Kentucky basketball: Can John Calipari take Wildcats back to Final Four?

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 31: Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts to a play against the Auburn Tigers during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 31, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 31: Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts to a play against the Auburn Tigers during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 31, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

It’s been four years since Kentucky went to the Final Four, but John Calipari has a loaded roster that represents the Wildcats’ best team since 2014-2015.

There has been a major defining theme of the Kentucky Wildcats since John Calipari took over for Billy Gillispie in 2009: a reliance on the one-and-done player. Kentucky won a national championship in 2012 behind freshmen phenoms Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Calipari has gone back to that well ever since.

The Wildcats very well could have duplicated that feat in 2015, when Kentucky assembled what may have been the most dominant team in the modern era of college basketball. Behind a roster filled with talented future pros like Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker, and the Harrison twins Kentucky ran through the regular season undefeated, reaching the Final Four with an unblemished record only to lose to Wisconsin in dramatic fashion.

That Wildcats’ team remains the last to get to the Final Four, although that is hardly from a lack of effort on Calipari’s part. Kentucky has continued to stockpile the one-and-done talent, and those loaded rosters have helped the Wildcats make the NCAA Tournament the past four years.

Calipari has gotten Kentucky to the Elite Eight twice, including last season, when the Wildcats fell to SEC rival Auburn with a trip to the season’s final weekend on the line. This is the latest in a personal drought for Calipari, who reached four Final Fours in a five-year span but hasn’t gotten back since.

As has always been the case for Calipari at Kentucky, he lost a legion of future pros after the season. P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, and Tyler Herro bolted for the NBA while grad transfer Reid Travis exhausted his eligibility, but the cupboard isn’t as bare as it could have been.

Perhaps feeling inspired to wrap up some unfinished business, several key role players returned for another year in Lexington, including forward E.J. Montgomery and guard Ashton Hagans. Montgomery was a key rotation member in his freshman year, averaging 3.8 points per game and 4.1 rebounds per game in 15 minutes a night, but he should leap right into the starting lineup for his sophomore season.

The hope here is that Montgomery makes a huge jump like P.J. Washington did from year one to year two. Washington was a solid starter in his freshman season, but turned into an SEC Player of the Year candidate as a sophomore, becoming the unquestioned leader of the Wildcats.

The other key returner is Hagans, who also came off the bench as a freshman but should be Kentucky’s starting point guard this season. Add in Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards and Calipari has four solid players with experience to serve as anchors for his roster.

The other notable veteran to join the roster is grad transfer Nate Sestina, who is immediately eligible after finishing his studies at Bucknell. Sestina, who averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds a night for the Bison, should give Calipari some toughness and production on the interior while filling some of the leadership Travis vacated upon graduation.

It wouldn’t be a Kentucky team, however, if there wasn’t an elite crop of potential one-and-done freshmen entering the mix. That is definitely the case this season, with Calipari assembling another top-five recruiting class to fill out his lineup.

The two names you need to know are shooting guard Tyrese Maxey and small forward Kahlil Whitney. Maxey, a 6-foot-2 guard out of Dallas, Texas, is known primarily for one thing: his ability to put the ball in the basket.

Whether it is shooting from mid-range or attacking the basket, Maxey has a knack for scoring that should find him an immediate starting role with the Wildcats. Maxey is also a  very good athlete, so he should definitely be a capable defender, which will be essential as Kentucky deals with some loaded teams in the SEC like LSU and Florida.

The other freshman to watch is Whitney, a 6-foot-7 wing out of Roselle High School in New Jersey. Whitney should stand out right away due to his explosive athleticism, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him emerge as a regular on the SportsCenter Top 10 with his dunking ability.

Another factor to watch with Whitney is how he fills out his frame, as he is entering school at only 200 pounds, so he could definitely stand to add some muscle to deal with the more physical style of play in the SEC. Like Maxey, Whitley is also a stellar athlete who has the potential to be an absolute beast on the defensive end of the floor, although those skills will need to be honed over the course of the regular season.

The mix of talent that Calipari has assembled may not be as high-end as the 2015 edition of the Wildcats, but it is just as good as any roster in the country. Kentucky has been consistently ranked high in the preseason polls, again increasing expectations to a fever pitch for the Wildcats’ faithful, who want to see their school get back to the Final Four and win another national championship.

With a freshman heavy roster, there will be plenty of growing pains for Kentucky, which isn’t something that Calipari isn’t used to. The Wildcats have a favorable non-conference schedule that doesn’t include any true road games but does have neutral-site matchups against Big Ten powers Michigan State (who many have projected as the top team in the country entering the season) and Ohio State along with a home matchup against in-state rival Louisville.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see Kentucky lose one or two of those games, dipping them into the teens of the polls entering SEC play, only for Calipari to round the unit into form and have Kentucky positioned to make a Final Four run when March Madness comes calling. It remains to be seen if Kentucky has done enough to snap its Final Four drought, but there are plenty of scenarios where the season will end with the Wildcats cutting down the nets in Atlanta on April 8.

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