LEXINGTON, Ky. — It has felt lately like John Calipari is bracing Kentucky basketball fans for an unusually bumpy road. That is not without good reason.
As the Wildcats prepare to launch the 2017-18 season with three games in five days, all eyes are on the last one in that stretch: No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Kansas at the Champions Classic in Chicago next week. But don’t sleep on Sunday’s game at Rupp Arena.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if Vermont were able to knock off Kentucky,” CBS Sports analyst Gary Parrish said on the latest episode of Wildcat Country, a daily UK podcast presented by SEC Country. “I don’t think I’ll predict it, but it wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world. Because if you’re going to catch them, the time to catch them early when they’re still trying to figure some things out.”
The Catamounts went 29-6 and made the NCAA Tournament last season — and they return four starters. The Wildcats lost 93 percent of their scoring from last season and have nine scholarship players available: six freshmen and three sophomores.
“Vermont is a top-80 KenPom team and they’re not going to be relying on a bunch of freshmen who’ve never played. Kentucky is going to be doing that,” said Parrish, who joined the podcast to preview the start of the college basketball season. “If [the Wildcats]get out of the non-league portion of the schedule without losing a game to an unranked team that Kentucky fans are going to flip out about, I’ll be surprised.”
Parrish said getting freshman-heavy teams isn’t as easy as Calipari has often made it look at Kentucky — and that Texas’ Shaka Smart and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo both earned new respect for that last season while struggling with their own youth movements.
“Even though all [Calipari’s] teams end up good, the teams that rely this heavily on freshmen, they struggle. Not struggle like normal programs, but they struggle relative to Kentucky/John Calipari expectations,” Parrish said. “When you’ve got a nice mixture there of sophomores or juniors, that’s when they absolutely roll through the whole schedule and look something close to unbeatable. But when the roster is but like this, there are some bumps in the road.”
On the bright side, Parrish (like this writer) can already see the makings of another Kentucky super team in 2018-19, when several of this year’s players could return and join forces with a handful of elite freshmen, a la 2014-15. If he was betting on whether this year’s Cats or next year’s will be better, Parrish said, he’d take the latter.
That isn’t to say he believes the current season is a lost cause even before it starts. Kentucky is still one of the most talented teams in America and if anyone can turn it into a Final Four contender by March, it’s Calipari.
Listen to the full 30-minute podcast with Parrish, where he talks about the dark cloud of scandal hanging over this college basketball season and breaks down which of the Wildcats he’s most excited to see. Oh, and a little fun making fun of his former colleague, Jeff Goodman, and ESPN’s absurd list of the nation’s top 50 players that excludes Kevin Knox.