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Kentucky Basketball: Ruminations On The 2015 Recruiting Class And Next Season's Prospects

Kentucky has sufficient talent to win it all next season, but their margin for error is thin.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

There was an article the other day on NBC Sports by Scott Phillips noting the "long and strange" recruitment of Jaylen Brown. Phillips points out the fact that Cuonzo Martin is a good recruiter (but we knew that) and that the loss of Brown really hurt North Carolina (possible, but right now they are a mess). But he also wonders at the end if Calipari’s miss of Brown signals something significant:

I’m not saying Calipari can’t reach more Final Fours or win more titles at Kentucky, but no college basketball team has ever gone 38-0 and even that team fell short of the title game. Kentucky has made the Final Four in four of the past five seasons — largely with one-and-done players. This 2015 recruiting class is underwhelming compared to the past few classes, especially after seven Wildcats left early for the 2015 NBA Draft. The 2015-16 roster now also seems underwhelming by Kentucky’s recent standards and only one title came from those recent Wildcat juggernauts.

Okay, well, a little context here. 2015 is underwhelming compared to 2013’s recruiting class for sure, when Calipari landed Julius Randle & Co. But part of the greatness of that class was landing a set of twins, a relative rarity in college basketball and a straight-up 2-for-one deal that almost nobody gets. He backed that up with a 2014 class that was surely as loaded, but don’t forget that 2012 (Nerlens Noel & Co.) was, in my view, inferior to 2015 as incoming freshmen, mainly due to a lack of balance and shooting. Furthermore, with only Kyle Wiltjer returning from the 2012 championship team, it needed to be significantly better shooting-wise to be successful.

I don’t really consider the 2015 class to be a weak one — in fact, I really like Skal Labissier with his combination of post and face-up game, something we haven’t really utilized well at Kentucky. Isaiah Briscoe is a bruising backcourt stud who may be the most perfect example of the nebulous "combo guard" descriptor since Chauncey Billups. But the Wildcats do have some question marks:

  • Labissiere’s eligibility, although he seems certain he will qualify;

  • The front court is largely dependent on Alex Poythress not only returning 100% from the ACL he suffered last year, but also on his skills development in the off-season in the area of ballhandling and perimeter shooting consistency;

  • Lack of proven Division I 3-point shooting is a worry. Kentucky has some in Tyler Ulis, but he’s unable to get his own shot. Mychal Mulder should be able to help, but we’ve never seen him against Division I competition. Charles Matthews is not known as a shooter and Briscoe is streaky, although he can get his own shot at will;

  • Lack of depth in the front line. Kentucky needs guys with big holes in their game to step up:

    • Marcus Lee with virtually no discernible offensive game other than as an athletic dunker;
    • Alex Poythress’ aforementioned issues;
    • Derek Willis’ lack of physicality, consistency, and ballhandling.

None of these problems are insurmountable as long as things go right, but the problem that we have in the upcoming season is that the margin for error is much slimmer than last season. It was also slim in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons, but it really helps to have three players coming back who have been significant contributors at times. With that said, there are definitely pitfalls that must be navigated, any one of which could put next year’s team in a very difficult position, and I don't even want to think about injuries after the last three seasons.

Finally this:

Are these spring recruiting misses merely an outlier, or the end of an era of recruiting dominance for Calipari and Kentucky? Did the platoon system Calipari used during the 2014-15 season mean that elite players in the Class of 2015 didn’t want to sacrifice minutes and shots to be apart of Kentucky’s program?

I have no idea and neither do you.  My sense is that this is more of an outlier than a trend, but it could be a little of both. Calipari may never again reach the heights of last season, but we already know that isn’t necessary to win NCAA Tournament championships. What is necessary is a good mix of talent, inside and out. Next year, assuming no major setbacks, would seem to have most of that, especially if Mulder is as advertised and Poythress finally develops consistency from outside and enough ballhandling to get him where he needs to go.

A final point:  One thing this class does have in spades is ballhandling and passing.  Both Briscoe and Matthews are excellent ballhandlers and passers, and both are good rebounders from the guard spot and both can play the point.  Combine that with the crafty Ulis, and taking care of the ball should be a major strength of next season's team, at least on the perimeter.