Final Four can help John Calipari build Kentucky's basketball roster


LEXINGTON — As Kentucky's 2023-24 basketball season ended with another frustrating first-round NCAA Tournament flameout, longtime coach John Calipari has vowed he will make changes to his roster construction for 2024-25. Most notably, there's less reliance on underclassmen — 10 players on the 2023-24 roster were freshmen or sophomores — and more reliance on veterans. To achieve that goal, Calipari will not only turn to the NCAA transfer portal, but also try to convince some members of the 2023-24 roster to return next season.

Based on the lineup of recent national champions, it would make sense if Calipari were to change his approach to rely on more experienced players – rather than the one-time rookies who have been his calling card since his first season in Great Britain in 2009-10.

The numbers prove it, based on a Courier Journal analysis that examines the roster composition of the seven most recent national champions as well as this season's Final Four teams.

Since Duke won the national title in 2015, no champion has relied on newcomers to lead them to glory.

In 2016, Villanova's starting lineup featured only one freshman (Jalen Brunson). The following season, under Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, North Carolina didn't have a rookie en route to its third (and final) title. The same was true at Villanova in 2018, where four juniors/fourth-year juniors and one redshirt freshman started. Kihei Clark, a freshman guard, started 20 games (including the national title game) for Virginia in 2019 but was flanked by a quartet of upperclassmen. After the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament, Baylor returned the following season with a starting lineup of three juniors and two seniors. Kansas won the national championship in 2022 with a roster of three seniors, a fourth-year junior and a junior. And last season, UConn secured its fifth national title in program history by fielding a starting lineup that included a senior, two juniors, a sophomore and a redshirt freshman.

Even outside of the starting lineups of the seven most recent national champions, there were only a few newcomers.

Brunson was the only freshman in Villanova's rotation in 2016. That was Tony Bradley for the 2017 UNC squad. Villanova's title-winning team in 2018 had two freshmen (Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree), but neither averaged more than five points per game. Clark was the only freshman in Virginia's rotation in 2019. LJ Cryer was the only freshman to average double-digit minutes for Baylor in 2021 — and overall, he played just eight minutes in that season's NCAA Tournament. Of the 10 players who appeared in at least 30 games for Kansas during the 2021-22 season, not a single one was younger than a junior. And UConn only had one freshman reserve last season: Donovan Clingan, who is now a starter on this year's Final Four squad.

Speaking of the Final Four, which will take place Saturday night in Arizona, the quartet of teams that will compete on college basketball's biggest stage is, no surprise, full of veterans.

UConn is the only one of the four to start a freshman (Stephon Castle), but it is surrounded by three returnees from last season's national champions (Clingan, Alex Karaban and Tristen Newton) and a battle-tested graduate transfer in Cam Spencer.

The other three teams competing for the title this weekend — Alabama, NC State and Purdue — have just four true freshmen in their main rotations. Dennis Parker comes off the bench for the Wolfpack (despite not playing in over a month). Mouhamed Dioubate, Jarin Stevenson and Sam Walters are reserve players for the Crimson Tide. And the Boilermakers don't have a true freshman on their team.

A season can be an anomaly.

But data from seven – soon to be eight – seasons shows that Kentucky can't rely on freshmen (no matter how talented) to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015 and potentially bring a ninth national title to the Rupp Arena season whatever they may be) and expect the desired results.

How can John Calipari use recent national champions as a blueprint for the 2024-25 Kentucky basketball roster?

Calipari didn't give up last season and returned to his successful past by choosing to field a roster full of underclassmen in the 2023-24 season. It didn't work out, as the Wildcats finished undecided in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

Calipari mimicking the roster configurations of recent national champions won't be a straight line.

That's because, as Calipari is used to, UK will be playing with a lot of freshmen next season and the second-best class in the country is coming to town. Calipari's latest recruiting move includes six players: four five-star prospects (Boogie Fland, Karter Knox, Jayden Quaintance and Billy Richmond) and two four-stars (big man Somto Cyril and Lyon County superstar Travis Perry). But the Wildcats are still in the running for another five-star: small forward Liam McNeeley, who decommitted from Indiana and is the country's top uncommitted prospect in the 2024 class.

Even if Kentucky's incoming freshman class remains at six and each develops into a member of the rotation (to varying degrees) next season, that's already out of sync with the group of recent national champions and this year's Final Four contingent. Alabama and UConn have the record for freshmen this season with three players each in their respective rotations; However, of that group of six, only Castle, a five-star 2023 signee, could be classified as a major contributor.

It goes without saying that the newcomers will continue to receive plenty of playing time for the Wildcats next season.

That's why convincing members of the 2023-24 roster to come back — or, failing that, enter through the transfer portal — will be crucial for next season's team.

Adou Thiero, a player who was expected to be part of the 2024-25 roster, entered the transfer portal last week and is considering his NBA Draft prospects; He hasn't ruled out a return to Lexington for his junior season. It remains to be seen which member(s) of the 2023-24 7-foot trio, if any, will bounce back with the Wildcats next season. As one of the youngest members of the 2023 graduating class, DJ Wagner could be back for his second season to improve his eligibility for the 2025 NBA Draft. Little-used rookie pair Jordan Burks and Joey Hart will have to decide whether to compete for minutes in UK next season or look for bigger roles elsewhere. And of course, the eyes of the entire state are on freshman guard and British legacy Reed Sheppard, who must weigh what riches await him as a potential lottery pick in the draft or whether he continues to play for his beloved Wildcats.

Regardless of how many Kentucky players return, the transfer portal must be entered with more vigor than in the 2023 offseason. The Wildcats struck out and missed several portal goals. And they might not have added a single portal player if Tre Mitchell hadn't decided to transfer from West Virginia following the resignation of former coach Bob Huggins.

If Calipari prefers to look within his own program rather than looking beyond it, the 2021-22 team could provide a useful guide. While this group will always be remembered for its finish — a loss to 15th-seeded Saint Peter's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — it was Calipari's best team since COVID changed the world. Since then, the influence of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) deals have changed the face of college athletics.

The 2021-22 Wildcats resembled last year's national champions. Transfers in key roles (Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz, Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler). A returning player who has put blood, sweat and tears into the program (Keion Brooks). And a rookie talented enough to contribute right from the start (TyTy Washington).

The portal and NIL have made college basketball more veteran-heavy than the sport has been in decades.

Calipari and Kentucky should take note and follow this plan when building rosters this offseason.

So that they don't want to risk another early exit from the 2025 NCAA Tournament.

Reach Kentucky men's basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at [email protected] and follow him on X at @RyanABlack.