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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: What They’re Saying, Season Preview Edition

Members of the media weigh in with their predictions on the upcoming season.

NCAA Basketball: Canisius at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball season is upon us, and the buzz around this year’s Kentucky Wildcats Men’s Basketball team is palpable, as usual. Coach John Calipari gave an interview in late August previewing the upcoming season, and tonight various media outlets have been releasing their takes on the newest batch of Wildcats.

Jerry Tipton of the Herald-Leader points out that while Calipari is used to relying on young talent, it is never an easy process.

Calipari has led Kentucky to unprecedented success (four Final Fours in a five-year period had never been done by UK) while largely depending on freshmen. Of the top three scorers on each of the Final Four teams in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, nine of the 12 were freshmen. A freshman led the scoring in seven of Calipari’s previous eight UK teams (the exception being sophomore Aaron Harrison in 2014-15).

So the 2017-18 season will be same old, same old, right?

Of course, Calipari’s response was meant to remind everyone that this is a process.

“That’s like saying, ‘OK, you’ve been through a root canal, you can do this again, right?’” Calipari said in his preseason press conference. “‘You’ll be better prepared. You’ll do fine, right? You know what’s coming.’ No! No, it’s still going to be painful.”

This may be an especially “painful” process since this will be Calipari’s youngest basketball team ever. Given all of the freshmen-heavy squads we have seen during his tenure at Kentucky, let that fact sink in for a moment.

Metz Camfield from Coachcal.com puts the youth of this team in perspective in discussing what it lost, statistically, from last season.

Kentucky lost each of its top seven scorers from last season’s Elite Eight group. Together, they accounted for 92.6 percent of the Wildcats’ points. Similarly, more than 76 percent of Kentucky’s rebounding is gone.

Those stats not enough?

How about the fact that Kentucky will have to replace 88.3 percent of its minutes from a season ago? Eight of the Wildcats’ top nine players in terms of minutes played are gone, including each of their top six.

Those numbers are astounding. While many fans (and rivals) joke about Kentucky having a brand new team every year, this time it will not be far from the truth. Thankfully, the group of new players is incredibly talented. And regardless of their youth, Calipari is not interested in their excuses. Camfield went on to explain how Cal handles those excuses.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has a list of excuses he’s heard many times throughout his Hall of Fame career, so he writes each of them out on a board to try to save everybody’s time.

There’s the classic excuse that involves the player’s girlfriend. There’s the “I’m sick” excuse. Perhaps the player is a little banged up and wants to use that as a crutch more than actual crutches.

In total, Calipari will write out 10 of these excuses on the board and number each of them. When a player needs or wants to use one, Coach Cal tells him to pick a number.

Kentucky lost each of its top seven scorers from last season’s team. Together, they accounted for 92.6 percent of the Wildcats’ points.

“Look, I don’t have time to hear your whole excuse. Just give me a number,” Calipari will say to the player. “Then I’ll tell them you can give me combinations. You can give me a three-five. It doesn’t matter, but I don’t need a whole sentence. Just give me a number so we can move on.”

Cal often relies on returning players to set the tone for the “no excuses” environment he hopes to create. And while there are not many contributors returning to this team, there is one very important “veteran” that Calipari will be relying upon.

Drew Franklin of KSR explains how excited Cal is to see how much Wenyen Gabriel has improved.

One of the stars of the offseason chatter has been returning sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, who CBSSports.com’s Jon Rothstein called, “Kentucky’s best player this summer.”

Cal helped fuel that freshman-to-sophomore hype when Gabriel was the first player he mentioned in the 50-minute preseason interview. When asked about having another freshman-laden team, Cal responded, “First of all, Wenyen’s playing way better, thank God. So, he’s not the same guy he was a year ago.”

So, don’t sleep on a second-year Wenyen Gabriel.

Since Gabriel represents almost 100% of the team’s returning minutes, points, and rebounds, Big Blue Nation had better hope he has evolved in the off-season. But what did Calipari have to say about the freshmen?

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can run the point, but he can also play off the ball. Standing at 6’6”, he gives Calipari an lengthy option in the back court that he has rarely had.

Stopping short of making a direct comparison, Calipari believes that Quade Green has a Tyler Ulis-like skill-set. He has been surprised by Green’s speed, and loves his leadership. Calipari gave KSTV some exclusive comments on Green as well.

They were also able to catch up with Hamidou Diallo and his teammates to discuss his return to Lexington.

Diallo will prove vital to Kentucky’s success, particularly on the defensive end. Drawing comparisons to defensive specialist DeAndre Liggins, Calipari also pointed out how dangerous Diallo could be in a zone.

“Well, this year, again, I think from Day 1 we have to have a zone,” Cal said. “Start breaking it down, start adding it and then start working on it, because we’re going to have to play against it. If we can play against our own zone, I’m imagining we can play against anybody else’s. I mean, we could play with Nick [Richards] or you could play with one of those other bigs or we could play with all 6-9 guys. You could play with Hami and Quade, who is better than I thought he was, which is a good thing — I knew he was good but there were some things because of his size I was worried about, but he’s fine — Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] at 6-6, you could have two 6-6 guards and three 6-9 guys. What?”

With the speed and length of this group, it is not surprising that playing zone defense will be an option. However, I think many are surprised that Calipari has come around to it so quickly.

Now that Coach Calipari’s words are out there for public consumption, there will be no shortage of inference and analysis. However, everything he said during this preseason press session can be summed in up this old reliable quote he shares at the beginning of every season.

“None of the guys are where they need to be,” Calipari emphasized. “This is going to be one of those season-long [processes]; we’ve been through it before. It’s hard. It’s hard to be patient for me and our fans and everybody else, but you’re just going to have to be. Because we’re not even going to know exactly how we’re going to be playing in February, in March. We won’t. But we’re talented, we got a great group of kids.”

Every season is indeed a process. Due to the extreme youth of this group, though, this ride promises to be even more predictable than most.