UK Men's Basketball

UK 2015-16 basketball season preview: Newcomers, veterans have Coach Cal feeling 'comfortable'

Calipari
Calipari Herald-Leader

The revolving door that is Kentucky basketball nearly spun off its axis three years ago. The top six scorers from the 2012 national championship team departed for the NBA. UK forged ahead erratically with another class of heralded freshmen, a holdover point guard with one season of college experience, a transfer with the reputation as a shooter and a forward who personified untapped potential.

Sound familiar? It should because this coming season carries an unmistakable sense of what the late Yogi Berra called deja vu all over again.

Kentucky finds itself in a position similar to where it was entering the 2012-13 season: a mostly new cast of characters saddled with a tough act to follow.

The names have changed: Tyler Ulis the point guard rather than Ryan Harrow; Mychal Mulder the transfer rather than Julius Mays; Alex Poythress the would-be star forward rather than Kyle Wiltjer.

The song remains the same: The unavoidable shadow cast by the glorious season the previous winter (unprecedented 38-0 record going into the 2015 Final Four); the top scorers — top seven this time — gone to the NBA in search of their basketball fortunes.

Earlier this preseason, UK Coach John Calipari suggested that Ulis as the point guard makes a compelling difference in this latest start-over.

"The last time we went through this, and lost this many guys, the issue we had (was) we didn't have any guards," Calipari said. Besides Harrow, who sat out the 2011-12 season after transferring from North Carolina State, UK's veteran guards three years ago were Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood, Twany Beckham, Sam Malone and Brian Long.

This season, Ulis is joined by a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, junior Dominique Hawkins, and two freshman guards who have been highly touted even by Kentucky standards: Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe.

"So I feel pretty comfortable because of that," Calipari said.

Ulis and Harrow had similar numbers as first-year college players: Ulis 23.8 minutes, Harrow 23.0 minutes; Ulis 3.6 assists per game, Harrow 3.3; Ulis 39 percent shooter, Harrow 40.6.

But there are telling differences: Ulis had an almost 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6-to-1), Harrow's was not quite 2-to-1 (3.3-1.8). Ulis made 42.9 percent of his three-point shots, Harrow 22.2 percent.

The biggest contrast is in temperament. The UK experience overwhelmed Harrow, who took a temporary leave of absence early in his one season as a Cat and never seemed comfortable. Ulis previewed his competitive grit in a pickup game as an incoming freshman. He stood his ground against a former UK player who'd become an NBA presence: the sizable and volatile DeMarcus Cousins.

"He's got a toughness about him," Calipari said of Ulis. "He wants to win. He makes everybody better. You want a general out there to follow. And they want to follow him."

Calipari dismissed the notion of three point guards — Ulis, Murray and Briscoe — failing to co-exist. The UK coach noted how John Wall and Eric Bledsoe proved similar naysaying wrong in 2009-10.

"First of all, we play position-less," Calipari said, using this coming season's apparent catchphrase to explain why Ulis, Murray and Briscoe will mesh. "We could play three point guards. We could play three centers."

Either way or any way works, he said, "as long as you can play basketball."

As for the glut of point guards, Ulis, Murray and Briscoe "are comfortable in their own skin," Calipari said. "They're not in competition with the guy on their team. They are, but they're not."

While Ulis, or any combination of point guards including Ulis, will serve as the nerve center of Kentucky's team, Calipari named another player as the X-factor. That would be Poythress, a former McDonald's All-American who has career averages of 8.0 points and 5.1 rebounds. For what it's worth, his scoring/rebounding averages and shooting percentages (overall and from three-point range) have declined each UK season.

But Poythress is what no one else on the team is: a combination of size (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) and athleticism (the memory of one-handed put-back dunks against Duke as a freshman still tantalize).

The guards are known commodities. So are "bigs" Marcus Lee and freshmen Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries. Calipari said he will look for either freshman Charles Matthews, junior Derek Willis or Mulder to assert himself.

"But you don't have a beast," the UK coach said of these pieces. "And that's Alex. You don't have anybody like him. No one that's that physical, that tough, the ability to just go get balls and make plays."

Of course, Poythress tore an anterior cruciate ligament last December. So a full recovery is a must.

"A big part of this will be Alex coming back," Calipari said. "And where are you (in the rehab)? Are you 75 percent? Or are you at 95 percent?"

Calipari suggested that a switch from small forward to power forward might help Poythress become more productive. Poythress was not ready to be a small forward, or a "three" in basketball parlance. But Calipari said he saw that as Poythress's eventual position in the NBA. Now that the NBA has gone small, Poythress can move to power forward.

Kentucky's preparation for the upcoming season extends beyond Poythress. As odd as it sounds, Labissiere must learn to run correctly. "How about that?" Calipari said. "You don't run right."

Labissiere must also compete harder, Calipari said.

Matthews can evolve into a defensive stopper, Mulder a reliable perimeter shooter, Humphries a dependable "big," especially if Poythress needs time, Lee a player capable of making 15-foot jumpers.

All of these individual efforts to improve suggest a team that will need time to jell and excel.

Maybe that's why Calipari recoiled from the notion that last season be used to measure this season's team. From the August trip to the Bahamas to the much-discussed platoon system of substitution, Kentucky basketball in 2014-15 was one-of-a-kind extraordinary.

"Last year's team was an anomaly," Calipari said. "That should be thrown out. And don't ever look at it. Don't compare. If you tell me about that team, stop! Don't ever tell me because that may never happen again where someone has that many good players on a team."

In 2012, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made history by being the first teammates picked first and second in an NBA Draft. Kentucky's chances of following that act ended the following February when Nerlens Noel tore an ACL at Florida. A season of possibilities (a 17-6 record prior to Noel's injury) turned into a sad trudge to a first-round loss in the NIT.

Barring such a catastrophic injury, Calipari suggested that this coming season probably would not renew talk of a 40-0 record. But the Cats could be contenders for the national championship that eluded last season's team.

"I think we will be shaky in November," Calipari said. "But by the end of the year, like our teams, we'll be able to do something special."

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