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StraightHoops Is The #1 Basketball Blog On The Web - Hoops Every Day
April 25, 2014

By Anthony J. Fredella

LEXINGTON, Kentucky - ​​​​Usually when you lose your top two scorers to the NBA Draft following a 29-11 campaign, the next season does not look that bright, but is instead looked upon as more of a rebuilding year. But the term “usual” does not apply to the University of Kentucky and its prized basketball program under head coach John Calipari. Neither does the word "rebuild." With the news this afternoon that freshmen guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison will forego the NBA Draft and return for their sophomore seasons, things could not look better for UK and Big Blue Nation. The Harrisons join Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress as returning players. Who said Coach Cal only recruited one-and-done guys? In fact, next season the Cats will have two – as in more than one – seasoned juniors on the roster in WCS and Poythress. He’ll also have five sophomores – which includes Dominique Hawkins – that played a lot of minutes as frosh. Hey, get this, Kentucky will have a veteran-laden squad next year, and they’ll also have this next year as well – the best damn team in the country.

Joining the seven returnees will be – as usual – an excellent recruiting class that includes 6’11” PF Trey Lyles, 7’0” PF Karl Towns, 6’5” SG Devin Booker and 5’9” PG Tyler Ulis. Besides having the biggest, and possibly best, front court in the nation, Coach Cal may also now have the premier backcourt with the Harrisons returning to team with the incoming Booker and Ulis. The toughest task next season for the Kentucky coaching staff may just be finding enough playing time for all this talent.

Gone are PF Julius Randle (15.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and SF James Young (14.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg). Almost 30 points and 15 rebounds per game will not exactly be easy shoes to fill. Especially when you remember that for the better part of the season, Randle and Young were the go-to scorers when Kentucky needed a vital bucket. Someone, or two, will need to step in and be that guy on the wing that Young was. While Aaron Harrison had wild success in the NCAA Tournament knocking down game-winner after game-winner, you have to recall that he was streaky at times during the season. He was not always Aaron Ice. He'll need to be that guy that we saw in the tourney all season long next year. He'll need to fill those shoes left empty by Young. Another guy that could help with that is Devin Booker. Booker, like Aaron, is a 6'5" dead-eye long range shooter - probably one of the two or three best shooters in the incoming freshmen class. The combination of Aaron and Booker will need to be that consistent scoring option on the wing. Honestly, I don't see that being a problem.

Losing Randle, Kentucky loses an automatic double-double. Who will fill that role? Cauley-Stein, while incredibly athletic as a 7-footer, is more of a defensive stopper and finisher at the rim. He has yet to develop his own ability to create offense, and that's fine. He's not on the floor to get the ball on the wing or block and go to work. He's there to block shots, disrupt drives, rebound and catch lobs. Next season will be his best yet and, barring injury, will help that young man on his way to the 2015 NBA Lottery. You can't teach height but, more importantly, you can't teach height with incredible athletic agility.

Dakari Johnson stepped up nicely when WCS went down in the tournament. He showed great promise on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court, especially in UK's win over bitter arch rival Louisville when Johnson strongly outplayed future draft pick Montrezl Harrell. The Cats will need that all year next season from the big 7-footer. But again, Johnson will not be a go-to option on the interior when that key bucket is needed. Likewise, Marcus Lee is another incredibly athletic big man that would start for just about any other team in the country. At Kentucky this season, he averaged only 6.3 mins per game and, with the loaded front court next season, those minutes may not go up drastically. But when needed, Lee is that guy that can clog up the middle, defend and rebound. He'll continue to do more of that next season in that exact same role.

Alex Poythress is a 6'8" PF who was basically a role player last season, coming in for Randle at times to defend and rebound. He played 18.4 mins per game, averaging 5.9 ppg and 4.5 rpg. His potential is extraordinary, and has been since he was a highly-touted prep star, but, to date, he has not lived up to those lofty expectations. He showed flashes of brilliance, as many did, during UK's tournament run though. As a junior, he'll need to step up into a leadership role both on and off the court. He'll need to keep his intensity level up at all times and he'll need to be more assertive on offense, looking for the ball and creating his shot. But once again, Poythress is not the guy that will replace Randle.

Trey Lyles is. At 6'11" Lyles is yet another interior stud next season for Coach Cal. He is also just as athletically gifted as the rest, but is probably the best offensive interior player that UK will have next season. He possesses a wide variety of post moves, can catch it on the wing, knock down the 7-10 footer, and finish strong inside. Remind you of anybody? Yeah, exactly, that's why Lyles will fill Randle's role quite nicely.

Rounding out the plethora of big Cats will be 7'0" frosh Karl Towns. While listed as a power forward Towns will see a significant amount of time playing on the perimeter, and that's because he's a lights out three point shooter. Yes, a 7'0" three-point threat. Talk about a stretch four, right? Towns will be a tough matchup for every team that Kentucky plays next season because he can defend the interior and, on offense, he feels just as comfortable around the arc as he does on the block. But given the amount of centers and power forwards that Coach Cal can turn to, Towns should see his role as a big body inside on defense and a perimeter scoring threat on offense.

Rounding out the rotation will be the most important piece, the quarterback, Andrew Harrison, who's returning to play the point. Coach Cal had said last season that he gave Andrew the ball as soon as he stepped on campus so that he knew that that was his team. It took some time for him to accept, and thrive, in that role, but boy was it a pretty sight when he did. While he was just as streaky as his twin brother at times, he, likewise, showed glimpses into his true potential. During the run to the NCAA championship game, Andrew showed why every school in the country was after him coming out of high school. At 6'5" with a terrific basketball IQ, Harrison has the ability to not only break down his defender on offense, but to also utilize his size advantage over his defender to get into the lane and knock down high percentage shots. He can also hit the three but, most importantly, he can find the right guy at the right time. That's what Coach Cal loves about Andrew Harrison, and that is what is going to carry the Cats next season, his ability to get everyone involved and get the ball to the right teammate at the right time. Backing him up will be freshman Tyler Ulis. A small (5'9"), quick and crafty lead guard, Ulis has unbelievable passing and penetrating ability that will be a perfect compliment for those times when he comes in to relieve Harrison. Again, the depth on this team may limit his minutes next season, but not many teams in the country will have a better back up point guard than Tyler Ulis.

While everything does look on the up and up for the Cats in 2014-2015, some things will need improvement for Kentucky to live up to the hype, which should be even greater than last season's - if that's even possible. Kentucky will need to improve on perimeter defense. That's no secret. The Harrisons and Young struggled to defend last season and that killed UK at times. If Kentucky is going to return to the Final Four, and possibly cut down the nets, they will have to be able to shut down quicker guards - something they failed to do in the title game against Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Connecticut. Right now, that looks like Coach Cal's achilles heel. Booker, Ulis and Hawkins should be able to help in that capacity, but when the game is on the line, Kentucky will want Andrew and Aaron on the floor, and they'll have to D up.

Now I will not - absolutely not - advocate any 40-0 talk. As I've said over and over again, that's just not possible in this day and age. Even if a team is good enough to run the table, eventually the pressure will get to them and they'll crack, if just for one game. So while I don't think UK will go 40-0 next season, without seeing their schedule I definitely believe that this is the type of team, similar to the 2011-2012 squad, that could go 37-3 or even 38-2. UK has double the talent at every single position next season and, in some instances, triple the talent. Foul trouble and injuries will not be as devastating with that kind of depth. That only negative aspect to having that amount of talent is that it could disrupt team chemistry if too many players are not getting enough minutes. The largest obstacle for Coach Calipari next season won't be winning the SEC or gaining a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, it'll be figuring out how to best utilize the vast amount of skill on the court, and to keep as many players involved as possible. With seven returning players, including two juniors, it shouldn't be that much of a problem to spread out the minutes and develop some of the young guys slowly. Ironic isn't it? Coach Cal, often crucified for "exploiting" the one-and done system, will now have to change gears and focus on coaching a bunch of college hoop veterans. It's sure is going to be fun to watch, though. Only 175 days until Big Blue Madness.