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Top 25 Countdown: No. 2 Kentucky — veterans must help star freshmen

Charles Bertram/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Following another mass exodus during the offseason, Kentucky reloaded with another elite recruiting class–but will the returning veterans put the Wildcats over the top?

Succeed and proceed.

That’s the mantra John Calipari has promoted during his time at Kentucky. It’s a simple concept: Each season, the Wildcats bring in a new group of freshmen stars. Those freshmen lead Kentucky through a deep run in the NCAA Tournament before moving to the NBA. Then, Calipari and his staff bring in a new group the next season to do the same thing all over again.

Wash, rinse and repeat.

It’s a cycle that has worked wonders for Kentucky: Since Calipari took over as head coach in 2009, the Wildcats have advanced to four Final Fours and won a national championship in 2012. During that time, Kentucky produced more NBA draft picks than any other program.

At first glance, this season appears to be business as usual for Kentucky. The Wildcats feature another elite recruiting class headlined by four recruits–De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk and Wenyen Gabriel–ranked in the Top 20.

However, something is different. This season the Wildcats have a strong group of returning players–Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Isaac Humphries, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder–who will bring experience and leadership to what is otherwise a very young roster. Wildcat fans will hope they’ll fill the same roles that Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller did on the 2011-’12 team, and lead the Wildcats to another national championship.

Backcourt

Just like last season, Kentucky will start three guards. Briscoe will take on the leadership role vacated by Tyler Ulis (drafted by the Phoenix Suns), but he also needs to become a more consistent shooter. He shot only 13.5 percent behind the arc last season, and returned for his sophomore season to work on his shot in hopes of improving his draft stock. If he improves, he has a real chance to be a lottery pick.

Joining Briscoe in the starting lineup will be the freshmen duo of Fox and Monk. Fox may literally be the fastest player in college basketball, and is the favorite to play the majority of the point guard minutes. Meanwhile, Monk is a freak athlete who can also light it up from downtown. Together with Briscoe, they’ll form arguably the most athletic backcourt in the country.

Kentucky tries to bring the funk with the Monk: Jordan Brand All American West Team guard Malik Monk (5) during the game between the 2016 Jordan Brand All American West Team and the 2016 Jordan Brand All America East Team played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

Kentucky tries to bring the funk with the Monk: Jordan Brand All American West Team guard Malik Monk (5) during the game between the 2016 Jordan Brand All American West Team and the 2016 Jordan Brand All America East Team played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

Seniors Hawkins and Mulder will provide experience and depth off the bench. Hawkins is a defensive stopper, while Mulder should give the Wildcats another deep threat to pair with Monk.

The only major concern with Kentucky’s backcourt will be its shooting. Briscoe struggled from the perimeter last season, and Fox’s shot is still a question mark. If Monk and Mulder can provide the Wildcats the shooting they need to space the floor, it will make it easier for Briscoe and Fox to penetrate the defense, and allow Kentucky’s bigs to go to work inside.

Frontcourt

Last season, Kentucky lacked a strong, physical presence in the post. The arrival of Adebayo should change that. The 6-10, 255-pound forward is a physically imposing player who will wear down opposing defenses with his strength and athleticism. He will be Kentucky’s go-to scorer in the post.

Starting alongside Adebayo will be either Willis or Gabriel. Willis enjoyed a breakout season last season, starting 11 games and hitting 44.2 percent from deep. His shooting ability makes him an ideal stretch-4 to pair with Adebayo and space the floor for Kentucky’s guards.

However, Gabriel will be tough to keep out of the starting lineup. He has extended shooting range like Willis, but also has the versatility on the defensive end to guard all five positions. At 6-9, that versatility may give him the starting nod over Willis.

Depth in the frontcourt will be provided by Humphries and four-star freshman Sacha Killeya-Jones. Humphries gives the Wildcats another physical presence to back up Adebayo, and has been praised by Calipari for his improvements during the offseason.

Prediction

This Kentucky team is talented, but that’s nothing new with teams coached by Calipari. The difference with this team compared to the others is the same difference that led Kentucky to a national championship in 2012: experience.

With all the hype that surrounds one-and-done prospects in college basketball, the fact remains that teams need experienced players to lead them to a championship. This team has that.

However, if the Wildcats are going to contend for a national championship, they will need the returning veterans to raise the bar. They need Briscoe to become a more consistent shooter from the perimeter. They need Willis to become more aggressive. They need solid bench minutes from Humphries, Hawkins and Mulder. Most of all, they need strong leadership and a veteran presence from the group as a whole.

There’s no doubt that Kentucky’s freshmen will be good.  More than likely, the Wildcats will make it to at least the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. However, whether or not the Wildcats can advance to another Final Four, and even possibly win a national championship, will not be decided by the freshmen, but by the contributions of the returning veterans.

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