Although it’s technically April, and less than a month removed from the Final Four, the end of Kentucky’s basketball season is officially “last” season. All three core returners – Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee – talked to the media Wednesday about the season that ended 25 days ago as “last year,” while “this year” referred to the season that won’t begin for another seven months.
How one looks at a calendar may be different for basketball players, but probably for good reason. For those returning to Lexington for another season, they’re focusing only on the future, while simultaneously closing the door on a year that ended in crushing defeat and a busted perfect record.
“We’re definitely not what we had this past season because we had 10 guys,” Ulis said. “We’re definitely not gonna have that many. It’s gonna be different but we’re still gonna be talented and we’re still gonna make a run for this. But we didn’t win it last year, so we’re gonna try to do that this year.”
It would be hard to top the level of pure talent Kentucky had this season, but that hardly means that John Calipari is going to be rolling out a team of scrubs. In addition to Ulis, Poythress and Lee, there are Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins – two players who have seen limited time on the court, but still have serious (albeit raw) potential.
At its current state, the Wildcats’ recruiting class includes four players – Skal Labissiere (five-star), Isaiah Briscoe (five-star), Charles Matthews (four-star) and Mychal Mulder (four-star).
But as Calipari’s most successful season at UK (2011-12) would show, it’s not always about the freshmen, but about who comes back.
While Anthony Davis certainly could carry a heck of a load in his long arms, that team’s success was also about the upperclassmen leadership from senior Darius Millerso and phomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.
The makeup of next season will be similar: a senior, junior and sophomore with significant playing time all returning.
“Last year I guess our fans got kind of spoiled – we had 10 guys,” Poythress said. “We only need five to play to be honest. … You only need five and I feel like we have five of the most talented people here already, with people coming in too, so I feel like we’ll be fine and ready to play from day one.”
Poythress will be returning as the token old man on the squad – after tearing his ACL, he missed the majority of Kentucky’s 38-1 run, and could help himself immensely, NBA draft-wise, by returning. At this point, he said he’s on schedule to return by the preseason; he’s been jogging and doing some jumping, as well.
Cutting will come at some point, and after that, he’ll be able to get back on the court in a normal way.
“I’ve got things I’ve got to work on, just like everybody else has got things they’ve got to work on,” he said. “If I put it all together, and I think I’m in a great position to put it all together, I feel like the sky’s the limit for me.”
How Poythress can return – as the athletic freak capable of terrorizing other teams on both sides of the court, or as the raw talent who is inconsistent – will be a huge key to next season (sorry, this season). Like Calipari has said, it’s officially Poythress’ and Lee’s “time.”
“To me and Alex, it just means we have to get ourselves right,” Lee said. “We have to get our bodies and mentally right for each game and each practice because we know we have to push each other. We have to push our team.”
Lee said he’s barely left the gym since the team returned from the Final Four in Indianapolis. Because to him – and the other remnants from Kentucky’s almost-perfect year – the end of that season, although only 25 days ago, is firmly in the past.
Next season is already “this” season to this team, and they’re getting ready for the challenge it will bring.
“Last year, we were overly blessed with so many players that could play, it didn’t really matter whether everybody had a great game or not,” Lee said. “Everybody has to be on the ball this year and to be pushed even harder.”
Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York in June.