Gone from last year's 33-5 Final Four team are three seniors, and Francisco Garcia, who left early for the NBA. In their place Pitino will count on seven newcomers, including five freshmen, plus 6-9 redshirt Brian Johnson.
Now almost a week into practice, Pitino has made clear that his fifth team is budding with possibility.
"We're about a week into practice and it's a little better in certain areas than expected – in other areas it's not quite as good," Pitino said. "But this team definitely has potential to be a good basketball team."
While one freshman, 5-foot-11 Andre McGee, appears to be on the fast track toward earning the starting point guard spot, 6-foot-11 Jonathan Huffman, perhaps the least heralded of the newcomers, has made quite an impression with Juan Palacios and David Padgett, both projected starters, currently recovering from injuries.
"(Andre's) probably the most advanced right now," Pitino said. "He's starting right now and he's probably the furthest along in playing his position. He's really good. When you think back, we've always had to break pressure with our forwards, never out point guard. Now we'll break pressure with our point guard. We really think in the open court he's un-guardable.
"We have a very talented freshmen class," Pitino added. "Jonathan Huffman is probably the slowest in development as far as his body, but he probably has the most potential. If I look at this class and ask who's going to go the furthest it's probably Jonathan Huffman."
Pitino, who normally prefers to bring rookies along slowly, said he's expecting each of his newcomers to contribute this season, even though most are further advanced offensely than they are at the defensive end of the court.
"All those guys are going to contribute," Pitino said. "This is a terrific class. They're all going to stay together a long time, and it's as good a class as I've had. I really love this freshmen class because all five of these players could be great players. None of them are great now – they're all very good, but very weak defensively."
Palacios was all smiles Thursday despite
lingering ankle injury.
"Taquan is probably the most improved player from the summer time until now," Pitino said. "He's improved his quickness, his one-on-one ability to go by people, and he dunks the ball now with ease. He's made the most improvement of anybody on the team, and you usually don't say that about a senior."
Dean, along with 6-foot-11 David Padgett, are expected to provide leadership for Pitino's young but talented team this year.
"Taquan is a very quite leader, where David Padgett will speak more," Pitino said.
Pitino said his team lost a lot with all the departures following last season. And while he expects his newcomers are capable of replacing the points and minutes vacated by that quartet, Pitino sounded a little more concerned about replacing one key ingredient that those four players provided.
"The experience factor is something that we don't have," Pitino said. "When you judge a team and want to determine how good they're going to be, look at the talent in their junior and senior class and that will tell you."
"David's very mature, his attitude is unbelievable and he has great potential," said Pitino. "He's the total package. He understands how to play and he's a very intense young man. Taquan brings a quiet leadership style, while David brings a more vocal leadership. Both of those young men have got our backs in terms of what we're trying to teach. They won't let the freshmen get out of line in any way."
Whether or not such a young team, even one with this much potential, can make noise during the post-season remains to be seen. "Outside of the ‘Fab Five' you don't see too many young teams cause havoc in the NCAA tournament."
But it should be a fun and entertaining season at the very least. Pitino said he ranks his current crop of newcomers behind only his 1993 recruiting class at Kentucky that included Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Roderick Rhodes and Jared Prickett.
"They're very willing to learn," Pitino said. "They're like sponges taking everything in. They're attitudes are great, and I believe this is the second strongest class I've ever had as a basketball coach. It's not as good as the Delk class, but it's the second best."
How far this team ultimately advances, and whether or not they reach their vast potential will, according to Pitino, depend on one factor – defense.
"I'm very, very impressed with the ability of this basketball team," Pitino said. "It remains to be seen how good we can become because it will all be predicated on defense."
Pitino also likes the increased size (six players stand 6-8 or taller) and versatility of his young team.
"We have size and guys, but we also have guys who can put it on the floor and make plays" he said. "We've turned the corner now in terms of talent. I'm not saying we did it with smoke and mirrors, but we had to do it without making mistakes. This team can make mistakes and still be good."