Mychal Mulder averaged 0.5 points per game for the Kentucky Wildcats last season, while making only 16.7 percent of his three-point attempts.
Those weren’t the numbers Big Blue Nation was hoping for when the highly-rated junior college transfer, known as a three-point specialist, signed with the Wildcats prior to the 2015-’16 season.
Following a disappointing first year in Lexington, it’s unclear whether or not Mulder will play a major role for Kentucky this season. The Wildcats have reloaded with a fresh crop of five-star freshmen, suggesting the senior guard may once again struggle to find playing time.
However, if there is one thing we have learned from John Calipari’s best teams, it’s that they feature a blend of veteran players mixed with freshman talent.
Think back to Kentucky’s 2012 national championship team. It featured star freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but also had veterans like Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb who played major roles. That veteran leadership proved to be the difference-maker when the Wildcats rolled through the NCAA Tournament en route to the program’s eighth national championship.
This year’s installment of the Wildcats features a similar makeup. The roster includes highly-touted freshmen Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Wenyen Gabriel, Malik Monk and Sacha Killeya-Jones, but also features returning players Mulder, Isaiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries.
Although Mulder may not get the attention that guys like Briscoe and Willis get, he will likely battle Hawkins to be the first guard off the bench and could prove to be the difference between Kentucky being a contender for the national championship and actually winning it.
Why do I say that? Because Mulder potentially brings two things to the team that it lacks: outside shooting from the guard position, and experience.
First, let’s talk about Kentucky’s guards and their shooting woes.
The news of Briscoe returning for his sophomore season was big for Kentucky’s title hopes, but wasn’t all that surprising. Even though Briscoe had a solid freshman season and undoubtedly has NBA talent, he struggled with his shot and hit only 13.5 percent of his three-point attempts. Instead of entering the draft, he opted to withdraw his name and return for another year in hopes of improving his shooting touch.
Briscoe will be joined in the backcourt by incoming freshman Fox. Fox has good size for a point guard, is lightning quick, and will remind Kentucky fans of former Wildcat John Wall. Unfortunately, he will likely also remind fans of Wall’s lack of shooting ability.
A starting backcourt consisting of two ball-dominant guards who can’t shoot could spell trouble for Kentucky’s offense. Monk, the other freshman likely to start in a three-guard lineup, is known as a shooter but is yet to play a college game. That leaves defensive-specialist Hawkins and Mulder likely to come off the bench.
As it stands, Mulder and Monk will be counted on to help space the floor this season. Otherwise, opponents will be able to prevent Kentucky’s quick guards from doing what they do best–penetrating the defense–and double-down on Adebayo in the low post, negating the Wildcats’ post advantage. That would force the Wildcats into becoming a jump-shooting team, which obviously isn’t their strength.
The second area where Mulder can help is with his experience. There are three seniors on this year’s roster–Mulder, Hawkins and Willis–and each needs to provide strong veteran leadership if the Wildcats hope to make a deep tournament run.
History shows that teams need experienced players to win championships. Villanova had Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins last season. UConn had Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright in 2014. Even Kentucky, in the era of Calipari and one-and-done’s, had it’s fair share of upperclassmen in 2012.
You get the picture: Freshman phenoms can take a team to the Sweet 16–even the Final Four–but upperclassmen are what puts a championship team over the top.
So that is how Mulder, a player who averaged less than four minutes per game last season, can be a difference-maker for Kentucky this season. If he finds his shooting touch and embraces a leadership role off the bench, the Wildcats will be a dangerous team to face.
Will Kentucky be good enough to win a championship? That remains to be seen, but if the past few years are any indication, the Wildcats will at least be in the mix once March comes around.
If Mulder reaches his potential, that likelihood becomes even greater.