The 2015-16 version of the Kentucky Basketball team is going to be very different from last year's team, which is understood. What I think is going to surprise many people is just how good they are going to be.
Coach Cal has essentially "struck out" this spring with his recruiting targets. I know they have Jamal Murray still out there but for arguments sake, let us assume the worst. To get some perspective though, the worst being a top 10 team with the #3 recruiting class and the #1 player in Skal Labissiere.
Watered Down Field
The first reason that comes to mind when wondering about our chances next season is that it seems to be a somewhat down season ahead of us. Not necessarily overall, but there is not a team or two at the top expected to dominate.
This year was of course Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Duke's year to dominate. I do not believe there is any one team next season that would be able to beat any of that trio. With so many 2015 recruits spread out across the country on mediocre teams and so many underclassmen leaving, the organization chart for 2016 NCAA title contenders is as flat as a mountain in Kansas.
Another reason I believe we will exceed expectations, ironically happens to be my biggest reason... 5'9" mighty mite Tyler Ulis. While Ulis will certainly be part of any discussion regarding the best overall point guards in America next season; he will actually be one of, if not the best pure point guard.
At any point, during any game next season, nobody on the floor will have a higher basketball IQ than Ulis will. I wrote this article last June about why Big Blue Nation would love Ulis; I think we will see an exponential manifestation next season. Ulis' leadership is another reason I think we will be better next season; I address that in-depth later.
Alex Poythress may end up being the most underrated player in America next season. I know for his eight regular season games, the Bahamas "Beast mode" Alex did not carry over. What you have to remember though, is in the Bahamas he was able to play the 4-spot with Cauley-Stein and Lyles missing. During those six games against professionals and grown men, Alex went for a cool 12 points, 6 rebounds per game, and shot 75% from the floor in only 19 minutes per game.
Biggest thing I'm tracking with UK's platoon system? How will Alex Poythress produce as a 3. Looked like a super Glue Guy as a 4 in Bahamas.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) October 6, 2014
Alex Poythress' per-40 minute averages through four games in the Bahamas: 30.5 points, 14.5 rebounds.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) August 15, 2014
I am confident that Coach Cal will avoid putting Alex in a position to fail this season, allowing him to play his natural role and unleash his beast mode. Prior to the 2015 season Chad Ford had Alex rated as his 28th best NBA prospect and likely #1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns said Poythress was by far his favorite on the team to watch operate. In just his eight games, Poythress had 12 blocks... 6'10" Trey Lyles had 16 all season.
Relishing the Underdog Role (relative to the last two years, of course)
John Calipari got to where he is by bucking the odds, nobody loves playing the "us against the world" card more than he does. This team will be the perfect embodiment of that; my guess is he is already pushing that narrative to his guys.
They will hear the naysayers opine on the "beginning of the end," of the Calipari era of dominance. I would even be willing to bet Pat Forde has an article already written. Tyler Ulis comes into play here as well; he is the poster boy for underdog role. I am guessing he LOVES it when he hears the word "can't."
This section I will need to preface with the fact that I am certainly not disparaging last year's team. I will make a case for why this year we will see better leadership and how it will make us better than some expect.
However, last year's season and this coming season are completely independent of one other. It is a fool's errand to justify criticizing the leadership of a 38-1 team. Not to mention, one that only lost due to execution and end of game strategy against one of only two teams in America that could have beaten them.
Tyler Ulis will be the leader of this team; he will be the floor general manipulating opponents and teammates into positions for Kentucky to win. John Calipari went as far as texting Ulis to tell him that he was going to build a team around him soon after seven Wildcats declared for the NBA. Everything Calipari does is calculated; this was his way of making it clear that Tyler will run this team.
Calipari said he texted Ulis and said "I'm going to build a team" around him. Expects Poythress back but gathering NBA info on him.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) April 6, 2015
Ulis is as tough as they come, he famously almost picked a fight with 6'11" 270 pound DeMarcus Cousins on a summer recruiting trip. We all witnessed him take an elbow to the eye and not miss a beat on defense while blood was rolling down his face.
Undoubtedly every Wildcat in that locker room was distraught after the loss to Wisconsin, but Ulis seems to take it personal.
"It's very tough because we basically went the whole season winning all those games for nothing," Tyler Ulis said.
Now, the season certainly was not a waste, but I LOVE having my leader thinking that way. Having that kind of passion in achieving the ultimate goal is a requirement for any great leader. Ulis will have no problem calling out a derelict this coming season.
He is the kind of guy that will make Coach Cal's job easier because he will be doing a lot of on the floor coaching and positioning before Cal even has to. No disrespect to Andrew Harrison, but I am guessing that Ulis will be on another level when it comes to leading a team.
Alex Poythress coming back as a senior is also a tremendous factor in the internal leadership of this team. Coach Cal has been known to engage in hyperbole on occasion, but he usually will not reach Pitino-esque levels so there is usually some truth in his hyperbole.
I say that because during the Bahamas tour, Cal compared Alex to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Cal was not putting a direct correlation to the two, nor should anyone else for that matter.
However, Cal is correct in implying Poythress has shades of MKG in him, his ability to do things physically that few can, and his willingness to be that glue guy who does anything and everything needed is certainly within Poythress.
I like Poythress taking over the de facto leadership role that Willie Trill Cauley-Stein had. Do not get me wrong, I loved the three years that Willie gave all of Big Blue Nation. We are in debt to him, but his sometimes-flippant stretches of play hurt this year's team more than you may think. I like Alex to be a rock this coming season.
We all witnessed something truly special last season; the collection of talent and camaraderie of that team is the stuff of legend. We may never see that again in our lifetimes. We can never really compare another team or season to the 2014-15 version of the Wildcats.
What I do think we will see in the 2015-16 version is a top-10 caliber team that will be pushed into a top-3 tier due to the leadership of Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress. We could be in for one of those years where the team puts it together at the right time... hopefully UConn is not in our way this time.