Kentucky’s game with Vanderbilt Saturday will put the Wildcats at the midway point of the regular season and here’s what we know: They’re talented but young; willing to learn – but young; developing toughness -- but young; and not afraid to work hard – but… well, you know.
If you’re a Calipari fan, you see the potential. March is still six weeks away, plenty of time for these basketball children to develop into young adults capable of making a run in the big post-season party.
If you’re a hater, you’re hating right now – maybe not at full tilt but you’re loading up. This One ‘n Done business just doesn’t work, and that argument is playing out right in front of us. He has GOT to start recruiting guys who will stay more than one year – doesn’t he?
Turns out, you'll probably have your wish.
On this current roster, only three UK players were projected pre-season to wind up in the NBA Draft: Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt. Obviously, with Vanderbilt sidelined (so far) all season, he’d be a foolhardy pick. But recent performances against Louisville, Georgia and Texas A&M have helped Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slip into the picture as a second-rounder, or potentially a late first-rounder.
Still, it’s highly doubtful we’ll see another mass exodus on draft night, Calipari hugging four to six players as they head to the stage, new NBA caps on their heads. And that means the roster for next year’s team should be dotted with second- and even third-year players.
Both Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel figure to return – unless someone whispers to them of untold riches on the other side of a free agent contract; if Vanderbilt plays at all this season, he’d have to follow up with impressive private workouts to land a solid NBA offer; P.J. Washington is beginning to emerge but at 6-foot-7, 235 lbs., has to develop more of an all-around perimeter game if he expects to thrive in the league; and Nick Richards has the one trait you cannot coach (height) but plays like a guy who picked up the game just three short years ago. He has much to learn.
Most, if not all, are likely to return but what Big Blue fans covet is the kind of guy they had last season – actually, two. Home-grown talents who could have played more but signed with Kentucky, stuck it out and developed into complementary players who contributed crucial minutes at various times.
Derek Willis figured to be little more than a practice player when he signed, but personnel issues forced Calipari to play the Bullitt East product and Wildcat fans delighted when Willis began to splash three-pointers from the corners. Of course, they grumbled when Calipari would yank him for defensive transgressions, but Willis eventually learned to rebound and play defense will enough to stay on the floor for longer periods of time.
Defense was never an issue for Dominique Hawkins. Oddly enough, it was confidence. A two-sport star from Richmond who could have played defensive back in college, Hawkins made no secret of the fact that he knew when signed, he wouldn’t get minutes in bulk. He constantly said he would love to play more but was happy with the time he was getting – a claim punctuated by his mega-watt smile.
Early in his career, Hawkins passed up shots at an alarming rate, later admitting to a crisis of confidence. But by the time he left, he had become a dependable backup point guard capable of playing both ends of the floor.
Both were Kentuckians – a bonus. Both arrived with dreams of playing professionally, like virtually every college player in America. But neither came in with the attitude that Lexington was merely a weigh-station en route to the NBA.
They provided depth, experience and the wisdom that comes with years spent playing the game at the D-1 level.
We’ll see those extra years of comprehension again on the Kentucky roster – probably as soon as next season. It won’t be the kind of maturity Willis and Hawkins provided. But whatever complaints you might have about next year’s team, it won’t be that the roster is full of kids who just got here. They’ll already know their way around the college game – and Calipari’s program will be better off for it.