Despite another expected roster overhaul this offseason, the Kentucky Wildcats are already being projected by national media outlets as one of the top basketball teams in the country for the 2017-18 campaign.
Leading scorers Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have announced their intentions to enter this year’s NBA Draft and hire agents, thus ending their college careers after one season. Fellow freshman Bam Adebayo — the Cats’ third-leading scorer and leading rebounder — is expected to join them soon.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe — fourth on UK’s scoring list this past season — is also expected to leave UK for the pros after this season.
The Cats’ three departing seniors — Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis — accounted for a total of 596 points during the 2016-17 season. They’ll all be gone.
All of that would leave Wenyen Gabriel (4.6 points per game) and Isaac Humphries (2.8 points per game) as the most experienced returnees to UK’s squad next season, and Humphries, who just wrapped up his sophomore year, has also been mentioned among the possible departures this offseason.
Still, the national expectations for Kentucky are high, and those lofty projections are largely based on another No. 1 recruiting class for John Calipari.
The Wildcats should be in the top 10 no matter what happens in the next few months.
Gary Parrish, CBS Sports
ESPN is going all in on the Cats, placing Calipari’s next bunch at No. 1 in its “Way-Too-Early” Top 25, which was posted minutes after North Carolina’s victory over Gonzaga in the national championship game Monday night.
UK is bringing in McDonald’s All-Americans Quade Green, Nick Richards, Jarred Vanderbilt and PJ Washington, as well as four-star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to go along with five-star freshman Hamidou Diallo. The Cats are also considered favorites for five-star big man Mohamed Bamba, another McDonald’s All-American.
“Broadly speaking, almost every top team will have a ton of turnover in 2017-18; why not settle on the one that thrives on turnover every spring?” wrote ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan.
It’s worth noting that the ESPN projection appears to be based partly on Briscoe coming back to UK — an unlikely scenario, according to buzz around the program — and Humphries returning, too.
Sports Illustrated ranks UK at No. 2 overall — behind only Arizona — noting that the Cats are in “great shape” to land Bamba, the No. 2 player in the Scout.com rankings for 2017. The 7-footer from Harlem, N.Y., is also considering Duke, Michigan and Texas.
CBS’ Gary Parrish notes that UK’s ranking will fluctuate based on upcoming decisions from Briscoe, Bamba and others.
“If things break a certain way, UK could be in play for the top spot,” Parrish wrote. “But the Wildcats should be in the top 10 no matter what happens in the next few months.”
Arizona, which brings in top 2017 recruit DeAndre Ayton to go along with several returning players, is ranked No. 1 by four of the six national publications mentioned. Kansas and Kentucky got the other two No. 1 spots.
Louisville is ranked as high as No. 2 (Fox Sports) and no worse than No. 10 (USA Today).
In another sign of heightened expectations for the Southeastern Conference, five league teams other than UK were included on at least one of the early Top 25 lists.
Florida is considered a top-10 team by four of the national publications mentioned, with a ranking of No. 4 from USA Today. Alabama, which brings in top recruits Collin Sexton and John Petty, made a majority of the Top 25 lists, and South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt were also mentioned.