When he arrived in Lexington before the 2009-10 season, Kentucky coach John Calipari mixed a star-studded freshman class that included John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins with returnees Patrick Patterson, Perry Stevenson and Darius Miller, who were holdovers from previous coach Billy Gillispie's regime. When Kentucky won the national title with freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012, the Wildcats leaned on veteran Miller for senior leadership.
In 2014-15, when UK ran the table in the regular season, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress were juniors, and the Harrison twins -- Andrew and Aaron -- returned after starting a combined 79 games as freshmen. The following season, Poythress was a senior. The 2016-17 team featured seniors Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins as well as sophomore Isaiah Briscoe.
This coming season, Calipari will have to replace a staggering 2,987 points -- which amounts to 93 percent of the team's scoring. The leading returning scorer and lone player who received any meaningful minutes in '16-17 is sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, who scored 174 points (4.6 per game) and logged just 10 total minutes in the Wildcats' final two NCAA tournament contests against UCLA and North Carolina.
But an inordinate amount of inexperience isn't the lone reason Big Blue Nation will need to temper expectations this season -- especially in the early months.
This will be Calipari's most imposing reload yet.
Calipari has always possessed a clear one-and-done superstar. The first season he had a pair -- Wall and Cousins. It was Brandon Knight in 2010-11, and Davis and MKG in the national title campaign. The following season was a mess and ended up with an NIT berth, yet Nerlens Noel was pegged as a lock to leave after one season in college. That's exactly what happened. Julius Randle was the guy in 2013-14. Karl-Anthony Towns was the guy in 2014-15. In 2015-16, it was Jamal Murray. Last season there were three: Malik Monk, De'Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo.
This season, Kentucky's recruiting class is again ranked No. 1. Calipari will welcome seven freshmen, and six of them are ranked in the top 35 of the ESPN 100. However, it's also the first time that Calipari doesn't have a surefire one-and-done coming into the program.
Who is the superstar among this group? No one knows yet.
"I think they'll have a bunch of different guys who lead them in scoring this year," one high-major head coach told ESPN.
While we don't know yet who will leave after next season, what we do know is that at least one player -- and likely more -- will emerge and bolt. Certainly, no one would be surprised if athletic wing Hamidou Diallo, who almost remained in the NBA draft this year despite not playing a single game last season, chooses to leave in 2018.
The most likely candidates from the Class of 2017 are wing Kevin Knox (ESPN No. 9) and Nick Richards (16), but it wouldn't be shocking to see P.J. Washington (11), Jarred Vanderbilt (18), Quade Green (23) or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (33) make the move after one season in college.
Perimeter shooting a concern
This team is long, deep, versatile and ultra-athletic. One aspect that is up for debate, however, is whether this team has enough perimeter shooters who can keep opposing defenses honest.
"They have a lot of guys who think they can shoot it from deep," said one high-major assistant who has recruited and seen all of Kentucky's incoming freshmen. "But that's not their strength. Quade can set guys up, but these guys won't make shots at the clip that Kentucky is used to."
Diallo is shot-challenged. Gabriel has proven he's more of an energy 4-man, and Washington is a power forward who does most of his damage inside 15 feet. Vanderbilt and Gilgeous-Alexander are both solid from the perimeter, but that isn't their strengths. Green can make shots from deep. Knox has worked hard to vastly improve that aspect of his game. And the most overlooked player in the incoming freshman class, former Cal commit Jemarl Baker, may be Kentucky's top threat beyond the arc.
SEC deepest in a decade
The SEC can finally be taken seriously in hoops. Sure, last year South Carolina advanced to the Final Four. But that came out of nowhere. The league got a handful of teams into the Dance, but South Carolina (7), Arkansas (8) and Vanderbilt (9) received lackluster seeds.
In Calipari's eight seasons in Lexington, the league has been largely mediocre. The SEC has received five NCAA tourney invites three times, three bids in three other years, and four bids twice.
Next year the SEC has a legit chance to get at least six teams into the tournament for the first time in a decade.
Georgia coach Mark Fox said this is the best the conference has been since he entered the league in 2009, the same year as Calipari.
"There are realistically 13 teams that have legitimate NCAA tournament chances," Fox said. "It's not just the strongest it's been; it's also the deepest."
Kentucky, Florida, Alabama and Texas A&M are all worthy of the Top 25 preseason poll. The Gators will bring back the core of a team that nearly reached the Final Four; Tide coach Avery Johnson will add a pair of top 25 guards, Collin Sexton and John Petty; and the Aggies will address their point guard concerns with J.J. Caldwell, who joins one of the nation's most talented front lines.
Missouri will welcome the nation's top freshman, Michael Porter Jr., along with another Top 50 recruit, Jeremiah Tilmon. Mississippi State isn't nearly as young, but despite losing a couple of transfers, coach Ben Howland returns Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Aric Holman, Tyson Carter, I.J. Ready and Xavian Stapleton -- and adds point guard Nick Weatherspoon (ESPN No. 34).
Coach Bruce Pearl has Auburn in position to make a run at a tournament bid. Mustapha Heron opted to return, and now the Tigers aren't nearly as young with guys like Danjel Purifoy, Horace Spencer, Jared Harper and Austin Wiley having game experience under their belts. Arkansas was a tournament team in 2017. Coach Mike Anderson brings back three starters and adds a top-20 recruiting class. Georgia lost J.J. Frazier, but coach Fox has one of the nation's top big men back in Yante Maten, returns just about everyone else, and adds a top 40 recruit in Rayshaun Hammonds. Vanderbilt will have to replace Luke Kornet, but coach Bryce Drew has the bulk of his team back. South Carolina will take a hit with significant losses, and Ole Miss is a bit of a mystery despite coach Andy Kennedy bringing back leading scorer DeAndre Burnett. Tennessee won eight league games last season and didn't lose much. LSU is the program that should struggle as new coach Will Wade wasn't left much from Johnny Jones' team, which won just a pair of conference games.
Depth shouldn't be an issue this year in the SEC, and there won't be quite as many cupcakes as has been the case in the past for Kentucky.
What does that mean?
Kentucky won't run the table this season. In fact, don't be shocked if the Cats lose five or six games again in the regular season, something that has occurred in half of Calipari's eight-year tenure.
"I think they'll be down," one high-major assistant told ESPN. "Especially early if they have a tough nonconference schedule. But the positive for them is that college basketball took a hit. All the best freshmen left after last season, and this year's freshman class isn't that good."
Kentucky's team is the youngest in the SEC, and likely the most inexperienced in the country. There's no veteran leader, no clear NBA lottery talent and no longer a weak SEC to help rack up league victories.
That means Kentucky will likely be vulnerable.
It also may translate to a loaded Wildcats team in 2018-19, one that features a surprisingly high number of returnees -- and boasts talent, experience and leadership.