The circumstances surrounding the onset of another incredibly hyped season at Kentucky could have been so different if not for an exceptional run in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. It's easy to forget now after the Wildcats made it all the way to the national title game before finally falling to Shabazz Napier and UConn, but last season was not exactly what it was purported to be in Lexington.
A season that started with misguided talk of a 40-0 campaign was tripped up early when Michigan State took down the Wildcats in the third game of the year. Non-conference losses to Baylor and North Carolina followed before Kentucky even made it to SEC play, where the Wildcats lost four games to teams that didn't qualify for the NCAA Tournament. In a year when some fans really thought the team could go undefeated, Kentucky couldn't even win the SEC. After losing in the first round of the NIT the season before, would John Calipari's seat begin to take some heat?
Everything changed in the tournament, when the eighth-seeded Wildcats started advancing in the bracket one Aaron Harrison game-winner at a time. Every game was a classic, from giving Wichita State its first loss of the season to the comeback over arch-rival Louisville to down-to-the-wire victories over Michigan and Wisconsin.
Kentucky's biggest strength throughout the tournament run was its size advantage. The 'Cats out-rebounded Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined 34 boards. When Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson decided to return to school to join another loaded freshman class, it became clear Kentucky's front court would be peerless once again. This season, the Wildcats will have an even greater embarrassment of riches.
Perhaps the biggest shame of this college basketball season is that players like Marcus Lee and Trey Lyles -- former McDonald's All-Americans -- might be the fourth and fifth players just in the big man rotation. That's how loaded Kentucky is up front. You can take any two frontcourt players from the roster and they'd probably be good enough to start for most top-15 teams. How Calipari juggles minutes with all of this talent will be the most intriguing question in college basketball this season.
It won't be easy, and Calipari is admitting as much with talk of two true platoon units. It sounds good in theory, but how long will it last? Kentucky's real problem is that it has too many power forwards and centers and not enough help on the wing. That's why Alex Poythress, who qualifies as an elder statesman as a junior, is likely to shift to small forward this season even if he's more comfortable playing the four. The sheer amount of talent here is undeniable, but it's not exactly evenly dispersed throughout the roster.
While frontcourt minutes will be the storyline to watch, the backcourt might have the biggest spotlight. That's where Andrew and Aaron Harrison play, and Calipari will be hoping they can live up to their recruiting hype after uneven freshman campaigns. Aaron's late-game daggers masked the fact that the Harrisons weren't anything special as freshmen, struggling to shoot from the field (Andrew shot 36.7 percent overall) and being too careless with the ball (Aaron finished with 74 assists to 65 turnovers).
The Harrisons are tall, which is probably why they were so highly rated as recruits. They didn't showcase much athleticism last season and went through real growing pains. That's fine, because no other pair of sophomores in the country will be more experienced this season. If the Harrisons take off in Year 2, and they very well could, Kentucky's talent level will be out of control.
Tyler Ulis isn't the best Kentucky freshman this season as part of a four-man class of named McDonald's All-Americans, but he might be the most important. The 5'9 point guard from the suburbs of Chicago could shift the Harrisons to shooting guard and small forward, respectively, to add some depth on the wing and give Kentucky a point guard adept at controlling the tempo. Ulis looked great in Kentucky's four-game exhibition slate in the Bahamas and could be the perfect facilitator to keep so many good players involved.
To put the talent level here in perspective: Kentucky has nine McDonald's All-Americans. The Big 12 has seven. The Big Ten has six. It's a roster that includes possibly the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, and he wasn't even mentioned in this intro. The Wildcats are loaded. Will the Bahamas trip help them hit the ground running? How will Cal manage the lineup when they're losing? There are lots of questions here, but there's no doubting this is the most stacked team in the nation.
Projected starting lineup
PG Andrew Harrison, sophomore
SG Aaron Harrison, sophomore
SF Alex Poythress, junior
PF Karl-Anthony Towns, freshman
C Willie Cauley-Stein, junior
Key reserves: C Dakari Johnson (sophomore), PF Marcus Lee (sophomore), PF Trey Lyles (freshman), PG Tyler Ulis (freshman), SG Devin Booker (freshman), PF Derek Willis (sophomore)
SB Nation community: A Sea of Blue
How the Wildcats can go deep this season: Size and depth no one can approach
Kentucky was No. 2 in the country in offensive rebound rate last season, per KenPom, and that will be the team's greatest strength once again. So often last year, the Harrisons would miss shots at the rim and Kentucky's monster front line would clean up for two points. It was that easy.
Julius Randle is gone, but Kentucky will barely miss him. Cauley-Stein and Johnson are both way too big for opposing centers -- it's likely the best competition they face all season is when they play each other in practice. Lee is a pogostick who can jump out of the gym for rebounds and dunks. Lyles draws comparisons to Carlos Boozer -- not the rundown current version, but the player who was twice an Olympian.
That brings us to Karl-Anthony Towns. Jahlil Okafor is considered by many to be the top prospect in the 2015 NBA Draft, but let's put it this way: If Okafor would have been the perfect prospect in 1994, Towns might be the ideal one for 2094. Towns seems like he's sent straight from a future with shooting ability that extends out to the three-point line for a player with the size of an NBA center. At 7' and 250 pounds, NBA teams will be daydreaming about him all season long. Imagine him next to Joel Embiid in Philly or Julius Randle on the Lakers?
The only concern is how much playing time he'll get in this rotation. Playing Towns 22 minutes a game is a crime against basketball, but that's what happens with so much other talent here. Cal knew what he was doing by coaching his Dominican Republic team when Towns was in high school.
What happens to Poythress will interesting to monitor, as well. Poythress is a huge athlete with the potential to turn into a great wing stopper at the next level. On this Kentucky team, though, he might struggle to find his fit. Kentucky needs him at the small forward spot, but he made only eight three-pointers last season. The Wildcats will need to stretch defenses with shooting, or teams will put every defender in the paint against them. Freshman Devin Booker might help there too, but will he be ready to contribute right off the bat?
Last season, Kentucky finished with the No. 10 offense in the country, per KenPom, because they attacked the glass and got to the foul line at will. This season will hold similar truths.
How Kentucky could go home early: Lack of shooting and defense, too much talent to juggle in front court
Kentucky's defense placed only at No. 41 in the country last season, per KenPom, which is pretty unforgivable given all the size and athleticism. The Wildcats didn't try to force many turnovers and weren't as good as they should have been at defensive rebounding, ranking only No. 99 in the country at keeping opposing teams off the offensive glass.
Despite posting the No. 10 offense, Kentucky still shot only 33.2 percent from three-point range. It might be the Wildcats' only concern offensively, but it's still a valid one. Kentucky will have too much talent for most teams during the regular season, but what happens when the 'Cats are playing the other top teams in the tournament? Shooting from deep will be imperative, and Aaron Harrison, Ulis and Booker will be counted on to help.
More than anything, Kentucky will just need to play cohesively. There will come a time when the Wildcats are actually trailing in a game, and the adjustments Cal makes from there will go a long way toward telling how this season could ultimately shake out.
There's no doubting the talent here, but college basketball is great in part because the season isn't decided by a seven-game series. In a one-and-done format, anything can happen. Will Kentucky rule over college basketball once again? At the start of the season, the Wildcats sure seem like the safest bet.