Kentucky fans know by now that John Calipari likes a certain kind of roster. Looking through his history dating back to Memphis, his rosters often include terrific athletes whose athleticism may sometimes come at the cost of shooting ability.
Think Liggins, Kidd-Gilchrist, Poythress, and Briscoe – all good players in their own right. These guys may not have ever been great dynamic scorers, but they filled important roles on the defensive end and could take advantage of their size to get to the basket.
This year’s team is similar in that way. Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt are spectacular athletes who will bring a whole lot to the basketball court. They just aren't known for their shooting touch.
Calipari’s good teams have also featured great point guards running the show. Brandon Knight, Andrew Harrison in 2014, Tyler Ulis in 2016, and De’Aaron Fox last season were the deciding factor in their team’s ultimate success. We’ve seen what can happen when a Calipari team lacks a great point guard (is that Ryan Harrow’s music!?) and it led to an NIT loss against Bobby Mo’.
The greatest Calipari teams have had both of the above and a dominating low post presence. Pairing dynamic point guards and versatile forwards with big burly beasts in the paint have proven to be Cal’s master stroke. Rose, Douglas-Roberts, and Dorsey fit the billing during his best year at Memphis.
Wall, Bledsoe, and Cousins brought the recipe to Rupp. Harrison/Ulis, Lyles/Booker, and Towns/Johnson showed that you can have the components in two entirely separate units (man, that team).
The National Championship winning 2012 Cats didn't follow this exact formula – Anthony Davis follows his own rules – but you can see the trend. Great point guard, role-filling wings, low post presence.
The 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats are shaping up to the most unusual, untraditional, and several other words beginning with un– of all Calipari teams to date. The roles have been flipped. The point guard and center positions are no longer the front page of the opponent’s scouting reports. Nor are the athletic wings the role players of the team.
This year’s Cats are filled with long, versatile forwards who project to be the emphasis of the offensive and defensive game plan. Point guard Quade Green will likely be a role player whose job is to make sure the hungry mouths are fed. Big man Nick Richards isn't going to be a scorer, but has his own role as a shot blocker and rebounder.
This team will rise and fall with its wings. In transition, Diallo and Kevin Knox should be a terror. On defense, Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington should be able to switch everything. Versatility is the special sauce of this group. By the end of the year, the sound of Calipari whispering the word “positionless” will echo in our sleep.
The makeup of the roster is clearly a break in the usual Calipari mold, but the group is unprecedented in another way. Ahh, experience. The term is used every year by talking heads to hype up college basketball darlings like Villanova and Wichita State. With so much yearning for experience, especially in this sport, I think that its importance to a basketball team has become inflated over the years.
If anything, Calipari has proven that experience isn't that necessary for a team overall. However, he’s almost always had a vital player or two that had spent a year as a heavily featured piece in his system. Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller, the twins, Willie Cauley-Stein and recently Isaiah Briscoe were hugely important to the Wildcats’ success after returning for a sophomore or junior (dare I say senior?) season.
You probably know by now that the leading returnee of last year’s group is Wenyen Gabriel. Maybe you didn't know that in the last seven games, beginning with the start of the SEC tournament, Gabriel only logged more than 10 minutes once. He scored a total of five points in that span.
The last time a Kentucky team’s most experienced returning player averaged less than 18 minutes per game the season prior was the 2013 team and Kyle Wiltjer. Even still they had Jarrod Polson and a grad-transfer in Julius Mays who had played three years in the ACC and Horizon League. This year’s group won't lose to Bobby Mo’ in the NIT, but it goes to show that even Cal hasn't been faced with coaching this much inexperience.
The Cats will be fascinating to watch this season. Fans have been calling for a true small forward ever since MKG. Now we have two. The enigma that is Diallo has left us wondering what he’d look like in blue ever since he joined the team midway through last season. Now he’s the man.
There are six players on the roster between 6’5” and 6’9”. Wings on wings on wings. How will Cal use his rotation? He has at least ten players that are good enough to get real minutes. Will he platoon? (Nah. But he could.) Will he play nine guys come March or tighten it down to six or seven?
Cal has a bevy of options with this group and will be able to mix and match lineups to create all kinds of different play styles on the floor. Finding out which groups work the best together will be the challenge, and they will lose some games while he figures it out. Patience may be required.
When it comes down to it, the 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats have depth. They have a fallout shelter’s supply worth of versatile hybrid wings who will run the show. They also have questions at the low post and a limited athlete set to man the point.
They have only one guy to have played any real minutes last season, who by year’s end was in the doghouse worse than Coach when he forgot to play Brad in the closing minutes of a sure win. Most people feel pretty good about this group, but has there ever been as little known about a team before Madness?
Duke and Arizona almost certainly have more talented starting lineups. They don't have the stable of horses Calipari has at his disposal. If it all comes together, Kentucky will have the most complete roster 1 through 10 in the country this season. In theory, there should be fresh legs ready to come off the bench at all times and give good minutes without being a liability.
Whether or not someone can become “the guy” late in games might determine whether or not a ninth trophy finds its way to Lexington. Knox and Diallo have the potential to be go-to guys, or will the Cats use their numbers to win close games by committee?
However it plays out, I’m excited to learn about this team. It is truly unlike any before them.