The top five storylines surrounding the University of Kentucky men's basketball team this season:
1. How will John Calipari make a three-guard lineup work, especially when it's three point guards? Can he play any of them enough to keep them happy?
Decades ago, then-Georgia Coach Hugh Durham advised an over-caffeinated sportswriter not to put much stock in position labels. Basketball players are basketball players, he said. Fast forward to 2015-16, and the ever-present marketeer in Calipari made the same point with the catchier "position-less" trademark. Of course, two point guards worked with John Wall and Eric Bledsoe in 2009-10. Calipari has already designated Tyler Ulis as the point guard, so no confusion about UK's alpha dog. And a three-guard lineup is hardly a groundbreaking development. No fewer than 15 UK opponents started a three-guard lineup last season. That included Ole Miss (LaDarius White, Jarvis Summers and Stefan Moody), Texas A&M (Alex Caruso, Danuel House, Antwan Space), Georgia (Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines, J.J. Frazier), LSU (Keith Hornsby, Jalyn Patterson, Tim Quarterman) and Notre Dame (Jerian Grant, Steve Vasturia, Demetrius Jackson). All those teams seriously threatened to spoil UK's undefeated record. Winning is the key. A team can make five point guards work as long as games are won.
2. How dependent is Kentucky on Alex Poythress's ability to return from the torn ACL? Calipari said Poythress was only 80-precent recovered as the season approached. Will Poythress get to 100 percent? And if he doesn't, what then?
Calipari publicly and opposing coaches privately say Poythress is one of a kind. UK has plenty of guards who can make plays (see No. 1), but those players are all 6-foot-4 or shorter. UK has size, but the "bigs" either lack bulk (Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee) or top-shelf athleticism (Isaac Humphries). Poythress has both. Up till now, his combination of size and athleticism has not translated into consistent offensive production. His assist-to-turnover ratio has been almost 3-to-1 in the wrong direction (41 assists, 112 turnovers). His perimeter shooting has not preoccupied defenses (8-for-40 from three-point range the last two seasons). A player that comes to mind is Casey Prather of Florida. At 6-6 and 212, he wasn't as big as Poythress. But he never seemed unleashed, to borrow one of Calipari's terms, in his first three seasons. He averaged 3.1 points in that span. But as a senior in 2013-14, Prather was a different player. He led the Gators in scoring (13.8 ppg). Of course, Prather did not have to come back from a torn ACL. But his example shows Poythress as a revelation is possible.
3. Is there any hope for the two Kentucky natives to play significant roles?
Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis are good players. But as John Calipari said this preseason, teammates (not from Kentucky) have been better. So Hawkins and Willis have not had big roles. Frankly, it's hard to see that changing. Hawkins has not one, not two, but three more heralded players in front of him: McDonald's All-Americans Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe, plus Jamal Murray, who wasn't a McDonald's All-American only because Canada does not supersize its basketball prospects. Murray has to settle for being projected as an NBA lottery pick. Willis also seems to be looking up at two McDonald's All-Americans (Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress). Hawkins and Willis might have their moments, but a spot in a regular eight-man rotation seems unlikely. Of course, this is nothing new. Aside from Darius Miller, no Kentucky native in John Calipari's six seasons at UK has averaged more than Jarrod Polson's 13.8 minutes and 3.1 points in 2012-13. The next most productive Kentuckians in that time? Either Jon Hood, who averaged 1.5 points in 2012-13 or Hawkins, who averaged 7.1 minutes last season.
4. This team is not nearly as deep or talented as last season's Cats. Is the co-No. 1 preseason ranking with North Carolina overly optimistic? Does this combination of factors set up the Cats for a Nerlens Noel-type season of disappointment if they're not super fantastic?
First of all, 2012-13 was not a season of disappointment. The season ended prematurely when Noel tore an ACL at Florida on Feb. 15. Kentucky went into that game with a record of 17-6. Not great by Kentucky standards, but bound for the NCAA Tournament. Plus, that team had as its floor leader the ill-suited Ryan Harrow, whom nobody said would be the nation's best point guard. So, a repeat of 2012-13, which ended with a loss at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT, is unlikely. Calipari has called attention to how Kentucky had a lofty preseason rating that year (No. 3). And he's flatly rejected any comparison to UK's once-in-a-generation team of last season. An "anomaly," he called 2014-15. That Calipari linked this year's No. 1 ranking to 2012-13 and recoiled from any comparison to 2014-15 should be interpreted as trying to cool the ever-present fervor of UK fans. Not because he does not believe in this team, but because he'd like to keep UK fans tethered to reality. In other words, business as usual for Kentucky.
5. What will the atmosphere be like when Louisville plays at Kentucky on the day after Christmas?
The French term bête noire comes to mind. It refers to a person or thing that one particularly dislikes. It's widely believed that Rick Pitino is John Calipari's bête noire. And vice versa. So, you might expect UK fans to be fully loaded — with taunts, signs and venom, that is — when the combustible rivalry comes to Rupp Arena. But the track record suggests just the opposite. In 2010-11, Calipari asked fans not to root against any team because it might create bad karma for the Cats. "Even Duke?" a caller to his radio show asked. Yes, even Duke, Calipari said. When he learned of a UK fan effort to take over a College GameDay at Vanderbilt, Calipari asked that Vandy be allowed its time on center stage. And when North Carolina played at Kentucky last season, fans followed Calipari's request not to rub an ongoing academic scandal in UNC's face. In each case, however grudgingly, Kentucky fans followed Calipari's wish. Louisville's sex scandal will severely test UK's ability to be gracious. Of course, self-interest could make UK take the high road. Don't forget that bad karma.