LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s roster always seems dominated by freshmen. This year will be no different.
The Wildcats will have eight new faces this fall. It has been a way of life in Lexington with the steady flow of one-and-dones under coach John Calipari.
But sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, along with redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo have eagerly embraced new leadership roles — though they’re entering just their second seasons themselves.
“When the season ended, (leadership) was expected with a lot of the team gone,” said Gabriel, a forward who returns as the lone starter from a 32-6 Kentucky squad that lost eight regulars and returns just 7.4 percent of its scoring.
“As the season’s going on, you already know you’re going to lose most of your team and you’re going to come back as the leader, so I embraced that role.”
Mentoring is among multiple responsibilities the returning Wildcats will have. This year’s squad is young even by Kentucky standards under Calipari.
While the coach has landed another top-three recruiting class expected to take Kentucky on another championship run, Calipari — as usual this time of year— is sorting through where those high school All-Americans fit together and into his strategy.
He seems to always figure it out, yet consistently offers a familiar cautionary tale. He warned on media day Thursday that “we will be ugly early” while trying to develop scoring, defense and depth with so much youth.
That places expectations on the veterans — those Wildcats who aren’t freshmen — to raise their play and set the tone while making the newcomers comfortable.
“People have got to perform (because) people are not going to follow if you’re not out there doing your job,” Calipari said, noting the improvement of Gabriel, Killeya-Jones and 6-10 Tai Wynyard.
“But the leadership can come from anybody, it doesn’t have to come from veterans. I’ve had it different ways here.”
Calipari makes it clear he’s expecting a lot from the 6-9 Gabriel, who started 23 of 38 games last season. He averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds and looks to be more aggressive rebounding and scoring after shooting just 41 percent from the field.
Kentucky’s most intriguing returnee might be 6-5 guard Diallo, a January enrollee who dressed but didn’t play. At one point last spring he appeared to be leaning toward entering the NBA Draft without playing a minute for the Wildcats before deciding to return and get needed court time.
“I feel more like a sophomore, honestly,” Diallo said. “I’m very anxious, very confident and just can’t wait to get out there and play a full season again. Just show what kind of player I am and what kind of person I am as well.”
Diallo, Gabriel and Killeya-Jones are providing Kentucky’s freshmen a support system on and off the court.
“If it wasn’t for Wenyen and Tai, I’d be struggling right now,” 6-11 Nick Richards said, noting how they’ve helped him understand Calipari’s system along with showing him around campus.
In both cases, the second-year players are stressing patience adapting to college life and basketball, a lesson learned from being newcomers themselves a year ago. The difference now is they’re expected to speak up more through their performance and in the locker room.
“It’s definitely a big jump, but nothing too crazy,” said the 6-10 Jones, who played in 15 games last season. “It’s more than being a teacher; it’s just pointing out small things.
“Obviously, these guys are high-level players and athletes and understand what’s going on already. But the small things such as rotations and things that they haven’t been through, we’re just helping with what’s going on.”