By Jamie H. Vaught
When the next basketball season of 2015-16 rolls around, UK will look drastically different.
That's because at least 10 players, including three senior walk-ons, are gone from this past season's memorable 38-1 Final Four team which become the third program to win an NCAA record 38 games in a single season.
But Kentucky's leading returnees -- former McDonald's All-Americans Alex Poythress, Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee -- are ready to take charge and help the Cats continue their winning ways along with incoming freshman superstars.
While UK won't enjoy its once-a-lifetime depth like it did this past winter, the Wildcats still are expected to be a serious threat on the floor -- a likely Top 10 club -- even though their 2015-16 roster is not completely done yet.
"I think we'll be fine," said senior-to-be Poythress in a media gathering last week. "We have a lot of talent coming in. We have a lot of talent already."
A 6-8, 235-pounder from Clarksville, Tenn., Poythress, who sat out most of last season due to a knee injury, will become UK's first four-year player averaging more than 10 minutes per game over his career since Darius Miller in the 2011-12 season.
Before suffering a torn ACL in left knee during a mid-December practice, Poythress was averaging 5.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 20.3 minutes in eight starts..
Poythress added that coach John Calipari has demanded him to do more next season.
"He just wants me to step up and be a leader of this team," he said. "He wants me to run practice.”
Poythress added that he is still recovering from his injury but will be ready by the time practice begins in October.
"I’m jogging right now," he said. "I’ll probably start some single leg jumps and stuff soon. I’m progressing. It’s been a struggle and a journey. That’s how it is with ACL injuries. It’ll all be worth it when I finish rehab and everything. I’ll be fine for the preseason."
Like Poythress, 5-9 guard Ulis is also expected to provide crucial leadership for the Wildcats.
“Yeah, I feel like he (Calipari) wants me to lead the team and especially as a point guard," said Ulis, a member of SEC All-Freshman team. "So I have to step up and do a lot more than I did last year.
"I have to lead more and be more of a leader on and off the court. I will probably play more minutes than last year. I won’t be behind the (Harrison) twins. They took a lot off of our shoulders this year and I just have to be able to step up more."
Ulis played a key role in UK's success in 2014-15, hitting clutch three-pointers late in the NCAA tournament victories over Notre Dame and Cincinnati. The Lima, Ohio native also led the team in three-point shooting percentage (.429) on 33 of 77 downtown jumpers (behind Devin Booker's 41.1 percent) while posting a 135-to-38 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Meanwhile, after averaging 6.3 and 10.9 minutes during his freshman and sophomore years, respectively, 6-9 forward Lee is looking to play significantly more minutes next season. Calipari has said it's time for Lee and Poythress to step up and be major players at Kentucky.
"To me and Alex, it just means we have to get ourselves right," said Lee, a junior-to-be from Antioch, Calif. "We have to get our bodies right for each game and each practice. We know we have to push each other. We have to push our team to where we need to be."
Lee also commented this is a great opportunity for him to show what he can do on the hardwood floor after playing behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, who are both potential Top 10 (or possibly Top 5) picks in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Last season, Lee led UK in field-goal percentage (minimum 20 attempts), hitting 64.4 percent on 47 of 73 field goals. He grabbed a career-high-tying eight rebounds against Auburn at Rupp Arena.
Against Alabama in Lexington, Lee also had an outstanding game, scoring eight points and getting a team-high five boards in only 17 minutes. He also blocked a career-high-tying four shots at South Carolina.
Lee wouldn't say what he's been trying to improve on the court.
"I’m not going to tell you that," he said. "This (the practice gym) is my place. You guys can figure that out when it comes."
The Wildcats also have 6-0 guard Dominique Hawkins and 6-9 forward Derek Willis along with 6-3 guard EJ Floreal coming back. Hawkins, a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball from Richmond, Ky., saw action in 23 games, starting nine times and averaging 7.1 minutes. Willis logged in an average of nearly 4 minutes in 19 games.
Poythress, whose twin sister is also a student at UK, was asked about the pressure of playing at Kentucky, the winningest college basketball program in NCAA Division I history.
"The pressure is going to be the same every year," he said. "I’m used to it by now. The new guys will have to learn that. Tyler, Marcus and I will be there to help them along the way. It’s just hard. When you get here, you have to face reality and everything, but I feel like we have a great group of guys coming in and they’ll be able to handle it."
Ulis is already optimistic about the next season. To be successful, he said it will take "a lot of hard work and a lot of teaching and listening to the coaches. With the freshmen coming in, we have an entirely new team with seven people leaving, but with the leadership of me, Marcus and Alex I feel like we will be fine."
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If you're looking for a new UK basketball book with a historical perspective, you may want to consider "Sinister Influences: Kentucky's Fabulous Five and the Point-Shaving Scandal of 1951" (Acclaim Press, $24.95) by Ron Elliott. I'm honored to have written a blurb on the back page for this book and it's an entertaining look of UK basketball over 60 years ago.
It's a historical piece about one of UK's darkest chapters in basketball as well as the Fabulous Five players of Ralph Beard, Wah Wah Jones, Alex Groza, Kenny Rollins and Cliff Barker as well as others, including Bill Spivey. The book also includes statistics and many obscure details of the scandal which cost the players their vocation and nearly prematurely ended coach Adolph Rupp’s career. Kentucky was one of several schools involved in the scandal.
There were many interesting tidbits that I either had forgotten or didn't know. You certainly can tell the author did his homework and the 237-page hardcover definitely would make a nice addition to your UK sports library.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.