A bulk of Kentucky’s roster are freshmen or transfers and the latest edition of John Calipari’s team features a pronounced lack of available height.
Before heading into a neutral site showdown with No. 1 Kansas in the annual Champions Classic, No. 16 Kentucky gets two home games to measure its roster starting Monday when it hosts New Mexico State in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky went 22-12 last season and lost standout forward Oscar Tshiebwe along with starters Jacob Toppin, Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston. Among those newcomers Kentucky is hoping to integrate with Antonio Reeves are West Virginia transfer Tre Mitchell, who scored 22 points in a 92-69 exhibition win over Georgetown College on Oct. 27 and freshman Rob Dillingham, who added 16 in the exhibition game.
“I like where this team is at right now,” Reeves said. “They play hard, they’re paying attention to what we’re doing on the scouting reports and where we’re headed is just getting better defensively. I feel we struggled some on the defensive end, we can definitely get better at.”
Facing an NAIA opponent, the Wildcats led by one point before shooting 57 percent and scoring 57 points after halftime. Kentucky’s offense in the final 20 minutes was more than enough to overcome some inconsistent rebounding, which may be a result of missing 7-foot freshman Aaron Bradshaw and 6-foot-11 Ugonna Onyenso.
Bradshaw is recovering from offseason foot surgery after being a top recruit while Onyenso is recovering from a broken foot after appearing in 16 games last season.
“We gotta be a better rebounding team,” Calipari said. “We gotta be more physical, which is on me. That means, in practice, this is what we gotta do. And if you’re not doing it, I have to hold them accountable.”
New Mexico State is entering its first season in Conference USA after spending the past 18 seasons competing in the Western Athletic Conference. The Aggies went 9-15 last season and experienced their first losing season since 2010-11 as their season was suspended on Feb. 10 following reports of hazing involving former players.
Jason Hooten, who spent the past 13 seasons coaching Sam Houston State, took over after Greg Heiar was fired.
Hooten’s first team is picked eighth in the preseason Conference USA poll and will unveil a new roster with several transfers from other Division I schools, although it is still waiting on the NCAA to approve waiver requests for Femi Odukale (Seton Hall) and Davion Bradford (Wake Forest).
Besides working with a new roster, the Aggies are dealing with a few injuries Hooten declined to name when speaking to local TV station KTSM.
“We just are still not where we need to be with installation and really everything due to injuries,” he said. “As a coach, it’s hard because you put stuff in every day and yet you got two or three real important players that aren’t in there and going through those things makes it difficult.
“So, I’m still not at a point where I know what we got, and what we’re going to look like and how we’re kind of jelling together. We’re still a work in progress for sure.”
The schools are meeting for the first time in the regular season. Kentucky earned a 22-point win over New Mexico State in the first round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament in New Orleans.