BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — John Calipari has been unambiguous on two points for a long time: “If you don’t have a post presence, your team is a fraud,” he loves to say, and if given the choice between talent and experience Kentucky’s coach is always taking talent. Whether Calipari is right on both points will go a long way toward determining just how good his Wildcats will be this season. For now, skepticism is at an all-time high.
From 2011 to 2022, Kentucky was picked to win the SEC every season but one, when it was second in the preseason media poll. The Wildcats are picked fourth this year. They’re 16th in the preseason AP poll, their lowest start in the Calipari era. So why the sudden doubt about a team that signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class?
Three straight subpar seasons while the rest of the league surged has a lot to do with that, but there are also major questions about whether Kentucky will have that post presence Calipari always talks about.
“We know we have a pretty good team, but we need to add some length and some rim protection if we’re going to be that real group that can do something crazy,” he said Wednesday at the league’s media day. “And I think we’ll have it in due time.”
OK, but when? To call the Cats’ frontcourt situation still unsettled would be an understatement. They have three 7-footers, but none of them appears imminently ready to help. Sophomore Ugonna Onyenso and freshman Aaron Bradshaw, both former five-star recruits, are still recovering from foot surgeries this summer. Calipari created a new wave of worry about when they’ll be back when he went on various ESPN platforms during UK’s pro day last week and offered timelines ranging from five to seven more weeks until Onyenso and Bradshaw return.
The season opener is less than three weeks away.
“I should never do that,” Calipari said Wednesday when asked to clarify those timelines. “Look, they’re on the right path, both of them. Ugo is a little bit behind Aaron because of the timing of his injury and the surgery, but they’re both progressing really good, and we’ll learn something each week about where they are. I don’t want to put a date or a time on it, because what if they’re earlier. How about this one: What if it takes them more time than we thought?”
That seems to happen a lot with injuries at Kentucky these days. Fans can be forgiven some skepticism at this point after several seemingly minor injuries dragged on and on and on in recent seasons.
Calipari tried to spin the positives — that they’ve both added “20, 25 pounds of muscle” because they couldn’t do anything but eat and pump iron — but noted that missing the summer exhibition games in Canada and months of practice time and developmental work “will affect them.”
“It will take time,” Calipari said. “But I think they’re both really talented. They’ve got good skills. So it’s the bump and grind of the game they’re not seeing.”
Kentucky’s other big man, 7-foot-2 Croatian freshman Zvonimir Ivisic, is at least finally on campus after a long delay in his acceptance to the university. He arrived in Lexington a week ago and was expected to participate in his first full-contact practice with the Wildcats on Wednesday night. That helps, but Calipari is already pumping the brakes on Ivisic excitement, too.
“The academic hurdles are done,” he said, but Ivisic still has to go through the NCAA’s eligibility process to prove that he maintained amateur status while playing on a professional European club the last two years. “Knowing that he played on a development team, the club he was in, I feel good. But they’ve got to go through the process of doing it. They’ll ask questions and all that. I think he’ll be in good shape, but he has to go through the process like every other foreign student would do.”
What is Kentucky getting in 7-foot-2 Croatian center Zvonimir Ivisic?
Kentucky wouldn’t have taken Ivisic if it wasn’t confident he’ll be cleared by the NCAA, but the other danger is overestimating how much and how soon he can help Kentucky. Calipari said Wednesday that the “Free Big Z” movement on social media, as fans harassed UK’s admissions office to let the big man into school, turned him into a Paul Bunyanesque figure.
“Because it took so long to get him here, every week that went by, he got better and better and bigger and bigger impact. ‘Oh my gosh, he’s King Kong,’” Calipari said. But in reality, “he’s a piece of the puzzle for us. He’s 7-2, pretty skilled. He’s just going to start contact in tonight’s practice. So if you think he’s ready to walk in, dominate a game, you’re not thinking right.”
The more likely scenario is Kentucky starting the season with 6-foot-9 West Virginia transfer Tre Mitchell as its center, playing out of position in a stretch-five role. That worked well in the exhibition games in Canada, where it forced Calipari to deploy a more modern and aesthetically pleasing brand of offense. But it limits Kentucky defensively and could lead to a major handicap on the glass, where the Wildcats dominated the last two seasons with Oscar Tshiebwe patrolling the paint.
“I look at myself as a plug-and-play guy that can really do anything,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “Maybe if there’s just some unbelievably huge dude at the five (like 7-foot-2, 260-pound All-American Hunter Dickinson, whom UK will face against Kansas in less than a month) it might hurt with some rebounds or something at times, but I still feel like I’m strong enough to get him out of the way and let one of my other guys get the rebound. The advantage to me at the five is the versatility that I bring to the table, because there’s not many fives that have super-quick feet and can guard a pick-and-pop or pick-and-short roll.”
Oh? Canada trip shows Kentucky might have a new, more modern way to play
The other problem for Kentucky, at least as skeptics see it, is that Mitchell is one of just two seniors on the team. The rest of the roster: eight freshmen, two sophomores. Calipari has leaned all the way back into young talent when the rest of college basketball now lives by a “get old, stay old” mantra. Tennessee, Texas A&M and Arkansas, all picked ahead of the Cats, are loaded with veteran college players.
“But I’m not complaining,” Calipari said. “I love the group. I love walking into practice every day. They want to get better. They’re coachable. We’re talented. They’re just young.”
Calipari’s best friend in the league, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, returned a veteran nucleus from a Sweet 16 team and has been picked to win the SEC this year. The Volunteers start out as a top-10 team in the AP poll.
“It’s a huge advantage when you have older guys,” Barnes said. “I hope we always have older guys. We still believe in what we try to do with our player development. Getting old, staying old, I think is really important. You look at our league this year, this is an old league.”
So how big is the challenge his longtime pal is taking on with a freshman-heavy team again?
“It’s tough,” Barnes said. “I’ve got a great coaching staff, but I’ve got five (players) that know what we’re trying to get done out there that can help do it. If you don’t have that, it does make it more difficult. With an older group, you can get a lot more done early in the year compared to the younger guys. (But) we would all tell you talent is a good thing to have, and he certainly has that.”
Five-star freshmen Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw, DJ Wagner and Rob Dillingham all have legitimate NBA potential — and Ivisic was considered one of the top young prospects in Europe — so despite all the headaches that might come with coaching a young team in this super-experienced era of college basketball, “nobody is feeling sad for John,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl joked.
Not everyone views youth as a disqualifier for national title contention either.
“I think it depends on who those freshmen are,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, who got to consecutive Elite Eights with mostly transfers and made the Sweet 16 last season with three starting freshmen. “Coach Calipari, there’s no one better at coaching younger players. There’s no one better in the country, probably no one better in the history of college basketball, coaching young guys. I don’t think there’s a close second. So, yes, I do think they can have great success even though they’re young, because he’s got lottery picks.”
(Top photo of John Calipari at SEC basketball media day: Mike Stewart / AP)