LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The day after Kentucky lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four, Tyler Ulis' cell phone lit up with a text message from Wildcats' coach John Calipari.

“I remember the whole thing,” Ulis said. “. . . (He) told me he wants to coach me again and make another run at this, and you know I was all down for it and I can't wait to start again.”

This is about the time of year — as attention turns to the season ahead, instead of the one behind — when the stars generally come out for the UK program. And I'm talking more about recruiting stars than returning stars.

And again, Calipari has a trio of five-star recruits slated to join his team next season: Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Briscoe and Charles Matthews, along Vincennes junior college guard Mychal Mulder.

But as much as those players, three returnees will set the tone, and perhaps determine the outlook, for Calipari's Wildcats. And none more than Ulis. The point guard was used on only 14.7 percent of UK's possessions last season and took only 13.6 percent of its shots according to Ken Pomeroy's tempo statistics, but was the third-highest rated offensive player on the team (behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker) and had the team's highest assist rate.

Ulis, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress told reporters on Wednesday that they're ready to lead UK in the wake of seven players departing for the NBA Draft. But make no mistake about where the leadership rests — next season will be Ulis' show.

“I have to lead more and be more of a leader on and off the court,” Ulis said. “I will probably play more minutes than last year. I won't be behind the twins.”

These three form an interesting group. Quite a few people believe the team was its best with Ulis at point guard last season. He has that internal clock that point guards seem to have, and an instinctive feel for where to go with the ball, and where to keep the team's tempo.

Lee has been an instant energy player for two seasons. Frankly, he could've played more and been more of a defensive disrupter last season, too, but was behind a glut of big men. That glut now is gone.

Lee is a humorous, but insightful interview. A California native with an intelligent, outsiders view of the Kentucky circus around him, he said he doesn't expect the mass exodus to the NBA to temper expectations around the program.

“The whole point of being at Kentucky is to have these great expectations,” Lee said.

Alex Poythress missed most of the season after ACL surgery. He says he's jogging again, and expects to return to full strength. He has developed his overall game as a front-line player, can shoot and rebound well, and was freakishly athletic before his injury. He has always been well-liked by his teammates, and will be an important presence on and off the court for the Wildcats next season.

“The pressure is going to be the same every year,” he said. “I'm used to it by now. The new guys will have to learn that. Tyler, Marcus and I will be there to help them along the way. It's just hard. When you get here, you have to face reality and everything, but I feel like we have a great group of guys coming in and they'll be able to handle it.”

But they all acknowledge, it will be different.

“Last year we were overly blessed with so many players that could play that it didn't really matter if everybody had a great game or not,” Lee said. “This year everybody has to be on the ball. We have to push each other even harder.”

Ulis, too, said the biggest difference would be in practice.

“Practice won't be as intense,” Ulis said. “It won't be as physical and as competitive because you don't have the seven pros that just left. You have a lot of great players, but not as many bodies.”

There has been some concern over next season as one elite high school prospect after another this spring has passed on Kentucky to go elsewhere next season. 

But in some ways, it returns Calipari to the kind of rotation he's comfortable with. He still has one of the top recruiting classes in the nation coming in. And as these three reminded fans today, don't underestimate what the team has coming back.

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