Believe it or not, punctuation might be the best way to gauge Kentucky going into the 2016-17 season.
That’s more or less what Isaac Humphries colorfully said when suggesting that the travails of UK’s imbalanced team last season will not be repeated. As demonstrated in almost torturous fashion throughout 2015-16, the Cats depended solely on their guards. The “bigs” were anything but.
A new season and new roster bring a reassessment.
“We’ve got some really good guards again, but we also have really good bigs this time,” said Humphries, who is one of those bigs.
But Humphries wasn’t finished.
“And we’re just as good as them,” he said. “And they’re just as good as us. And we’ve got that perfect balance.”
Then, Humphries delivered a phrase so catchy that an ever-mindful marketer like UK Coach John Calipari would be impressed.
“So I don’t see us as a question mark,” Humphries said of UK’s frontcourt players this coming season. “More of an exclamation mark, I think.”
That sentiment would fit nicely on a bumper sticker. If true, Kentucky will make last season’s imbalance the aberration it appeared.
The focal point of this welcomed starting-over sentiment is an aptly named freshman, Edrice “Bam” Adebayo. As UK fan Marsha Poe said of of the conversations during the campout for Big Blue Madness tickets, “All you’re hearing is Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam.”
Said Bam: “It’s a new year now. We’re not really worried about last year. We’re worried about this year.”
Early this preseason, Calipari acknowledged the obvious: Guards Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe carried the Cats last season. The Three Tenors had to make sweet music to drown out the negligible noise provided by the team’s front line.
“We knew if we faced a physical team around that basket or they had a guy who could score and our guys didn’t do it, we were in trouble,” Calipari said before making sure the point got across. “And we knew it.”
Everyone knew it.
With Adebayo, Humphries, senior Derek Willis, plus freshmen Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, Kentucky has plenty of size.
A front line of, say, Bam, Humphries and either Wenyen or Willis would give the Cats a front line that averages 6-foot-10.
“A pretty long team,” Calipari said.
Perhaps that size led Calipari to suggest that this Kentucky team will use defense as its foundational piece.
“We’ll probably be 75 percent defense, not much offense, … because I think that’s what’s going to be what the team is,” Calipari said. “What we are. You got shot blocking, you got size.”
That size extends to the backcourt, where Briscoe, plus freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk suggest a big and physical perimeter. Ulis intimidated with his mind and his competitive spirit, not with his physical presence.
“You just have guys who can maul people,” Calipari said of UK’s backcourt this coming season, “and I think we’ll have some shot blocking,” which can be a license for the guards to defend with even more tenacity.
As Humphries suggested, the tandem of Fox, Monk and Briscoe suggest a reprise of the Three Tenors.
A question hanging over the new tenors concerns shooting. None of the three has a reputation as a dead-eye shooter, perhaps a reason Calipari is emphasizing winning through defense.
“I’ve been able to shoot my whole life,” Fox said. “Just trying to get it more consistent, a lot more consistent.”
Calipari’s ultra-early assessment was that the freshmen had a lot to learn.
“The guards are just too casual,” he said. “They’ll miss eight shots in a row, and then go back to the line and miss a ninth. . . . ‘Dude, we’re now charting every shot in every workout.’
“With these guards, you’re not just playing and ‘Let me figure this out each trip down.’
“I think early on, we will be a team that only runs three or four things offensively. Probably our first month. That’s not good because we have some really big games that first month. And it’ll be primarily let’s be defensive-minded. Let’s be a team. All right, even if we don’t shoot it well or we don’t execute well, we can still win the game.”
Calipari assured reporters that the freshmen are willing to listen and learn. “If you walked into our practice, they’re very locked in and focused,” he said.
Reading between the lines, the UK coach has seemed to caution fans not to expect one of the guards to play like Ulis. Ulis might have been a once-in-a-generation type of talent.
“When you talk of those three, it’s pretty even,” he said of Fox, Monk and Briscoe.
Briscoe figures to be first among equals, primarily because of experience.
“My challenge to him is we need him to lead because he knows what this is,” Calipari said. “He knows what it’s about. He’s been in the trenches.”
Briscoe is “on a mission” to show he can be the lead guard and a better shooter, Calipari said.
As he does every preseason, Calipari mulled the possible options in lineups, roles and strategies.
Might Briscoe be better as the point guard, in part, because he plays better with the ball rather than as a catch-and-shoot man?
Calipari takes comfort in having had a full roster of healthy players on campus this summer. That’s in contrast to several previous seasons: Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles did not play in the Bahamas in August 2014, and Murray was a late arrival last year, as were the Harrison twins in 2013.
With everyone on campus and engaged, this freshman-dependent Kentucky team had a head start in the process of melding into an effective unit. “That’s one advantage we have,” Calipari said.
As predictable as leaves changing color, Calipari spoke in the fall of an evolving team that may struggle early. The Cats will look to be functioning at a high level in the postseason.
“Even last year, I think we were playing our best” at season’s end, Calipari said. “We just needed one guy near that goal that we could throw some balls to and get easy baskets. And there was no consistency with that.”
If Humphries is right about that question mark turning into an exclamation mark, that problem has been solved.
2016-17 UK basketball schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Oct. 14: BIG BLUE MADNESS, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Oct. 21: BLUE-WHITE GAME, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Oct. 30: a-CLARION, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Nov. 6: a-ASBURY, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Nov. 11: STEPHEN F. AUSTIN, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Nov. 13: b-CANISIUS, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)
Nov. 15: c-Michigan State, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Nov. 20: b-DUQUESNE, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Nov. 23: b-CLEVELAND STATE, 1 p.m. (SEC)
Nov. 25: b-TENNESSEE-MARTIN, 7 p.m. (SEC)
Nov. 28: d-Arizona State, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Dec. 3: UCLA, 12:30 p.m. (CBS)
Dec. 7: VALPARAISO, 8 p.m. (SEC)
Dec. 11: e-Hofstra, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec. 17: f-North Carolina, 5:45 p.m. (CBS)
Dec. 21: at Louisville, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Dec. 29: at Ole Miss, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 3: TEXAS A&M, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 7: ARKANSAS, 8:30 p.m. (SEC)
Jan. 10: at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 14: AUBURN, 4 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
Jan. 17: at Mississippi State, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 21: SOUTH CAROLINA, 4-8 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
Jan. 24: at Tennessee, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 28: g-KANSAS, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 31: GEORGIA, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Feb. 4: at Florida, 2-8 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
Feb. 7: LSU, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Feb. 11: at Alabama, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Feb. 14: TENNESSEE, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Feb. 18: at Georgia, 4-8 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
Feb. 21: at Missouri, 9 p.m. (SEC)
Feb. 25: FLORIDA, 2 p.m. (CBS)
Feb. 28: VANDERBILT, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
March 4: at Texas A&M, noon (CBS)
March 8-12: h-SEC Tournament (SEC and ESPN)
a-Exhibition; b-Bluegrass Showcase; c-Champions Classic (Madison Square Garden in New York); d-Atlantis Showcase (Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas); e-Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival (Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.); f-CBS Sports Classic (T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas); g-SEC/Big 12 Challenge; h-At Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
2016-17 UK men’s basketball roster
Edrice “Bam” Adebayo