We just don’t know.
That’s the thing. Despite the Thursday celebrations over Hamidou Diallo’s late-Wednesday night decision to pull out of NBA Draft eligibility in favor of a return to Kentucky so he could actually play in games, there is still a considerable amount of uncertainty about the 2017-18 Kentucky basketball team.
It will be young. That we know for sure. As head coach John Calipari has said, this will be the youngest team he’s ever coached. Calipari figures to start five freshmen, or at least four true freshmen and a redshirt freshman in Diallo. Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard are the only holdovers from last season. And only Gabriel was a part-time starter.
It will be talented. There are eight players who received five-star ratings from the various recruiting analysts. There will be eight top-25 national recruits from the classes of 2016 and 2017.
It will boast length. Nick Richards is listed as being 6-foot-11. Killeya-Jones and Wynyard are both 6-10. Gabriel, Kevin Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt are all listed at 6-9. Then there’s Diallo, who is 6-foot-5, but measured at a 6-11 wingspan at the NBA Combine.
That’s about all we know for sure. Just because a team looks locked and loaded on paper doesn’t guarantee it will perform that way once the seal is broken. And while few coaches match Calipari’s talent for taking a mixed if talented group of new players and blending them into a cohesive unit, there are no sure things.
Take 2013-14, when the Harrison twins — Andrew and Aaron — combined with Julius Randle and James Young, were to make Kentucky an immediate powerhouse. It took a postseason “tweak” by Calipari before that team played up to expectations and reached the NCAA finals before losing to Connecticut.
Take 2015-16 when heralded freshman center Skal Labissiere showed he wasn’t ready for prime time, leaving the Cats without a post game or much of a chance in the NCAA Tournament, where they were bounced in the second round.
Take last season when Killeya-Jones was expected to be, if not a starter, surely a contributor. Instead, the Virginian played all of four minutes in conference games, and none after Jan. 21.
Even if all the newcomers match their press clippings, there’s no way to know how they will fare without experienced contributors to lead the way. Despite Calipari’s “one-and-done” reputation — the phrase that pays — he has never relied solely on first-year players. Not even at Kentucky.
His first UK team had freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, but also junior Patrick Patterson. His 2011 Final Four team had freshmen Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, but also holdovers DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson. His 2012 national title team had Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, but also Jones, Lamb and senior Darius Miller.
Last year’s team even had three seniors in Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder. And during the NCAA Tournament, there might not have been a more valuable player than Hawkins.
One more object lesson: Of the last eight NCAA Tournament champions, only two (Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015) started at least three freshmen. The remaining six were more experienced clubs, including last year’s North Carolina championship edition, which started seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks along with juniors Justin Jackson and Joel Berry.
To be sure, it’s better to have young talent than no talent at all. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish has UK No. 5 in his preseason top 25 behind Arizona, Kansas, Michigan State and Wichita State. ESPN’s Myron Medcalf has UK at No. 4 behind Arizona, Kansas and Michigan State. Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo also has Kentucky in the No. 4 spot behind Arizona, Kansas and Michigan State.
Are they right? We don’t know and neither do they. It should be fun, however, finding out.