It's high time we talk Kentucky. It might seem like UK gets most of the attention in college hoops -- and certainly it gets plenty -- but the 2017 preseason has been different. Nationally, this clowder of Cats seem to be getting less media coverage than most other October-into-Novembers in the John Calipari era.
There's a reason for that, and it's not just because the FBI flipped college hoops' universe into a dizzy state in late September.
Beyond Kentucky state lines a lot of people in college basketball are wondering what to make of a team that has undergone remarkable roster turnover. Yes, Kentucky is getting respect with high placement in preseason rankings (bothand with the earlier this week) but that seems to be born from a trust in Calipari's coaching combined with expectation from the second-ranked 2017 recruiting class.
Collegiately speaking though, big-picture, there isn't a player wearing Kentucky threads that has proved anything yet.
Calipari of course always keeps his roster youthful and ready to deploy a freshman lottery-pick-to-be, or three, but the 2017-18 UK crew is a new adventure unto itself. When the college basketball season begins Nov. 10, the average age of players on Kentucky's roster will be 19.43 years. According to research by Kentucky, only Chattanooga (19.31) will have a younger team this season.
And with youth comes inexperience. With eight freshmen and no seniors on the roster, Cal has never had a team this green. The only "veteran" on this club with any real minutes experience is a sophomore, Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged less than nine minutes when it mattered most: Kentucky's final seven games last March.
It's a good sign that a freakishly fun and crazy-young Kentucky team last season got a No. 2 seed and came within a Luke Maye buzzer-beater of reaching the Final Four. But this roster is much different -- there are no De'Aaron Fox- or Malik Monk-type players -- and there are valid reasons to be skeptical of Kentucky's ability to win an SEC title, to get a top seed in the Big Dance and to make the Final Four.
It's also interesting that not one Kentucky player cracked the top 20 on our list of. That is an aberration. (And we of course reserve the right to eventually be wrong!)
This could work tremendously -- or it might bust. Let's examine the biggest points of concern with Kentucky. Here's what's on the table for Calipari, who has perhaps his most interesting coaching challenge yet in Lexington.
1. Injuries are already delaying UK's timeline
Jarred Vanderbilt is a really fun freshman wing, but he'll miss at least the first 25 percent of Kentucky's schedule after suffering a foot injury in the preseason. Initial expectation was the likelihood of surgery would postpone Vanderbilt's debut to early-to-mid January. Now, since Vanderbilt won't require surgery, he could return a month ahead of schedule. But his injury isn't the only one. Freshman shooting guard Jemarl Baker, who should eventually become a valuable long-range shooter for the Cats, is on the pine for approximately 12 weeks after needing left knee surgery. Not a big-name guy, but he was a four-star recruit and will be someone necessary to stretch defenses.
2. Backcourt is a notch below last season's epic duo
And that is nothing against Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Monk and Fox comprised the best 1-2 backcourt combo Calipari has ever had as far as I'm concerned. Green should start over Gilgeous-Alexander at the point, but we wait and see if he is going to be that commanding freshman presence at the 1 that Kentucky has had in the past with Fox, John Wall and Marquis Teague.
Diallo is a top-10 must-see player this season. (I like how he plays with an edge.) But he's already on the wrong end of some substitution threats from Calipari because of his inability to shoot from deep. Fox was a bad long-ball guy last season too, but he was so good in basically every other area. Diallo is more disposable than that on what looks to be a lesser roster.
"Hami shot 3s and I took him out," Calipari said Monday night after Kentucky's exhibition win over Morehead State. "You're not playing that way. You're going to drive the ball or I will sub you. It's not that hard. So shoot a 3, you're coming out. He shot one, he came out. ... That's who he is. He will play that way, folks, and I love him to death, or he won't play, but he will play that way."
It's not a problem, but it speaks to the biggest issue hovering over this roster heading into the season ...
3. UK could be utterly average -- or worse -- from 3-point range
Baker's injury, Diallo's short shooting leash, a freshman-themed team laced with players 6-feet-8 and taller. It's going to be an issue for UK in a lot of games because college basketball's overall trend has moved toward more 3-point shooting and more accurate 3-point shooting.
Kentucky hit 35.3 percent of its 3s last season, ranking 155th nationally, and won in spite of its hit-or-miss attack from beyond the arc. This team has no true deep threat. It has guys who can hit the occasional long ball, but no one that comes close to the scare Monk brought to UK's offense last season. Even with Monk on the floor, 2016-17 Kentucky didn't approach B-level 3-point shooting.
"We're more of an athletic, driving, throw the ball at the basket, go rebound it, kind of team too," Calipari said after the Morehead State exhibition. "Historically, I've only had a couple teams above 37 percent. Probably two or three."
Calipari knows his coaching history well, and he's right. The 2010-11 (39.7) and '11-12 (37.8) Kentucky teams are the only ones since Cal took over in 2009 that bested 37 percent from 3. But all those other teams that were mediocre from deep had the benefit of veteran play and/or lottery-level point guards. Kentucky could be missing both those elements this season. In order to win some games you have to shoot yourself out of problems. UK looks to not have that card to play for 2017-18.
4. The rotation might be a mystery for weeks
This is a near-annual guessing game for Kentucky fans. With a glut of young talent, which starting five will be the go-to for Calipari? Green, Diallo, Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel would be my guess at who gets trotted out for the home opener against Utah Valley next Friday. If not that, perhaps Gabriel doesn't get the start -- in favor of Nick Richards or Sacha Killeya-Jons? -- but at that point Calipari is starting five freshmen.
I'm sure that will happen at some point this season, but I doubt we see it in Game 1. If anything, Kentucky's overload of power wings could put it in this odd spot where it's positionless to a fault. Vanderbilt's injury isn't a good thing at all, but at least Kentucky is built to withstand the blow because there are three other guys (Knox, Gabriel and Washington) who can step into Vanderbilt's position. All of those players will log 20-plus minutes per game as well.
With so much youth and a height disparity at the point (Green is 6-0, Gilgeous-Alexander is 6-5), Kentucky could again operate with hockey-style line changes early in the season.
5. Who rises up as the best big man?
If you're not going to be a quality 3-point shooting team, you best be able to smash the boards and own the paint. At this point, I see no player owning the combination of being as mentally aggressive and physically relentless as Bam Adebayo was last season (and even Bam got off to a slow start). Washington has a lot of promise, and he's the dark horse choice to be UK's MVP this season, but consider this: In UK's exhibition vs. Morehead State, Wildcats bigs -- Gabriel, Washington, Richards and Killeya Jones -- were outrebounded by the Eagles and had a mere 16 points and 15 boards between them. (Richards, who I have questions about, didn't grab one rebound or score a point.)
Defensively, it's a strong group that I think will grow into an elite shot-blocking squad. Kentucky forced 26 turnovers vs. Morehead State (take it with a grain of salt). Those questions about the rotation will persist so long as all the power forwards are learning to jell. And it normally takes the big guys longer to adapt, so expect Kentucky to have promising moments but inconsistent play from most of its power forwards and would-be centers.
6. The good news: Kevin Knox has arrived
I've written little about freshman Kevin Knox to this point because there's little he can't do for this UK team. He's the highest-ranked Wildcat on our. Here's some of the good stuff.
Knox should lead UK in scoring and should be nearly as fun to watch as Diallo. They'll be dynamite, no doubt about it. Knox is going to be a game-saver for UK because he can play shooting guard or either of the forward positions with destructive ease. When Calipari is fiddling with his lineups, I really hope he tinkers with how to use Knox. The one-and-done talent is not just a smooth-stroking typical small forward. He has a commanding handle, a reliable stroke, follows his shot and can find the mismatch almost every time down the floor.
Every Kentucky team has at least -- at least -- one guy that makes you say, "What is he even doing in college?" Knox will be that guy this season. He's the goods, and he's the player that helps validate Kentucky as a preseason top-10 team.
But just as Duke has never had a team this inexperienced under Mike Krzyzewski (and that team has some combustion possibility to it, I think), Calipari has a different kind of crew this season. You would be mistaken to think Kentucky is basically the same kind of club year in, year out even with five-star talent parading through. It's hard to coach a lot of talent and even harder to coach a lot of talent this young and at that school. Calipari's track record suggests this should be another 30-win season ending with a proud showing in the NCAA Tournament.
But don't forget that he has had older rosters with more proven talent than this year's team that came up well short of expectations (2013, '16). Let's hold off on the lofty immediate presumptions with this team and specifically try to avoid comparing them to the best Cal has had in Lexington. They're young, they'll be fun, but we're about to see a different kind of Kentucky.