Championship pieces in place for this year’s Cats


Head coach John Calipari yells at his team during the game against Clarion on Sunday, October 30, 2016 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Hunter Mitchell | Staff

Anthony Crawford

With the preseason now behind UK men’s basketball, head coach John Calipari has declined to make any comment or make any specific suggestion about how this team compares to any of his past teams. But that’s OK because I have no problem making my own comparisons.

This group of talented recruits and incumbent players are interesting because of the depth and versatility they possess, and it’s for that reason that making a comparison to any one team is hard. But there is definitely elements taken from a few past squads that make it clear this team has the pieces of a championship team.

Aesthetically, it’s hard to look at this team and not have flashbacks of Calipari’s first team at UK. The team was a fast-paced squad driven by the engine that was John Wall. Wall arrived at UK as the No. 1 recruit in the country and quickly started looking the part of the first overall draft pick in that year’s NBA Draft. De’Aaron Fox has played two exhibition games in his UK career so far, but has looked like he can fit perfectly in that mold left by Wall.

That 2009-10 team loved to get out and run, but they only got those opportunities because of how hard they played on defense. According to, that Cats squad was sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency and led the nation in block percentage. 

With the length that this year’s team can boast on the perimeter with Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe, it may be more likely that this team registers as one of the top teams in steals, but either way defensive pressure will be there. 

The comparison switches to another Cats squad when looking at the roster construction, but rather one with actual championship pedigree — the 2011-12 UK basketball team.

There are players on that team that are generational talents that make it hard for anyone player to fill in for. That’s why it may take a combination of players in those cases and this Cats’ team has parts to spare.

The first guy that made that team truly special and played maybe the biggest part in adding another banner in Rupp Arena is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. There was not a single player in college basketball that year that wanted to win more or would do more to win, and it showed with how relentless he went after loose balls and how unstoppable he was in transition. 

Thankfully those two qualities are specialties of some current Cats. 

Calipari has already come out in saying the same rule that applied to Kidd-Gilchrist in throwing the ball to him whenever he leaked out into open space on the break now applies to Monk. The freshman shooting guard already has some impressive dunks to his name and his athleticism will lead to easy points in transition just as Kidd-Gilchrist’s did for that season’s team.

The other thing that made Kidd-Gilchrist key was how hard he played. Wenyen Gabriel and Bam Adebayo are similar in that regard, but with his 6’10”, 260 lbs frame, Adebayo has the ability to take over games with his effort.

There should not be any rebound that Adebayo wants that he doesn’t get, and although he isn’t known for being a shot blocker, he is athletic enough to make those types of plays. Adebayo also runs the floor extremely well and that has resulted in a lot of dunks and putbacks on attempts at the rim. 

The other facet the 2011-12 title team had was a veteran presence in senior Darius Miller and sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. This team enjoys that same luxury with seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis and sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. 

Neither Hawkins nor Willis have made the same impact up to this point in their careers that Miller had entering that championship season, but both have enjoyed defining stretches that have proved they can be beneficial to the team. 

Hawkins played a small but important role his freshman year when he was thrown into the Cats; Elite Eight matchup against Michigan and was forced to guard Nik Stauskas, one of the top offensive players that year in college basketball. Hawkins also hit multiple key threes in last year’s matchup with in-state rival Louisville to help secure the win. 

Willis was a bit of a breakout player for UK last season, but his play to close the season played a big part in UK making a run for a SEC title and helped unlock the offense with his shooting. 

Lastly, Briscoe will have his turn to be a lead guard and has looked great in UK’s exhibitions. Winning plays will be brought up a lot when discussing Briscoe’s play this year, and it’s for that reason that he should be the team’s primary decision maker, even if he is splitting ball-handling responsibilities with one of the freshmen guards. 

The comparison between these past team, but the key elements that made 2009-10 and 2011-12 season are present in this year’s team, and only time will tell if they end up more like the team that finished in the Elite Eight or the one that was cutting down the nets to close the season.