The ’20-21 season will be John Calipari’s toughest coaching project yet at Kentucky

Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 04/21/20

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It’s no secret at this point: Experience matters in college basketball.

Though freshmen have proven to be some of the best players in the sport in the one-and-done era, it’s often the teams led by upperclassmen that get it done in March.

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Last week we discovered that top-10 recruiting classes, on average, usually don’t have substantial positive impacts on year-to-year success. Over the past five years, teams that welcomed in top-10 recruiting classes saw an average year-to-year winning percentage change of minus-1.7 percent. Teams with top-10 classes that returned fewer than 1500 minutes from their top six players saw a massive 14.4-percent decline in year-to-year winning percentage.

This brings us to the 2020-21 Kentucky Wildcats. It’s been a pretty typical offseason for John Calipari’s team, as he has the nation’s best freshman class to offset several players headed to the NBA Draft.

According to 24/7Sports, Kentucky will have six top-50 players on campus next season, highlighted by five-star prospects Terrence Clarke, BJ Boston and and Devin Askew. In terms of talent, the Wildcats probably have the best roster, on paper, in America.

Now comes the concerning part for Big Blue Nation.

Kentucky lost Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards, Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, E.J. Montgomery and Kahlil Whitney — who transferred during the season — to the draft. Additionally, Nate Sestina’s eligibility is up and Johnny Juzang transferred to UCLA.

If that seems like a lot of attrition, you’re correct. Keion Brooks, who was seventh on the team last season with 469 minutes played, is the only returning Wildcat on scholarship for next season.

No sweat for John Calipari, right? Well, not exactly.

With just 7.7 percent of the team’s total minutes set to return for ’20-21, Kentucky would rank dead last in the nation in roster continuity, according to Bart Torvik.

The table below features every high-major team since 2008 that brought back fewer than 10 percent of the team’s total minutes the following season.

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The average team on this list saw a decline of over 108 spots in KenPom the following year and none of the seven teams reached the NCAA Tournament.

Most importantly, the 2013 Kentucky team is included. That squad, of course, is Calipari’s only Wildcats group that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, being eliminated in the first round of the NIT by Robert Morris after a 16-point drubbing against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament.

The absence of superstar Nerlens Noel, who tore his ACL in mid-February, surely had an impact on Kentucky’s late-season flameout as the Wildcats went 4-5 with him sidelined. Even still, Calipari’s team was already sitting near the bubble before Noel went down. Kentucky declined from the preseason No. 3 team in the country to unranked before the end of November and remained unranked for 13 of the season’s final 14 weeks.

To be clear, just because the ’20-21 Wildcats are severely lacking in roster continuity doesn’t mean they are destined for the NIT. Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski are probably the only coaches in basketball who can turn a team full of freshmen into one of the nation’s strongest squads.

But if we find Kentucky stumbling into the bubble conversation next February, just remember that we’ve seen this story before, and that chapter concluded with an NIT loss to Robert Morris.


Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.