- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Calipari is at again: Kentucky has the top-ranked recruiting class ever and the coach is insisting his young Wildcats have a long way to go.
If this talented eight-man freshman class that includes six McDonald's All-Americans jells according to plan, the journey could include a Southeastern Conference championship.
As it is, the Wildcats will begin No. 1 with monumental expectations, including talk of a ninth national championship and possibly an undefeated season.
Calipari isn't going that far, but does believe Kentucky has "a chance to be one of the best teams in the country."
At the very least they should surpass the accomplishments of last year's highly touted squad that went 21-12 (12-6 SEC) and lost an opening-round NIT game at Robert Morris.
Leading this talented group of newcomers are McDonald's selections Julius Randle, James Young, Dakari Johnson, identical twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison and Marcus Lee; the Wildcats have also added in-state standouts Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins.
Add in the front-court returns of sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein and even Calipari concedes there's potential to do something special.
"We'll be the most inexperienced team in the country, but we're really talented," Calipari said on media day. "We've got great size and speed and skill. Will we be a great defensive team and rebounding team, and will we share the ball?
"If we do that, we have a chance to be one of the best teams in the country."
For all the hype surrounding the new guys, having Poythress and Cauley-Stein back as sophomores might be the key to any championship aspirations for Kentucky.
Both players say there was room for improvement in their games so rather than follow Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin into the NBA draft last summer, they returned for more seasoning and a national championship run.
"It was definitely the best decision for me, given how the year ended," said Cauley-Stein, who averaged 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season. "There were a lot of things I needed to work on such as rebounding, moving my feet, going to the basket."
Poythress said he had to mature and become more assertive. Facing top-flight teammates in practice has helped on both counts. Poythress and Cauley-Stein also are assuming leadership roles on a team that will need cohesion to fulfill its goals.
"For whatever reason we didn't come together last season and maybe it was because we didn't have a leader," Poythress said. "So, me and Willie decided to step up and be leaders. But everybody needs to step this year."
Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Kentucky begins the season:
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Life is definitely good for Calipari with two 7-footers in Cauley-Stein and Johnson. The Wildcats are in good hands with Cauley-Stein showing more confidence and fluidity and Johnson displaying a physicality that has NBA scouts raving. Both are obviously benefiting from going against each other daily in practice, and Calipari smiled when he said, "both are going to play. They don't have to worry about it."
YOUNG SURPRISES: Six-foot-6 swingman James Young might emerge as the star of this heralded rookie class. Each practice is revealing something different about Young, who can shoot and drive, and he has displayed impressive defensive skills even though Calipari hasn't fully installed the defense. "I wasn't a big defensive player in high school, so once I got here coaches got on me about my defense and I had to step it up," Young said.
UNSUNG WILLIS: The Mt. Washington, Ky., native has been somewhat overlooked in the hoopla over all those high school All-Americans. But 6-9, 205-pound forward has impressed Calipari and his high-profile teammates with his skills and toughness. Wiry, quick and a smooth shooter, Willis just needs to bulk up. Still, his lean frame hasn't stopped him from mixing it up in practice and he figures to contribute as a freshman.
NO IDLE CHATTER: On-court communication won't be an issue with a group that clearly has established a comfort zone with each other. Whether it's because the freshmen competed against each other in high school or because many of the Wildcats used the summer to get acquainted, the improved chemistry is apparent. "We have a pretty good feeling about what each other can do," Randle said.
EARLY TESTS: Once again, John Calipari has scheduled several tough nonconference games to see how his squad stacks up. The docket begins Nov. 12 against No. 2 Michigan State in Chicago; vs. No. 25 Baylor in Arlington, Texas on Dec. 6; and at No. 12 North Carolina eight days later. There's also the annual showdown against in-state rival and defending national champion Louisville on Dec. 28. And in a comically ironic twist, the Wildcats will even host Robert Morris on Nov. 17 in a rematch against the team that upset them in last year's NIT.