EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky basketball was picked to win the SEC again this year. The Wildcats are ranked No. 4 nationally in the preseason coaches poll. The logic behind both votes is simple: John Calipari reloads and remakes his team every year, and almost every time it turns into a title contender.
Kentucky has reached the Elite Eight six times in eight seasons under Calipari, so you wouldn’t be crazy to bet the Cats will become one of the handful of teams capable of winning it all again by March. However, allow me to offer the Big Blue Nation a friendly piece of advice: Temper your early expectations for this team, because it’ll likely be a bumpy ride.
No, this is not some knee-jerk reaction to the largely meaningless scrimmage we saw Friday night — nor is it clickbait, so don’t even start — rather a real warning I’ve heard repeatedly over the last few weeks as more and more people get eyes on these 2017-18 Cats in practice. They’re freakishly long and athletic and talented, yes, but clueless is a word that comes up a lot, too.
“We stink,” Calipari said Tuesday morning on Kentucky Sports Radio, which of course is an exaggeration, but perhaps not relative to sky-high expectations.
Here’s betting Kentucky won’t look like the best team in the SEC or a top-five team nationally when the season begins. And maybe not at any point. I’m already on record picking Florida to win the league, but if the Gators don’t, Texas A&M might. One source close to UK’s program confirmed that I am not crazy in thinking that.
There could be some frustrating nights in the nonconference schedule, too, and we’re not just talking Kansas, UCLA, Louisville and West Virginia, all of which will be enormous challenges for a young team. I’m told there is also some angst about early games against teams like Vermont, Harvard and Virginia Tech.
The first rule of those games is do no harm to your NCAA Tournament resume, but they could be problematic for these Cats.
Because for all the absurd heights and wingspans and vertical leaps on this roster full of former 5-star recruits, there is very little experience. Or defensive buy-in. Or offensive fluidity. Or conditioning, apparently, given the number of players who cramped up during the scrimmage.
“This will be, more than any year I’ve coached here, a process,” Calipari said on KSR, and that is likely not an exaggeration.
Kentucky, with eight freshmen, three sophomores and zero juniors or seniors on scholarship, is the least-experienced team in any major conference. The Cats return just 7 percent of their “possession-minutes” from last season, per ESPN’s John Gasaway, which is fewest in the country and second-fewest in the Calipari era.
The 2012-13 team returned just 6 percent of possession-minutes from the national championship season, although that team added veteran transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays — and still lost in the first round of the NIT. Which is to say: There is young and then there is painfully young, and this team could be the latter.
Calipari and Kentucky fans just have to hope these are growing pains, a la 2013-14. That team had more experience than this one but did start five freshmen at times, and it was ugly for most of the season. Those Cats lost five of their first seven games away from Rupp Arena and had 10 losses by the time they opened the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed.
What looked like a lost season turned into one of the most enjoyable runs in UK history, all the way to the national championship game. That’s one of four Final Fours under Calipari. That’s one of the reasons Kentucky is picked to win the SEC again and will begin this season ranked No. 4
Past performance suggests it is not unreasonable to expect the Wildcats will be contenders eventually, but consider yourself warned that it is probably unrealistic to believe they’ll look like it any time soon.