David Cloninger

Previewing SEC basketball: Kentucky

Another season, another No. 1 prep recruit. Skal Labissiere leads another crop of one-and-done Kentucky-to-NBA stars.
Another season, another No. 1 prep recruit. Skal Labissiere leads another crop of one-and-done Kentucky-to-NBA stars. AP

South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.

Other previews

Oct. 31 Alabama

Nov. 1 Arkansas

Nov. 2 Auburn

Nov. 3 Florida

Nov. 4 Georgia

KENTUCKY

Men

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): John Calipari (190-38, seventh year; 593-176, 24th year)

2014-15 record (SEC finish): 38-1 (18-0)

2014-15 postseason: Final Four

Roster

Schedule

He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): C Willie Cauley-Stein (NBA, 8.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg), C Karl-Anthony Towns (NBA, 10.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg), F Trey Lyles (NBA, 8.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg), G Aaron Harrison (NBA, 11.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg), G Andrew Harrison (NBA, 9.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg), G Devin Booker (NBA, 10.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg), C Dakari Johnson (NBA, 6.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg), G Sam Malone (0.1 ppg, 0.4 rpg), G Tod Lanter (0.4 ppg, 0.0 rpg), G Brian Long (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg)

He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-3 G Isaiah Briscoe, 6-11 F Skal Labissiere, 6-5 G Charles Matthews, 6-4 G Jamal Murray, 6-2 G Jonny David, 7-0 F Isaac Humphries, 6-4 G Mychal Mulder (Jr., transferred from Vincennes (Ind.) University), 6-3 G Dillon Pulliam (So., transferred from Transylvania (Ky.) University, will sit out this year)

Top returners: 5-9 G Tyler Ulis (5.6 ppg, 1.8 rpg), 6-8 F Alex Poythress (5.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), 6-9 F Marcus Lee (2.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg)

Woe is Kentucky. They lost seven players off a nearly undefeated team to the NBA.

John Calipari yawned, stretched his arms and got to work. What seemed like five minutes later, he had another top-three class added to a veteran corps that had the Wildcats No. 2 in the preseason Top 25.

How does he do it?

With the simplest recruiting pitch on record, and the stats to prove it – “Want to play in the NBA next year? Sign here.”

The pipeline stands to continue, pumping blue-chippers from the Bluegrass to the green of the NBA. Calipari signed the No. 1 (by some services) recruit in the country in Skal Labissiere, and Labissiere was recently cleared by the NCAA to play after some “amateurism” questions. Jamal Murray was a star for Team Canada in the Pan Am Games, 7-foot Australian Isaac Humphries is seven feet of lumps and Isaiah Briscoe was ranked as the best point guard in the class.

Doubt anybody will be talking 40-0 (as they’ve discovered, that hasn’t worked out so well) but this team may be equipped to get that title that was so close the last two years. It will be a different look than last year, but the Wildcats will still be more talented than most every team they play.

Last year’s team was about as perfect as a team could be inside, offensively and defensively. Kentucky won’t have that this year. Labissiere isn’t a banger, weighing a mere 215 pounds, but he can hit from anywhere inside the arc and can open the floor a bit more. Returning Alex Poythress, who will be the do-everything guy, from a knee injury will balance the interior.

Tyler Ulis will be one of the best guards in the country, able to run past anybody and score on same. Briscoe will push him for minutes but Calipari has already said Ulis is his top player. He’s booting the platoon system he used last year and will lean on his best for 25-30 minutes per game; Ulis will be the director of that.

The Wildcats will be much faster and trickier to defend. As usual, Kentucky’s biggest opponent is its history – everybody expects greatness to the point where even a 38-1 Final Four season can be viewed as disappointing. The Wildcats’ last two seasons were 29-11 and national runner-up, 38-1 and national semifinalist.

Perhaps 12 losses before the only Monday night that matters is the recipe for success.

Women

Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Matthew Mitchell (194-81, ninth year; 224-110, 11th year)

2014-15 record (SEC finish): 24-10 (10-6)

2014-15 postseason: Second round, NCAA

Roster

Schedule

She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Jennifer O’Neill (14.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg), F Jelleah Sidney (2.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg), C Azia Bishop (6.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), G Bria Goss (9.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg), G Jaycee Coe (transferred to Western Kentucky, 1.3 ppg, 0.4 rpg), G Linnae Harper (announced intent to transfer in October, has not chosen new school, 11.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg)

She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-3 F Evelyn Akhator (So., transfer from Chipola (Fla.) CC), 6-2 F Batouly Camara, 6-0 G Maci Morris, 5-6 G Taylor Murray, 6-6 C Ivana Jakubcova (RJr., sat out last year with injury), 6-0 G Makenzie Cann (So., transfer from Cincinnati, will sit out this year)

* She was here and is now outta here: 5-10 G Chrishae Rowe (So., transferred from Oregon, would have been eligible after first semester, was dismissed for not upholding standards of program in October), 6-0 G Morgan Rich (Fr., asked to transfer two weeks before the opener)

Top returners: 5-10 G Makayla Epps (14.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg), 5-7 G Janee Thompson (10.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg), 6-2 F Alexis Jennings (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg)

It was an early exit when Kentucky hasn’t been used to early exits. The Wildcats were stunned on their home floor by a red-hot Dayton team in the second round of the NCAA tournament, ending their season the earliest it’s been ended since 2011.

There were reasons. Kentucky won but was inconsistent. Massive injuries derailed a lot of promising could-have-beens. The Wildcats’ defense was as blurringly efficient as ever but their scoring didn’t get under control until Makayla Epps took over late in the season.

It was an understandably frustrating year, and this year promised to be much better. Matthew Mitchell reloaded with one of the top junior-college players in the country and 6-foot-6 Ivana Jakubcova would finally be healthy. A cherry of the class arrived in Chrishae Rowe, who was dismissed from Oregon after a Pac-12 Freshman of the Year season and would be eligible after the first semester.

While Kentucky should still be good, frustration is back. Rowe was booted before the season started for not complying with program expectations. Then Linnae Harper, the team’s third-leading scorer, shockingly announced her intention to transfer just before the season. Freshman Morgan Rich left a week after Harper, and when Alyssa Rice went down for a month with a stress reaction in her foot, Kentucky was left with eight players for its first game. Epps was suspended for a game due to an offseason arrest but will rejoin the team for its second game.

The Wildcats are still amazingly talented. Epps is going to be one of the league’s most lethal scorers, Janee Thompson is nearly full recovered from a gruesome leg injury and the freshman class will quickly grow up. Mitchell’s “40 Minutes of Dread” defense, designed to run the opponent to exhaustion, has proven it will work and hold up for a full season. If they can just be good enough to host an NCAA Regional – which they have been the last two seasons – they can take advantage of a fortunate development.

The NCAA’s model of postseason play is the best 16 teams host the first two rounds, with the next two rounds going to neutral courts. With women’s basketball, neutral courts are placed with an eye on nearby teams who could potentially draw a crowd.

Beginning this year and continuing the next two, an NCAA third/fourth round will be held at Rupp Arena. It’s not the Wildcats’ home arena (they play at Memorial Coliseum, although there’s usually one game at Rupp for them per year) but it’s a five-minute drive between the two.

Kentucky could feasibly play four home games in the postseason. In layman’s terms, the Wildcats could reach the Final Four without ever leaving home.

“We have talked about what a great thing to shoot for is for us to get into a position where we can host two games at Memorial Coliseum, and if you navigate that, you can go play at Rupp Arena,” Mitchell said at SEC Tipoff. “But we don’t talk about it a lot. This particular team has to put it together and do a great job. I think it gives you a little extra motivation and understanding that if you can get there, it gives you a great opportunity.”

It is a great opportunity, but one that seems rather daunting considering the sparse bodies on the bench.

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