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Monday, September 25, 2023

Meet the Juggernaut: A cheat sheet for the Kentucky roster

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the Kentucky roster, it’s worth noting just how deep head coach John Calipari enjoys going into his treasure trove of five-star recruits. If you were to make a list of every player in Saturday’s game and order them by the percentage of minutes played for their team, the Top 5 would be entirely Wisconsin players and spots 6 through 13 would be entirely Kentucky. Wisconsin’s most used lineup is on the court 48.3 percent of the time; Kentucky’s is used just 13.1 percent.

Every one of the players specified below is likely to see the court for real minutes, making the Wildcats even harder to project matchups for. There are many reasons these guys are undefeated and depth is one of the biggest.

Karl-Anthony Towns, freshman center

Specialty: Everything you could possibly want from a center

Meet the one guy challenging Duke’s Jahlil Okafor as the NBA Draft’s No. 1 pick. How do you challenge the best low-post scorer in a generation for that spot? By actually being a quality defender, as well as not too shabby on offense.

Towns is the prototypical center, the most talented big man on the team with one of the most talented groups of big men in college basketball history. He scores in the paint, has a semblance of a mid-range jump shot, rebounds at an elite rate on both ends of the floor and blocks shots like they insulted his mother.

This guy was so talented, Calipari almost definitely volunteered to coach his Dominican Republic team in order to recruit him, which is incidentally the single most John Calipari thing ever.

The only limitation Towns faces is the one imposed on him by his coaches. Despite being the most talented player on the team, he sees the floor in only 51.5 percent of Kentucky’s minutes, which ranks seventh on the team.

On a team without a preposterously deep stable of big men, we’d be talking about Towns as a National Player of the Year finalist. When the Wildcats needed someone to step up in the Notre Dame thriller, Towns pulled a Sam Dekker by bulldozing the Fighting Irish with 17 second-half points on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting.

Oh, and he also has an imaginary friend named Karlito. Felt that was important to mention.

Willie Cauley-Stein, junior center

Specialty: Defending ANYONE on the court

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If there’s a guy who can shut down Frank Kaminsky one-on-one, this is him. Unless Kentucky wants to sic its defensive ace on the recently blazing hot Sam Dekker. Or Bronson Koenig, because whatever. Cauley-Stein can probably guard any of them.

Whatever lab scientists who created Cauley-Stein started with a 7-foot frame and longer wingspan, then gave him the quickness of a wide receiver (warning: video of said football career may cause you to cackle at high school cornerbacks who had no idea what they were getting into), creating a defensive monster.

Despite an inability to generate his own offense, Cauley-Stein is still projected to go in the Top 10 on the strength of his defense, his rebounding and his defense again. He’s the favorite to win the NABC Defensive Player of the Year award and would be Wisconsin’s biggest nightmare if it has one those nights where it needs to ride the Tank on offense.

Andrew Harrison, sophomore guard

Specialty: Passing

This may be the most mercurial player on Kentucky’s roster, as Harrison and his twin were expected to be two of the most talented guards in the country when they entered as freshmen. They then proceeded to ruin team chemistry in losses, play themselves into the draft’s second round and make us all question if the Kentucky system can actually work long term.

Don’t quite remember that? That may be because they finally got their crap together and helped lead the Wildcats to the national championship game, then cement UK as the preseason No. 1 by returning for a sophomore season.

Since then, this Harrison has been a strong passing point guard, which is really all the team needs with this kind of frontcourt talent. Still, it’s a shock that “good enough” is the label everyone’s accepting for what used to be a Top 10 recruit.

Aaron Harrison, sophomore guard

Specialty: Being a bad, bad man

We all know what this Harrison did, we don’t need to talk about it. It’s going to be shown more than enough in the pregame show.

Amazingly, Harrison hasn’t been all that good a deep shooter this season, making only 31.9 percent of his 3-pointers. At one point late in the season, it was actually in the 20s, but he’s increased it in the postseason to the surprise of no one. At the very least, he’s foul averse and rarely turns the ball over, so the “good enough” moniker comes out again.

The man continues to have a track record of eviscerating dreams at the final buzzer, so, uh, heads up if this game goes down to the wire.

Quick PSA: Aaron is wears No. 2 and has a buzzcut, Andrew is No. 5 and grows his hair out. Hopefully, this will help prevent you from sounding stupid at your Final Four party.

Devin Booker, freshman guard

Specialty: Outside shooting

Here’s Kentucky’s real sniper, shooting 41.1 percent from deep. Booker is prone to hot and cold stretches that span several games, including a General Sherman-esque march through the early stages of SEC play.

He’s an elite shooter from both wings and the left corner and is going to require a guard in his face at all times. As lethal as Kentucky’s frontcourt is, having this guy open would simply make them unfair.

Dakari Johnson, sophomore center

Specialty: Offensive rebounding

Of all the returnees from the Wildcats’ historic freshman class from last season, this one registers as the most shocking. Johnson has NBA talent, but instead decided to play a year behind the more talented Towns and Cauley-Stein.

Overall, Johnson is basically a poor man’s version of Towns, with comparable range, rebounding and defense. He’s lucky a poor man’s version of Towns is still good enough to go in the first round of the draft.

Trey Lyles, freshman forward

Specialty: Face-up offense

As perfect as Kentucky has been, it still has flaws. For starters, Lyles is the only member of the frontcourt who can reliably make jumpers and give the Wildcats a Nigel Hayes-like threat to stretch the floor.

Lyles is nowhere near as talented as some of the other big men, but his ability to play a small forward role makes him invaluable in spacing the offense. Especially since the other guy who did that, junior Alex Poythress, went down with a season-ending ACL tear in December.

Tyler Ulis, freshman guard

Specialty: Energy

Remember that alien from Space Jam who drew the short straw and took Muggsy Bogues’ talent, while all his friends got to become 20 feet tall? That’s basically Tyler Ulis, since the guard is at least nine inches shorter than every member of the Kentucky Monstars listed above.

Ulis possesses the skill set any guard needs to succeed. A quick and active defender, great passer and strong 3-point shooter, Ulis could actually stay in school and become a constant presence for Calipari to build around.

He also runs his mouth as much as the Bogues alien, evidence being his Ivan Drago-level chest-beating after the Wildcats humiliated West Virginia.

The White Walkers

Once you see the walk-ons, you know you’re already dead (or losing by 30).

John Calipari, head coach

I’ve already written why we should lay off Calipari and his Wildcats, but it bears repeating: Recruiting is a skill that Calipari is an all-time great at, his system works better than any in the country for NBA hopefuls and none of his pupils deserve flak for daring to enjoy money.

This season is his masterpiece and he deserves credit for it. Unless it gets vacated.

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