After finishing the 2015-16 season with 27 wins, a share of the SEC regular season title and an SEC tournament crown, the Kentucky Wildcats return with designs on winning the program’s ninth national title. As expected under head coach John Calipari the Wildcats have lost key contributors to the NBA, with Jamal Murray being a first round selection and both Tyler Ulis and Skal Labissiere being second-round draft picks. For many programs losing three quality options, especially two players in Murray and Ulis who combine to average 37.3 points per game with the latter also being the team leader, would be extremely difficult to overcome.
But Kentucky isn’t “many programs,” and under Calipari one highly regarded recruiting class is followed by another the next season. Kentucky’s six-member freshman class has five five-star prospects led by guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk and power forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, and it’s ranked right there with Duke for the best in the country entering the 2016-17 season. Add that group to returnees such as guard Isaiah Briscoe and forward Derek Willis, and Kentucky has the talent needed to play deep into March.
Here’s an early look at the Wildcats’ roster, with their regular season beginning at home against Stephen F. Austin November 11th.
Kentucky’s Projected Starters
G: De’Aaron Fox (Freshman) The Houston native finished his senior season ranked sixth in the Class of 2016 according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. Standing at 6-foot-3, Fox is one of the most athletic players in the freshman class and he gives Kentucky more size and athleticism at the point guard spot. However in replacing the departed Ulis, Fox has some big shoes to fill when it comes to the intangible and leadership Ulis provided.
Ulis was lauded throughout the 2015-16 season for his leadership, serving as an extension of Calipari on the court for a team in need of a leader. That void is the biggest question Kentucky has to address going into the 2016-17 season, and Fox will be one of the players asked to help lead the way.
G: Isaiah Briscoe (Sophomore; 9.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.1 apg) Speaking of the leadership void, Briscoe is a candidate to grab the reins. With a season under his belt, Briscoe serves as an elder statesman on this team (as funny as that may sound to some). He’s been more vocal during the team’s practices to start the season, as evidenced during the team’s NBA combine on Sunday. Also notable from the combine was Briscoe’s improved shooting motion, which should help the New Jersey native post better shooting numbers (13.5% 3PT, 46.0% FT) in 2016-17 than he did as a freshman.
G: Malik Monk (Freshman) Ranked 11th in the Class of 2016 according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, Monk picked Kentucky over remaining in his home state and playing for Mike Anderson at Arkansas (his brother Marcus played football there). In Monk, Kentucky adds an incredibly athletic 6-foot-4 guard who’s at his best in the open floor. Getting Monk to be under control while playing with the speed and explosive athleticism that he brings to the table has been the early point of emphasis for Calipari in the team’s practices.
“His feet move fast, so does his mind,” Calipari said during the team’s media day Thursday. “We’re trying to slow his mind down a little bit. But that’s all time.”
F: Wenyen Gabriel (Freshman) Ranked 14th in the Class of 2016 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, the 6-foot-9 Gabriel is an athletic prospect capable of playing either forward spot. Gabriel’s greatest strength right now is his ability as a defender, as he can defend either in the paint or on the perimeter. And with this team setting up to be very active defensively in hopes of forcing turnovers and getting out in the open floor, Gabriel may be the best choice at a spot where Kentucky has multiple options to choose from.
F: Edrice “Bam” Adebayo (Freshman) A preseason first team All-SEC selection, the 6-foot-10 Adebayo is a powerful post presence who finishes above the rim with authority. Adebayo runs the floor well, and defensively he’s good as a help-side defender who can both block and alter shots. And given Kentucky’s lack of a physical post presence a year ago, Adebayo would have been a good fit for that squad as well. He’ll get plenty of minutes this season, and Kentucky has multiple players capable of giving Adebayo a breather as well.
Kentucky’s Predicted Bench
G: Dominique Hawkins (Senior; 2.3 ppg) Hawkins played an average of just 9.2 minutes per game last season, but that doesn’t mean he’s a limited contributor. Throughout his career Hawkins has remained ready to contribute, and he’ll be a positive influence on a team that while incredibly gifted isn’t all that experienced. Hawkins is a very good perimeter defender, which should get him onto the court when the likes of Briscoe, Fox and Monk need a break.
G: Mychal Mulder (Senior; 0.5 ppg, 1.1 rpg) A junior college transfer lauded for his shooting ability, Mulder was unable to crack the Kentucky rotation last season. He played in 24 of a possible 36 games, averaging just 3.8 minutes per contest and scoring a total of 12 points on the year. Minutes will once again be hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean Mulder can’t make an impact as a shooter off the bench.
F: Derek Willis (Senior; 7.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg) The 6-foot-9 Willis made ten starts in SEC play for Kentucky last season, and it was during that period that the Wildcats began to figure some things out offensively. Willis’ ability as a perimeter shooter helped Kentucky improve its spacing offensively, not only giving the guards better driving lanes to the basket but also giving the team a consistent shooter at the four. Willis shot 44.2 percent from three last year, and that ability to provide spacing will make him a valuable reserve.
F: Sacha Killeya-Jones (Freshman) Ranked 24th in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, the former Virginia commit is no slouch at all. But in looking at the overall talent in Kentucky’s 2016 recruiting haul, Killeya-Jones seems to be flying under the radar. A 6-foot-10 forward, Killeya-Jones struggled with a nagging knee issue early in practice is back to full strength. He’ll see plenty of time of the floor due to his length and athleticism.
F: Tai Wynyard (Redshirt Freshman) The New Zealand native joined the Kentucky program at the end of the fall semester last season, but ultimately it was decided that Wynyard would be best served taking a redshirt. At 6-foot-10, 254 pounds, Wynyard can be a physical presence in the front court off the bench this season. And given the options ahead of him, Wynyard faces a tough battle for playing time.
F: Isaac Humphries (Sophomore; 1.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg) Kentucky’s front court struggles last season opened the door for others to step up, with Derek Willis being the biggest beneficiary. Humphries, a 7-footer out of Australia, saw increased playing time during SEC play which included a six-point, 12-rebound, two-block performance in an overtime loss at Texas A&M. As is the case with Wynyard, Kentucky’s improved front court depth and talent will make it tough for Humphries to earn major minutes this season. But he can be a valuable reserve, especially when considering what he learned as a freshman.
Kentucky’s Remaining Players
G Brad Calipari
G Jonny David
G Dillon Pulliam
Calipari, David and Pulliam are all non-scholarship players, with Calipari also being the head coach’s son. While playing will likely be scarce, the value of Calipari, David and Pulliam will come in practices as they’ll be asked to give the key contributors a good look when it comes to game preparation (scout team).
Kentucky Coaching Staff
Head coach: John Calipari (Eighth season; 620-185 career record; 27-9 2015-16 record)
Assistant coaches: Kenny Payne, Tony Barbee, Joel Justus (special assistant to the head coach)