For plenty of obvious reasons, Kentucky basketball’s annual unease about dependence on freshmen seems more acute this year. Eight of the 14 players have never played a college game. Of the “veterans,” only Wenyen Gabriel started a game last season (but not after Feb. 25). Sacha Killeya-Jones’ average of 6.4 minutes in 2016-17 makes him the second-most “experienced” returnee, and he did not play after Jan. 21 and logged only five total minutes after Jan. 3 (and only 12 after Dec. 11).
For those seeking reassurance, there’s John Calipari’s track record.
Calipari has led Kentucky to unprecedented success (four Final Fours in a five-year period had never been done by UK) while largely depending on freshmen. Of the top three scorers on each of the Final Four teams in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, nine of the 12 were freshmen. A freshman led the scoring in seven of Calipari’s previous eight UK teams (the exception being sophomore Aaron Harrison in 2014-15).
So the 2017-18 season will be same old, same old, right? Calipari balked at the suggestion that he had made success with freshmen something to take for granted.
“That’s like saying, ‘OK, you’ve been through a root canal, you can do this again, right?’” he said this preseason. “‘You’ll be better prepared. You’ll do fine, right? You know what’s coming.’
“No! No, it’s still going to be painful.”
At an ultra early stage of assessing the collective potential of an unproven collection of players, Calipari likened this coming season’s Kentucky team to the 2013-14 Wildcats. The top four scorers were freshmen (Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison). UK won only one game away from Rupp Arena until January and had a pedestrian 6-7 road record going into the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments. The pain of this root canal of a season grew most intense in early March losses at then-lowly South Carolina and by 19 points at Florida.
Thanks to abundant good fortune, there was a happy ending. Kentucky won five NCAA Tournament games by a total of 18 points and advanced to the national championship game.
“This is kind of what we had in 2014 where you have a good group of kids,” Calipari said in making the 2014-2018 connection. “You have a talented group of kids. But they’re not ready to win basketball games. They’re exchanging baskets.”
That sounded like coach-speak for not being in the habit of playing zealous defense and thoughtful, purposeful offense on every possession.
Because UK players usually are the stars in their individual solar system, the high school and AAU basketball teams revolve around them. They must adjust to orbiting around something greater than themselves at Kentucky and later in the NBA.
As an example, Calipari said Malik Monk had no competition in high school practices, and the second-best player on De’Aaron Fox’s high school team was a ninth-grader.
So Calipari welcomed players from the New Orleans Pelicans to work out in Lexington this summer. He hoped their collective approach, especially on defense, made an impression.
“We should be a pretty good defensive team,” Calipari said before adding a telling qualifier, “if we choose to be.”
Calipari cited two possible differences from his recent teams. There might be only one point guard, freshman Quade Green, unlike the years of, say, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe (2009-10), or more recently Tyler Ulis and Andrew Harrison (2014-15) or Ulis and Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe (2015-16) or last season’s Fox, Monk, Briscoe and Dominique Hawkins.
And gone from the forward spot is “stretch-four” Derek Willis, and in that spot a group of what Calipari called “playmaking fours” who might not shoot as well as Willis, but can give UK more playmaking possibilities.
At age 22, redshirt junior Dillon Pulliam will be the graybeard on this Kentucky team. The walk-on from Cynthiana played eight minutes last season.
Of the lack of experience, Pulliam said, “I definitely think that will impact us early on. Once you’re seven, eight games into the season, everyone will be pretty much used to it.”
Freshman PJ Washington, one of the possible “playmaking fours,” tried to spin inexperience as a plus. It can inhibit thoughts of taking an individual star turn and serve as a catalyst for team play.
“I think it’s scary,” Washington said of the 2017-18 season.
“It’s scary how good we can be,” he said. “We have to live up to the potential, and I feel like ... we can do that by just basically playing hard.”
As Calipari suggested, it might take time. Before scary may come puzzling, frustrating and reassessing.
But, Calipari and the Big Blue Nation know the satisfaction that comes with making it work.
“This is going to be one of those season-long (processes),” Calipari said. “We’ve been through it before where it’s hard. It’s hard to be patient for me and our fans and everybody else. But you’re just going to have to be.”