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Putting UK's men's basketball inexperience in perspective

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Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer is the lone returning regular rotation player from last year's national championship team. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer is the lone returning regular rotation player from last year's national championship team. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
If you have listened to or read anything John Calipari has said during this preseason, you've likely heard him talk about how new his team is.

His favorite statistic on that front is that not a single returning player on his 2012-13 Kentucky squad has started a game in his career as a Wildcat. In fact, only Kyle Wiltjer among that group of returners was even a part of UK's regular rotation during last year's national championship run.

That's a fairly unique note on its own, but when compared to schools throughout the nation, it becomes even more interesting. Confirmed by research by Deb Moore of UK Media Relations, there is not a single other team in any of the so-called BCS conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference) without a returning player who started at least one game with his current school last season.

In fact, there are just six other schools with two or fewer returners who made a start. Let's take a look at them.

Kentucky - SEC - Zero returning starters

NOTE: UK has two transfers who made starts at previous colleges. Julius Mays started 34 games in three seasons at Wright State and North Carolina State. Ryan Harrow started 10 games in one season at North Carolina State.

Missouri  - SEC - One returning starter
-Phil Pressey, junior guard - Preseason SEC Player of the Year started all 35 games last season, averaging 10.3 points and 6.4 assists

Vanderbilt - SEC - Two returner starters
-Rod Odom, junior forward - Started two games and averaged 2.4 points
-Kyle Fuller, junior guard - Played in 18-of-36 games with one start, averaged 0.9 points

Mississippi State - SEC - Two returning starters
-Jalen Steele , junior guard - Started 16 games and averaged 8.7 points
-Wendell Lewis, senior center - Started six games and averaged 3.8 points

Nebraska - Big Ten - Two returning starters
-Brandon Ubel, senior forward - Started all 30 games and averaged 6.7 points
-Dylan Talley, senior guard - Started one game and averaged 8.9 points

Florida State - ACC - Two returning starters
-Michael Snaer, senior guard - Preseason All-ACC selection started 34-of-35 games, leading FSU with 14.0 points per game
-Okaro White, junior forward - Started 12 games and averaged 7.7 points

Utah - Pac-12 - Two returner starters

-Jason Washburn, senior center - Started all 31 games and averaged team-leading 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds
-Cedric Martin, senior wing - Started all 31 games and averaged 7.4 points

Somewhat strangely, the two teams that come closest to UK in terms of lack of returning starting experience are both on the Cats' schedule and both in the SEC. Vanderbilt returns just three combined starts from last year's SEC Tournament championship team, while Mississippi State returns 22 from a team that took UK down to the wire in Starkville, Miss., in February.

As Coach Cal often says though, comparing UK to any other school is a relatively pointless endeavor these days. No other team comes close to replicating the annual roster turnover the Cats deal with. But at the same time, no team can match the 102 wins and two Final Fours UK has the past three seasons.

With that in mind, perhaps the best comparisons for this year's Kentucky team in terms of experience are Calipari's first three teams in Lexington. Let's take a look at the returning contributors (not just starters) from all four in terms of games played and started and per-game averages from the previous season.

NOTE: Team per-game averages are adjusted for percentage of games played by each player, which is why columns appear to not add up.

2012-13 Kentucky

  Games Starts Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
Kyle Wiltjer 40 0 11.6 5.0 1.8 0.4
Twany Beckham 16 0 2.8 0.0 0.5 0.1
Jarrod Polson 22 0 2.8 0.1 0.4 0.1
Sam Malone 6 0 2.2 1.0 0.3 0.2
Brian Long 12 0 1.4 0.2 0.2 0.0
TOTAL 96 0 15.0 5.3 2.3 0.5

2011-12 Kentucky

  Games Starts Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
Terrence Jones 38 35 31.5 15.7 8.8 1.6
Doron Lamb 38 14 28.4 12.3 2.0 1.6
Darius Miller 38 37 10.9 10.9 4.6 1.7
Eloy Vargas 38 0 7.7 1.5 2.0 0.1
Jarrod Polson 17 0 1.8 0.4 0.1 0.0
TOTAL 169 86 79.3 40.6 17.4 5.0

2010-11 Kentucky

  Games Starts Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
Darius Miller 38 32 21.2 6.5 2.4 1.5
DeAndre Liggins 29 0 15.3 3.8 2.3 0.8
Josh Harrellson 22 0 4.0 1.3 1.2 0.0
TOTAL 89 32 35.2 10.2 4.9 2.1

2009-10 Kentucky

  Games Starts Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
Patrick Patterson 34 34 33.7 17.9 9.3 1.9
Perry Stevenson 36 34 28.1 7.8 5.9 1.5
Ramon Harris 31 28 22.1 5.5 3.8 1.6
Darius Miller 36 2 21.2 5.3 3.1 2.0
DeAndre Liggins 33 1 16.5 4.2 2.4 2.8
Josh Harrellson 34 2 9.3 3.6 2.5 0.2
Mark Krebs 13 0 1.9 0.2 0.3 0.2
TOTAL 217 101 124.8 42.1 25.7 9.5

Even among Coach Cal's Kentucky teams, the 2012-13 group is unique. Never before has he had so little experience on his roster and so much production to replace.

The 2010-11 team is the closest comparison for what Kentucky has this season. That year, the Cats lost five players to the NBA's first round and brought in a class of Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, Eloy Vargas and Stacey Poole to fill the void. That group would of course go on to an SEC Tournament title and the Final Four, but not before some early-season bumps in the road.

If you'll remember, the Cats lost a pair of non-conference games and were 19-8 in late February before reeling off 10 wins in a row. Coach Cal has lost just eight SEC regular-season games in his three years at Kentucky, but six came that season.

However, even that team still had Darius Miller, a player who had started all but six games the year before along with DeAndre Liggins, whose role expanded in 2009-10 as the season wore on. This season, UK has less than half the returning per-game production that 2010-11 team had.

So, what conclusions should we draw from all this?

Should another Final Four be ruled out entirely? No way. This group of newcomers is far too talented and Coach Cal has too good of a track record with young teams to even consider that.

What we should do is listen to Calipari when he says how much work is ahead. Particularly with challenging games against Maryland, Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor before Christmas, the beginning of the season will not be easy. Transforming these Wildcats from a group of talented players playing together for the first time into an elite team is not going to happen overnight, but that's not the plan. The plan is for UK to be elite in March and April.

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