David Cloninger

Previewing SEC basketball: Kentucky

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell dealt with the worst offseason of his career.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell dealt with the worst offseason of his career. caberry@thestate.com

Other previews

Oct. 29 Alabama

Oct. 30 Arkansas

Oct. 31 Auburn

Nov. 1 Florida

Nov. 2 Georgia

Men

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): John Calipari (217-47 Kentucky, eighth year; 620-185, 25th year)

2015-16 record (SEC finish): 27-9 (13-5)

2015-16 postseason: Second round, NCAA tournament

Roster

Schedule

2016-17 media predicted finish: 1

DC’s predicted finish: 1

He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): F Alex Poythress (10.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg), G Jamal Murray (20.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg, pro), F Skal Labissiere (6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, pro), G Tyler Ulis (17.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, pro), G Charles Matthews (1.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg, transferred to Michigan), F Marcus Lee (6.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, transferred to Cal), G E.J. Floreal (0.0 ppg, 0.5 rpg, quit basketball to join track and field team)

He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): G De’Aaron Fox, F Wenyen Gabriel, F Sacha Killeya-Jones, F Bam Adebayo, G Malik Monk, G Brad Calipari

Top returners: 6-3 G Isaiah Briscoe (9.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg), 6-9 F Derek Willis (7.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg), 6-0 G Dominique Hawkins (2.3 ppg, 0.8 rpg)

It’s never a question of talent. Kentucky will always be one of the most (if not the most) talented teams in the country, due to John Calipari’s mastery of the one-and-done rule and the results (in terms of NBA lottery picks) he’s produced with it.

It’s a question of leadership. Calipari’s yearly crop of highly ranked recruits may lead the Wildcats on the stat sheets, but who do they turn to in a tight game when they’re used to letting straight talent take over?

Kentucky had leadership last year, guard Tyler Ulis and forward Alex Poythress supplying it, but its lack of a frontcourt cost it a chance at a deep run in March. Calipari realized he messed up by trying to turn Skal Labissiere into a back-to-the-basket big man, and by the time he abandoned it, Kentucky was so dependent on Ulis and Jamal Murray that it was going to be in trouble when it faced a team with better depth – such as Indiana in the NCAA tournament.

The Cats were disappointed, but did what they do under Calipari. They reloaded with five of the country’s top recruits (and Calipari’s son, Brad) and when Isaiah Briscoe stuck his foot in the NBA waters but decided they weren’t warm enough, Kentucky had three upperclassmen who have been through the battles to help guide the freshmen (seniors Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins).

So what do they have? Talent out the wazoo, as usual. Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox lead the crew while Malik Monk, who Calipari flipped after a longtime commitment to home-state Arkansas, may be the best of them. They join six players who have all played at least one year under Calipari.

Kentucky made the Elite Eight every year but two under Calipari. The other year, 2013, was an NIT season followed by playing in the national championship game.

Perhaps the Wildcats can mimic that turnaround this year.

Women

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Matthew Mitchell (219-89 Kentucky, 10th year; 249-118, 13th year)

2015-16 record (SEC finish): 25-8 (10-6)

2015-16 postseason: Sweet 16

Roster

Schedule

2016-17 media predicted finish: 4

DC’s predicted finish: 5

She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Janee Thompson (12.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg), G Kyvin Goodin-Rogers (5.6 ppg, 1.6 rpg, transferred to Western Kentucky), F Ivana Jakubcova (1.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg, transferred to Southern Cal), F Batouly Camara (5.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, transferred to Connecticut), F Alexis Jennings (10.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, transferred to South Carolina)

She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): G Jaida Roper, F Ogechi Anyagaligbo (RSo., transferred from Stony Brook, ineligible this year), G Jessica Hardin (Sr., transferred from Bellarmine), G Rachel Potter (Jr, walk-on), G Paige Poffenberger, G LaShae Halsel (So., walk-on)

Top returners: 5-10 G Makayla Epps (17.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg), 6-3 F/C Evelyn Akhator (11.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), 6-0 G Maci Morris (8.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg)

WTH?

That was the most popular question or hashtag being asked around Kentucky during the offseason as player after player left the program. The Wildcats, one of the SEC’s best teams since 2010, were rocked by massive player attrition.

Six players left the program since the start of the 2014-15 season, with coach Matthew Mitchell dismissing another (Chrishae Rowe, who was also dismissed from Oregon and has now resurfaced at Ole Miss, under former Mitchell assistant Matt Insell). Mitchell also fired one assistant coach and two others resigned, with three committed Class of 2016 recruits deciding to go elsewhere and a Class of 2017 pledge re-opening her recruitment.

To his credit, Mitchell owned up to a culture of miscommunication and lack of stability that caused the transfers and vowed to fix it. Re-hiring former assistants Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts may help correct any problems that arose. And he’s gotten back on the recruiting horse, including landing a Knoxville native who’s the younger sister of a former Tennessee star for next season.

As for this season? Well, I’d never count out any team that features Makayla Epps. And by straight numbers, Kentucky only relied on seven players to play 12 minutes or more per game last year. By that ratio, and returning Epps, Maci Morris, Evelyn Akhator, Alyssa Rice and Taylor Murray, Kentucky should be fine since all of them are used to running and playing pressing defense for 40 minutes per night.

The potential problem is if injuries or other issues whittle down the returners, Kentucky is left with freshmen and walk-ons recruited specifically to fill the roster.

Another tough non-conference schedule awaits and the SEC is the SEC. But if the Wildcats get through it, they can host the NCAA tournament at Memorial Coliseum, then advance to the next two rounds just down the street at Rupp Arena.

A bad season could be understood considering what happened. If it happens, the administration and team seem to be prepared.

But if one more player leaves …

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