs get in early trouble, and he’ll need to make the most of the minutes he gets. He had a reputation for disappearing at times in high school, something he can’t afford to do next season.
One-and-done? Probably not. Over the last four NBA Drafts, 31 of the 33 one-and-dones have been top-20 recruits coming out of high school. Eric Bledsoe and Marshall star Hassan Whiteside are the only exceptions, and Cauley-Stein won’t get the opportunity to play as much as those two did as freshmen. Early predictions peg Cauley-Stein as a three- or four-year player at Kentucky.
Position: Point guard
Height, weight: 6-2, 175 pounds
Hometown: Marietta, Ga.
What he brings: A year with Calipari. This will be the first time since 2006 that the UK coach will have a point guard who isn’t coming straight out of high school. After transferring from North Carolina State, Harrow practiced with the Wildcats last season as he sat out his transfer year. The opportunity to learn a new system and compete against Marquis Teague on a daily basis makes him UK’s most experienced point guard of the Calipari era.
Question mark: Can he run the offense? The last three years have shown that when Calipari’s point guards are on their game, UK is very difficult to beat. Harrow was inconsistent during his one season at N.C. State, putting up big numbers in some games and struggling to do much of anything in others. The Wolfpack were hard to watch that season, and their offense often deteriorated into a display of endless dribbling and wild shots. Harrow will need to take more control this season.
One-and-done? He has a chance. Next year’s draft is shaping up as another weak one for point guards, and that would be to Harrow’s advantage. DraftExpress.com has him going as the No. 23 overall pick, and he’s the second point guard on the board behind Texas sophomore Myck Kabongo. Harrow is the 33rd overall prospect and projected to go “late first round” on ESPN’s big board.
Height, weight: 6-2, 195 pounds
Hometown: Marion, Ind.
What he brings: Three-point shooting. Ryan Harrow was a 22 percent shooter from behind the arc at N.C. State, and Archie Goodwin was inconsistent in high school. Mays shot 42.4 percent from three-point range at Wright State last season, and he made three or more threes in eight regular-season games. Though he’ll be coming off the bench, Mays is probably the top candidate to lead the Cats in three-pointers next season.
Question mark: Can he handle elite competition? He had a great game against Florida last November (21 points and three three-pointers), but Mays has yet to excel on a regular basis against the type of competition he’ll see on UK’s schedule. If he can keep up with guards from Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor early in the season, it will be a good sign that he can be counted on in Southeastern Conference play and beyond.
One-and-done? Mays is guaranteed to spend only one year at UK, but not in the way fans have become accustomed under Calipari. This will be Mays’ final year of athletic eligibility after one season at Wright State and two at N.C. State. He’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in Sports Leadership, but has left the door open for a pro career should the opportunity present itself.