UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Cats' veterans look like best cure for 38-1 Final Four hangover

Peyton Whitaker, 8, of Versailles held up a sign as she and other Kentucky fans welcomed the men's basketball team back to Lexington on Sunday at Blue Grass Airport. The Wildcats suffered their first loss of the season — a season-ending one —to Wisconsin in the Final Four in Indianapolis on Saturday.
Peyton Whitaker, 8, of Versailles held up a sign as she and other Kentucky fans welcomed the men's basketball team back to Lexington on Sunday at Blue Grass Airport. The Wildcats suffered their first loss of the season — a season-ending one —to Wisconsin in the Final Four in Indianapolis on Saturday. Herald-Leader

Among those still trying to emotionally process how Kentucky's dream of an undefeated national championship slipped away so abruptly against Wisconsin in the Final Four is John Calipari.

"It hurt us all," Calipari said.

With seven weeks to reflect, what does the Kentucky coach think happened?

"When we had a four-point lead with five minutes to go, I don't think there was anybody in the universe that didn't think we were winning the game because we always did," Calipari said. "It surprised me how we finished, but it happened. And you gotta give Wisconsin credit."

Calipari was speaking Thursday morning in Memorial Coliseum at his summer news conference. To some extent, it represented a turning of the page from last season's stellar but ill-fated run at college hoops immortality.

The first step for UK men's basketball moving forward is not to allow any kind of hangover from last season's bitter ending to carry forward. Kentucky basketball history is mixed on how Wildcats teams fare in the next year after seasons that have ended in losses of a magnitude similar to Wisconsin.

In 1966-67, the year after Texas Western broke the hearts of Rupp's Runts in the NCAA title game, Kentucky limped through a 13-13 season. Yet in 1992-93, the season following Christian Laettner's famous buzzer-beater ended the college careers of The Unforgettables, Jamal Mashburn took the Cats to the Final Four.

So what about next year? For all the attention Kentucky's one-and-done culture attracts, Calipari correctly noted that his best UK teams have combined "some pretty good freshmen" with "some pretty good veterans."

Assuming all incoming players are eligible, the 2015-16 UK roster — even with this spring's recruiting losses — should have the "pretty good freshmen" box checked. Big man Skal Labissiere is the top-ranked prospect in the 2015 Rivals 150, while guard Isaiah Briscoe is 10th.

The most intriguing aspect of Kentucky's 2015-16 season looks to be the UK veterans — all of whom have something to prove.

Senior forward Alex Poythress will be returning from a torn ACL. Poythress has had some stellar moments at Kentucky, starting with his 20-point game against Duke as a freshman. The next year, his timely contributions off the bench helped fuel UK's 2014 Final Four run.

The Clarksville, Tenn., product has never found consistency, though. In his last 53 games, Poythress has scored in double figures seven times.

Will Calipari use the 6-foot-8 Poythress at power forward, where he seems comfortable? "If that's where he's best, that's where we'll play him," Calipari said.

As Marcus Lee showed Michigan with a dunking exhibition in the 2014 NCAA round of eight, he can produce one-man aerial shows. His athleticism and length could allow the 6-10 Californian to provide defensive switching similar to that which made Willie Cauley-Stein so valuable for the Cats this past season.

Yet to justify extended minutes, Lee (a 32.5 percent foul shooter in 2014-15) needs to show more offensive skill than just dunking.

Said Calipari: "I told him, 'That elbow offensive game, they've got to guard you when you catch it on the elbow. You got to make free throws better, because you're going to get fouled.'"

Tyler Ulis had a stellar freshman season last year filled with heady play and clutch shooting.

Yet the 5-9 point guard also benefited from "backup quarterback" syndrome. When returning starter Andrew Harrison struggled, it was message-board dynamite. Yet when Ulis had a three-game stretch (at Florida, at LSU, South Carolina) in which he shot 1-for-12, it drew little attention.

This year, as the starting "QB," the scrutiny will be greater for Ulis.

Going into their junior years, Kentucky homebreds Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis again seek to regularly crack Calipari's playing rotations. A year ago, the 6-foot Hawkins did not score a field goal after Feb. 14; the 6-10 Willis did not make a basket after Jan. 13.

"I told them at the end of the year, 'You better come back here expecting to play,'" Calipari said. "... I can't do it for them. They're going to have to do it."

Bottom line: The best way to put behind a painful moment from the past would be an exciting future.

"I think this team could be crazy," Calipari said of the 2015-16 Wildcats, "if it all comes together."

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