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LEXINGTON, Ky. – This year's Kentucky roster is unusually deep even for a program used to having an abundance of talent.
Besides returning six regulars from a freshman-laden squad that lost 60-54 to Connecticut in the NCAA championship, the Wildcats added four prized recruits to form a deep nucleus and begin another year with high expectations for a ninth national title.
Coach John Calipari has been cautious on projections, noting that his newcomers haven't played a game and he's not used to having so many players back for their second and third seasons. But he relishes the luxury of having so much height, quickness and experience to the point that he's planning to use a combination of players in a platoon system.
"The good news is that other guy we start playing against is going to have to figure out what these 10 guys or 12 are and how one unit plays versus how another unit plays," Calipari said.
"We're ahead by the simple fact I've got guys coming back for the first time. Now all of a sudden there's a little less anxiety that bleeds down to the freshmen and makes me less anxious because I see that guys are comfortable. Then it becomes, OK, you've got to compete at a higher level."
Kentucky's returnees say they are ready to take that next step.
The biggest offseason surprise was 6-foot-6 twin sophomore guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison and junior 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein chose to come back to Lexington instead of entering the NBA draft as expected. Their decisions make the Wildcats legitimate title contenders, especially with forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee and 7-footer Dakari Johnson also back.
"We are far ahead of last year," Andrew Harrison said. "We worked so hard in the offseason that I feel like we have confidence."
Kentucky welcomes forwards Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, and guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. As Calipari tweaks his rotations, players seem focused on making the most of their minutes rather than how many they get.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem because the way we can play with more (guys) playing fewer minutes, it's going to make you look better, for one thing," Cauley-Stein said of platooning. "The intensity of the game is going to be crazy."
Here are other things to look for as Kentucky begins the season Nov. 14 vs. Grand Canyon:
LONG AND SHORT OF IT: Kentucky's main asset is its length, symbolized in the middle with Cauley-Stein and Johnson. The Wildcats also have Towns (6-11), Lyles (6-10), Lee (6-9) and Poythress (6-8) in the frontcourt, while the backcourt features the Harrisons and Booker, who's also 6-6. At the other end of the spectrum is 5-9 speedster Ulis, who can jump as well.
FULL STRENGTH: Cauley-Stein's healthy again following surgery to repair an ankle injury that sidelined him for the final three tournament games and all of the summer. Lyles is back after missing the summer with a lower leg injury.
THE OTHER WILDCATS: While opponents will get a good glimpse of Kentucky's two-platoon system, reserve guard Dominique Hawkins and forward Derek Willis are why the Wildcats' roster goes 12 deep. Hawkins crafted a role last season as a defensive specialist who also provides energy. After showing flashes of his ability to go to the basket, Willis figures to get more floor time as a sophomore.
NEW ASSISTANTS: Barry Rohrssen has replaced Orlando Antigua, who left to become South Florida's head coach and took former special assistant Rod Strickland with him. Former Auburn head coach Tony Barbee has filled Strickland's role, reuniting him with the coach he played under at UMass and worked with at several stops in his career.
MARQUEE GAMES: As usual, the Wildcats have several high-profile non-conference games before taking on the SEC. Kentucky will face Kansas on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis and UCLA on Dec. 20 in Chicago. The Wildcats also host Providence (Nov. 30) and North Carolina (Dec. 13) and travel to Louisville for their annual in-state showdown on Dec. 27