Calipari is trying to build a new roster. Here’s how the Final Four coaches built theirs.

The next several weeks will be critical in yet another John Calipari-era offseason filled with uncertainty.

Who will (and who won’t) play for the Kentucky men’s basketball team next season? As of now, there are a lot more questions than answers. And total clarity probably won’t come soon, with some NBA draft decisions probably lasting until the May 29 deadline, the ins and outs of the transfer portal a constant churn, and perhaps even the possibility of another high school recruit or two joining UK’s roster in the coming weeks.

As important as the offseason has always been for Calipari at Kentucky, this one seems especially precarious following the ire that resulted from the Cats’ first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Oakland, the question marks surrounding UK’s 2024-25 roster and the fact that it’ll be 10 years since UK played in a Final Four by the time the next one rolls around.

Now more than ever, Calipari needs to piece together a roster that’s truly built for March. Can he do it? As Kentucky’s latest reconstruction begins, here’s how the head coaches that made it to the 2024 Final Four put together their winning teams.

This year’s Final Four coaches, clockwise from top left: UConn’s Danny Hurley, Alabama’s Nate Oats, Purdue’s Matt Painter and N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts.
This year’s Final Four coaches, clockwise from top left: UConn’s Danny Hurley, Alabama’s Nate Oats, Purdue’s Matt Painter and N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts.

UConn’s excellence

Entering the weekend, there was no hotter name in college basketball than Dan Hurley, who obliterated the competition on the way to last year’s national title and marched through this season as an encore, earning the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and leading UConn to back-to-back Final Fours for the first time in program history.

How did he do it?

Hurley lost his top two scorers from last year’s roster but returned the next three on the list, and that trio — Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan — came up big for the Huskies again this season.

Newton is a fifth-year college player in his second season at UConn. Karaban is a third-year sophomore, with all three of those seasons spent in Storrs. And Clingan is a sophomore who bet on himself, turning down last year’s NBA draft — where he was projected as a borderline first-round pick — to return in a bigger role this season. And he’s now ranked No. 3 — and No. 1 among college players — on ESPN’s list of the 100 top NBA draft prospects.

That’s a good amount of quality continuity from a national title team, and UConn also brought back senior guard Hassan Diarra and junior forward Samson Johnson — its top two reserves — from last year’s squad. To add to the returnees, Hurley brought in fifth-year college player Cam Spencer — a transfer who ended up being second on the team in points and assists, leading the Huskies in steals and 3-point shooting — and Stephon Castle, a freshman who’s projected as an NBA lottery pick.

That core group of seven has a combined 23 years of experience in a college program, and five of them were with Hurley for last season’s NCAA title run.

Purdue’s continuity

Matt Painter is known for quality results on the court using players that weren’t highly touted as high school recruits, and he parlayed that into his first Final Four in his 19th season as Purdue’s head coach.

Obviously, the biggest returnee was national player of the year Zach Edey, who will become the first consensus repeat winner of that honor since Ralph Sampson did it 41 years ago.

Edey wasn’t surrounded by new faces this season.

The Boilermakers earned a 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and five of the top six players on Painter’s current roster played for that team, too. That list includes senior Mason Gillis and the sophomore trio of Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer and Trey Kaufman-Renn.

In all, Painter returned his top four scorers — and six of the top seven — from last season’s team. Seven of Purdue’s top nine players, in terms of minutes played, were returnees.

Four of the Boilermakers’ starters were holdovers from last season’s roster, as was Gillis, the team’s sixth man and a player in his fifth year on Purdue’s campus. The biggest addition — and only new starter — was Lance Jones, a fifth-year guard who scored 1,514 points over four seasons at Southern Illinois and was the third-leading scorer for the Boilermakers.

Anchored by Edey, this Purdue squad had ample experience within Painter’s program.

Alabama head coach Nate Oats, left, and Kentucky’s John Calipari speak before the game at Rupp Arena on Feb. 24. The Cats beat the Crimson Tide 117-95.
Alabama head coach Nate Oats, left, and Kentucky’s John Calipari speak before the game at Rupp Arena on Feb. 24. The Cats beat the Crimson Tide 117-95.

Alabama’s overhaul

After earning the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed last year, Alabama coach Nate Oats was faced with a major rebuild — losing five of his top six players from that group and all three of his top assistant coaches.

Obviously, Oats’ overhaul worked out.

Alabama found some key additions in the transfer portal, but the team’s best player was returnee Mark Sears, who played two seasons at Ohio before transferring to Tuscaloosa before the 2022-23 season. Sears was one of the SEC’s top scorers and 3-point shooters in year two under Oats, and he was mostly surrounded by other veterans.

When healthy, Alabama’s starting lineup featured four seniors — one of them a fifth-year college player — and sophomore Rylan Griffen, who averaged 15.7 minutes per game for Bama last season.

Sears and Griffen were typically joined in the starting lineup by new transfers Aaron Estrada (four previous college seasons) and Grant Nelson (a three-year player at North Dakota State who went through the NBA draft process in 2023), with either Latrell Wrightsell or Nick Pringle in the other spot. Both Wrightsell — a transfer from Cal State Fullerton — and Pringle, who played for Bama last season, are fourth-year seniors.

That group of six — with 23 combined seasons of college basketball — were helped by true freshmen Jarin Stevenson and Sam Walters, who were seventh and eighth, respectively, in minutes played.

Oats didn’t have much program continuity, but his returning group did include two seniors with experience on a highly successful 2022-23 Bama team, plus three high-impact, veteran transfers and a couple of freshmen who settled into backup roles.

N.C. State’s experience

The North Carolina State Wolfpack probably aren’t the best example to use when trying to build a winning roster in the current college basketball landscape. They finished with a losing record in the ACC and needed five wins in five days just to make the NCAA Tournament.

But they did indeed advance to the final weekend of the season, and — while this roster was filled with new faces — it’s probably no coincidence that Kevin Keatts’ Final Four group was heavy on experience, no doubt an important factor in the mettle required to make it this far.

Keatts primarily used a seven-man rotation. Five of those players were new transfers. The holdovers were D.J. Burns — a fifth-year player with six seasons of experience on a college campus, including the 2022-23 campaign at N.C. State — and Casey Morsell, a fifth-year college player in his third season with the Wolfpack.

Burns and Morsell were No. 2 and 3 in scoring, respectively, behind fifth-year guard DJ Horne, a double-digit scorer at Arizona State the previous two seasons. Joining those three in the starting lineup for this NCAA Tournament run were seniors Mohamed Diarra and Michael O’Connell, who spent last season at Missouri and Stanford, respectively.

N.C. State’s other two main contributors were juniors Jayden Taylor and Ben Middlebrooks, who played two seasons each at Butler and Clemson, respectively.

So … seven players with a combined total of 29 seasons in college basketball, and the team’s top three players were all fifth-year seniors, with two holdovers from Keatts’ 2022-23 roster.

What does it mean for Kentucky?

Even with Calipari in wait-and-see mode and so much unsettled with Kentucky’s 2024-25 squad, it appears highly unlikely that the Cats will follow any of these roster-building paths.

The only certainty, for now, is that Calipari will bring in six high school recruits, and the past makes it clear that most of those players will have important roles at UK next season. Four of those prospects are consensus top 25 recruits: combo guard Boogie Fland, guard/wings Karter Knox and Billy Richmond and post player Jayden Quaintance.

It’s a fair bet that at least two of those players will be starters at UK next season. UConn’s Stephon Castle was the only freshman to start regularly for a Final Four team this year, and — despite his lottery pick potential — he was fifth on the Huskies in scoring and no better than third in any major statistical category.

Of the 100 starters in the Final Four over the previous five NCAA tournaments, only nine were freshmen. Two of those nine were redshirts with a year of college experience. And only two from that group of nine — Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs — would have been considered college stars. The rest were role players, to varying degrees.

Of Kentucky’s incoming recruits, none appear to be can’t-miss college stars as freshmen. The highest-rated among them is Quaintance, who is still just 16 years old and will play the entire 2024-25 season at the age of 17 (against some much older players who will still be eligible for a fifth “COVID season,” as Calipari is sure to remind us).

Final Four teams in recent years have been heavy on experience. The same goes for the teams that have earned 1 seeds in recent NCAA Tournaments. Those squads — the ones most likely to go on to win national titles — have had ample experience, as well as a high level of continuity within their programs.

Calipari has already talked plenty in the past couple of weeks about the “need to get older” before next season, and the transfer portal can accommodate that, but he has also made it clear he’d like to return some players that are already in the program.

Even if that happens, Calipari won’t get anybody back with more than two years of previous experience at UK, and his only hope to do that would be the return of Adou Thiero and/or Ugonna Onyenso. Thiero has already entered the transfer portal — leaving open the option to return to Kentucky — and Onyenso’s status is still up in the air, too.

Any other returnees would be sophomores next season.

Calipari’s best hope will be to follow a similar blueprint as Alabama, which has still been an outlier amid the veteran college basketball landscape the past couple of years.

Last season’s Bama squad counted four freshmen and a first-year transfer among its top seven players. But none of UK’s freshmen are projected to be nearly as good as Brandon Miller, the SEC player of the year and No. 2 NBA draft pick a year ago.

This season’s Bama squad featured plenty of program newcomers, too, but — no matter what happens — Kentucky won’t have anyone like Sears, a fourth-year college player who was already in the program the previous season. And Alabama’s 2023-24 campaign was anything but smooth, with defensive question marks throughout — a team that gave up 117 points to Kentucky in late February and surrendered triple-digits to Florida twice within two weeks of Selection Sunday.

Once the stay-or-go decisions are settled, it seems most likely that Calipari’s next roster will include at least a half-dozen freshmen, perhaps a couple of returning sophomores, maybe a junior, and the rest will be filled out by players from the portal.

With those additions, Kentucky will have to find the right balance of skill, experience, fit, maturity and unselfishness — an incredibly difficult tightrope to walk amid the NIL and role demands of the transfer portal.

And even if Calipari can reel in the right fits this offseason — with all those freshmen to get onto the court — his next roster won’t look like the ones that have typically gone a long way in March in recent years.

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