Will the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats Be the Next Historically Great CBB Team?

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Will the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats Be the Next Historically Great CBB Team?
USA Today

College basketball hasn't had a dominant team since Kentucky's 2012 national championship team, and the last few seasons have shown how rare it is for such a great team to emerge in this one-and-done age.

Well, it looks like coach John Calipari might just do it again.

This revelation is based on six impressive performances during a weeklong trip to the Bahamas that concluded on Sunday. Kentucky started 5-0 and lost by one on Sunday to the Dominican Republic, but that should not sour the optimism around this team. It was the Wildcats' sixth game in eight days.

Most summer trips—which college programs are allowed to take once every four years—are an excuse to get in some extra practices, travel to a cool destination and play a bunch of patsies in the process.

Calipari put together a schedule with legitimate competition that included two games against the Dominican Republic national team—the first of which UK won by 12—and another two games against Chalons-Reims, a professional team in the top division in France. Those two rosters would likely be top-10ish college teams.

Anyone who watched and didn't come to the conclusion that Kentucky should be the unanimous preseason No. 1 either hates the Wildcats with a passion or is obsessed with being a contrarian.

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Calipari's team has the potential to be historically dominant, and it came together almost by accident. When Cal was recruiting Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrisons, it's doubtful he ever imagined all four would be on his 2014-15 roster. And as has become customary, Calipari landed four of the best freshmen in the country for the coming season, creating a devastatingly deep rotation that he could easily stretch to 11—maybe 12—if he so chooses.

It's appropriate to point out that the expectations and perception around Kentucky in August a year ago were much the same. There was talk of the greatest recruiting class of all time, and Big Blue Nation was getting 40-0 shirts printed. It was all premature and a bit ridiculous.

The 'Cats lost six games in the SEC. They were a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tourney. They essentially played four really good weeks of basketball all year, which luckily coincided with the NCAA tournament and reignited the hype engine in the process.

The last two years have given reason to be skeptical of buying into the UK hype this early, but I say this with a straight face: This could turn out to be one of the best teams of the decade, and there are reasons to believe this team really is different than last year's.

  1. Calipari has actual experience that he can count on. Last year's team had zero NCAA tournament games in the rotation. Poythress, the Harrisons, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee all played key roles on the NCAA title game run, and Cauley-Stein has plenty of wisdom to share with the incoming freshmen after his up-and-down first two seasons in Lexington.
  2. The Harrisons have matured and have an understanding of what Calipari wants from them. (More on this later.)
  3. If someone is off or decides to play outside the team concept, Calipari has one or two or even three other options. The 'Cats could lose two big men—they were without Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles on this trip—and still have the deepest frontcourt in the country.

Depth was something that the 2012-13 team lacked, and Calipari didn't have legit backups on the perimeter last year to push the Harrisons.

This roster has nine McDonald's All-Americans and as many as 10 future NBA players. Calipari could decide to play hockey line rotations—as UK did in the Bahamas—and not lose a thing. In fact, the backups often outplayed the starters on this trip.

Kentucky Wildcats' 2014-15 Rotation
Guards Forwards Centers
Aaron Harrison Alex Poythress Dakari Johnson
Andrew Harrison Trey Lyles Willie Cauley-Stein
Tyler Ulis Marcus Lee Karl-Anthony Towns
Devin Booker Derek Willis
Dominique Hawkins

B/R

You have to go back to Rick Pitino's mid-'90s Kentucky teams to find a college basketball roster with even comparable depth. But it's not just the unreal depth that created such buzz this past week. It was the way Kentucky played.

A lot was made in March and April about the "tweak" that Calipari made to turn the 2013-14 season around. That tweak, as it turned out, was to convince point guard Andrew Harrison to simply pass more. And it's apparent that Harrison has continued to buy in. All the 'Cats have bought in. They assisted on 59 percent of their field goals in the Bahamas, which is nearly 15 percent more than last season.

"I just want to see them keep sharing the ball," Calipari told Kevin Connors and Jay Bilas during one SEC Network telecast, "because it's what we've all seen, like 'Wow, if they'll do this...' We've just got to stay on that."

That unselfish attitude—a San Antonio Spurs-like approach—will be the key to the season. But is it possible to have that much talent and not let egos get in the way?

It's unreasonable to think this team will not have its problems. The 'Cats labored to score and looked lost offensively in the final minutes on Sunday. The depth "issue" is one that can make it hard for guys to get in a rhythm and not play scared. They might think that if they mess up, they'll get pulled.

Outside shooting, as it was last year, could be a cause for concern. While Calipari has athletes and size in spades, his most proven shooter (Aaron Harrison) made 35.6 percent of his threes last season. The player expected to be the best shooter on the roster (Devin Booker) is a freshman. And because of all the depth inside, Poythress, a 33.3 percent career three-point shooter, is expected to start at the 3. His natural (college) position is the 4.

This didn't really matter for most of the games in the Bahamas, because the Wildcats shared the ball so well and played so fast that most of their shots were at the rim. That's where the depth came in handy. It was a much different look from the majority of the 2013-14 season. That team played at slower pace than any of Calipari's other UK teams.

Kentucky's Year-to-Year Adjusted Tempo
Adj. Tempo
2009-10 69.7
2010-11 65.9
2011-12 66.2
2012-13 66.7
2013-14 65.2

kenpom.com

Calipari told Connors and Bilas during an ESPNU telecast that he's tried to get Andrew Harrison to play faster and pass the ball ahead. Until "the tweak," the ball would often stick in Harrison's hands as a freshman.

Harrison's sticky fingers appear to be gone, and again, Calipari has options if they return. Freshman Tyler Ulis is the first pass-first point guard Calipari has had in some time and could end up being the gem of this recruiting class. Not just at Kentucky, but in the entire 2014 class.

Ulis was outstanding in the Bahamas and was UK's MVP in the final two games. When the 'Cats decided to sub in the final minutes against Chalons-Reims, Ulis stayed in the game and had the game-deciding steal and layup.

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Kentucky's offense just looked better when Ulis was on the floor. He has tremendous feel for the game and did a great job of creating pace. This team was made for alley-oops, and the prospect of a Ulis lob had teammates busting their butts running the floor to be on the receiving end. He also sets the tone with his defensive pressure—reminiscent of that which Ryan Boatright applied that helped UConn win the national championship.

Ulis will not be a starter for Calipari right away, but it wouldn't be surprising if he became a staple of the crunch-time lineup for the 'Cats. Not only is he the best distributor, but he also might be the team's best long-range shooter. He made nine of 15 threes in the Bahamas.

At only 5'9", Ulis is also likely to be a four-year player at UK, and that's why he was such a valuable signing. He could wind up being one of the best point guards in college basketball over multiple seasons. 

As for this coming season, it will be interesting to see how Ulis can coexist with the Harrisons and whether Andrew is willing to move over to the 2 when Ulis is on the floor.

It will also be interesting to see if Karl-Anthony Towns ends up the starter at the 5 over Cauley-Stein and Johnson. Towns is the most skilled of the three offensively and is probably the second-best defender of the trio behind Cauley-Stein. He's the one player on this roster with a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft.

Calipari could choose to go with a twin towers approach at times, but he's also deep at the 4 with Lyles (the likely starter there), Lee and Poythress on occasion.

Who was Kentucky's MVP in the Bahamas?

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Without Lyles in the Bahamas, Poythress excelled at power forward. He played with great energy, finished really well (83.3 percent shooting inside the arc for the trip) and even knocked down the occasional outside shot. If he plays like that this year, he could lead UK in scoring and be an All-American candidate.

An All-American as a junior playing for Calipari is difficult to comprehend. But it can take some time for a talented player to figure out his niche, and Poythress' willingness to stay in school will pay off for both him and the 'Cats. His ability to guard multiple positions and play small-ball 4 gives Calipari more versatility with his lineups than he's ever had.

This team is simply better equipped to handle different situations and just better overall, even after losing Julius Randle and James Young to the NBA. 

I'm not ready to say Kentucky will win the 2015 national championship without a doubt. Wisconsin could be one of the best teams of the last several years. Arizona, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina all have a lot of potential.

But if it all comes together for Kentucky like it appears it already is, this could be a historic season in Lexington, rivaling the dominance of the 2012 champs.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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