#1 Kentucky Wildcats
Last Season: 32 - 6 (16 - 2 in conference) #4 kenpom
My Prediction: 24 - 7 (14 - 4, 1st in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 15.3 - 2.7 (1st in conference)
HEAD COACH: John Calipari | ninth season 249-53
College basketball needs John Calipari. Love him or hate him, he exists because of what college basketball has become. When Calipari rose through the ranks to take the UMass job, the Minutemen hadn’t played in an NCAA tournament since 1962, and hadn’t had a winning record since a 15-12 record during the 1977-78 campaign. Cal took the job in 1988 and had UMass in the Sweet 16 by 1992. They finished the season ranked inside the top 20. Cal took over an awful program and went to the Final Four. After an unsuccessful run in the NBA he went to Memphis, which was a good basketball program fallen on some tough years. He had Memphis as a national powerhouse within a few years with two Elite 8 appearances, and a National Championship runner up. Then the brass at Kentucky gave him the greatest resources you can ask for as a college coach and all he’s done is win 82% of his games with four Final Four appearances and a National Championship.
For all the credit he gets as a recruiter, Cal is also a very undervalued basketball coach who gets elite talent to buy in defensively and play together to win a lot of games.
Seat Temp: COOL
The Wildcats can miss the NCAA tournament if things don’t go well, but with Cal it has to be the perfect storm. The perfect storm was 2012-13 when a team coming off a National Championship had basically the entire team leave for the NBA, and the incoming recruiting class was one of the weakest in a while. It was the least talented team Cal has run out in Lexington and they still went 21-12 and 12-6 in the SEC.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
As per usual, the Wildcats lost a lot. Five players left school early to pursue professional opportunities, and three more graduated. As valuable as Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo were to UK last year, Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins provided a lot in the background. Willis was solid as a stretch post offensively and improved his defense and rebounding as a junior and senior to be a relied upon forward. Mulder was a hot shooter who I felt didn’t see the floor enough but when he did he helped with spacing. And Hawkins did whatever was needed on a roster full of super stars. Those superstars will be missed as well as Isaiah Briscoe wasn’t a gifted shooter but found ways to score and impact the game on both ends of the floor. De’Aaron Fox changed the pace of games in a heartbeat with his speed and ability to attack off the dribble. Bam Adebayo was a monster in the middle and had an underrated ability to knock down free throws and mid range jump shots. Malik Monk has just been wired to score since the moment he stepped on campus and nearly eclipsed 20 ppg on a team as deep as the Wildcats were is remarkable. Last was Isaac Humphries, a solid role player inside who decided to collect checks playing in his native Australia over another season as an amateur in Lexington.
AND, WHO’S BACK?
Hamidou Diallo | FRESHMAN | WING
One of the top 2017 recruits a season ago was Hamidou Diallo, a high flying and athletic wing from Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut by way of New York, was set to make a spring decision when he reversed course and reclassified to the 2016 class and joined Kentucky in early January. Instead of attempting to play, Diallo simply practiced against the already established stars from last year and got himself better. He declared for the NBA draft and went through the process but ultimately decided to return to Lexington for at least one season and John Calipari is better off for it. Diallo has some holes in his game, he’s an inconsistent shooter and his ball handling can improve. But there won’t be many more explosive players in college basketball this year and that alone should make Diallo a very important offensive weapon for Kentucky.
Diallo is barely a returner, but like most years “Who’s coming back” for Kentucky is a lightly worded paragraph. Atop the heap is Wenyen Gabriel, a good defensive stalwart who needs to develop his offensive game more before being NBA ready. Gabriel started the season pretty strong but seemed to fade down the stretch as he went from starting 20 of the first 25 games, to not starting the final nine games and only averaging 6.8 minutes a contest in the last seven games. Then there’s Sacha Killeya-Jones who played even less. Killeya-Jones DNP-CD’d his last 19 games and 23 overall. How impactful do you expect both Gabriel and Killeya-Jones to be knowing those facts? It’s still tough to say. After those two the only other scholarshipped player is Tai Wynyard, a big physical New Zealander who is capable but hasn’t broken into the regular rotation and will likely struggle for playing time again this season.
THEN, WHO’S NEW?
|Fr||Scotty Pippen, Jr.||6'1||170||★★★||203||PG|
Quade Green | FRESHMAN | POINT GUARD
If you wanna know which of the new comers is going to be the most important you can probably look at the rankings and pick who is on top. However Kentucky will have one true point guard on a roster full of wings and bigs, so Quade Green gets the nod from me. The point guard is important enough as it is but Green is the only guy for Kentucky who is a primary ball handler, and he’s the perfect fit. A pass first floor general, Green will do everything he can to involve the plethora of athleticism and playmakers around him to make UK’s offense go. Green is so important because as deep and talented as Kentucky is, they don’t really have a dude. They don’t really have a guy who is 100% playmaker. But with a host of talented young guys coming in and a couple solid returners, Green will be tasked with making this offense go from the start.
The top ranked player in the class jumped on board last. Kevin Knox is a super high ceiling prospect who just a few years ago was a highly rated Quarterback before he kept growing. We still don’t quite know when Knox is going to stop growing as a player as he’s gone from unranked to top 10 very quickly. We’ll see the kind of player he can become and even I would expect to see a different Knox at the end of 2017-18 than at the beginning. Jarred Vanderbilt is a similar player to Knox, long and athletic, he shoots it well enough to play on the wing but is probably best suited as a faceup stretch-4 type. P.J. Washington is a physical big body who should be ready to help out day one. He’s surprisingly athletic and is developing a faceup game that could make him a matchup nightmare. Nick Richards is physically ready and kind of a freak of a specimen. I don’t know that he’s super polished right now but he can play and will defend the rim from day 1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could be a sleeper, he’s talented and explosive and has a college ready game as a combo guard. Kentucky will need him to pick up some ball handling slack from Green. And Jemarl Baker was a late addition as he was previously committed to Cal before Cuonzo Martin left. Baker could get squeezed early but his efficient game and lights out shooting make him a long term player for the Wildcats.
|(1) Point Guard||Saben Lee||Scotty Pippen|
|(2) Combo Guard||Aaron Nesmith||Maxwell Evans|
|(3) Wing||Matthew Moyer||Jordan Wright||DJ Harvey|
|(4) Combo Forward||Clevon Brown||Dylan Disu|
|(5) Post||Ejike Obinna||Oton Jankovic||Quentin Millora-Brown|
Projecting a starting lineup isn’t easy. I figure Diallo and Green will be the back court, and you can probably expect Knox, Vanderbilt and Gabriel to battle it out for the 3&4 spot, with maybe some competition from Killeya-Jones. I really like Washington to get the nod over Richards because of the skill level. I don’t imagine Kentucky will be stellar offensively but their defense with this size and length should be pretty tough to beat. I believe Gilgeous-Alexander will be a top reserve at guard, and Baker is a guy who should get ample opportunity as he’s the best shooter on the team (once he’s healthy). The biggest question for me are the sophomores, do they get muscled out again or do they take a step up and grab the roles they expected last year?
My Projected Record: 24 - 7 | KenPom Projected Record: 25 - 6
|Nov 11||Home||Texas A&M CC||284||W|
|Nov 20||Home||Austin Peay||202||W|
|Nov 22||Home||South Carolina State||328||W|
When you rank first or second every year in recruiting, you can schedule a little more liberally than other teams who are rebuilding. Usually the Wildcats are unafraid to jump right in but this year they ease into the difficult games a little more. Granted an early matchup against Kansas, a fellow top 10 opponent in the Champions Classic won’t be easy. But outside of Kansas, the Wildcats don’t play a KenPom top 100 team other than Vermont until mid-December when they face Virginia Tech. But UCLA and Louisville will certainly be fun again.
|Jan 11||Home||Texas A&M||58||L|
|Jan 25||Away||South Carolina||69||L|
|Feb 8||Away||Mississippi State||53||L|
|Feb 29||Away||Ole Miss||60||L|
|Mar 7||Home||South Carolina||69||W|
In pure Kentucky fashion, the Wildcats get Texas A&M (#2), Florida (#3), Missouri (#4), and Vanderbilt (#6) all home and home. Their other home and home opponent is Tennessee, who the Wildcats are 2-2 against the last few years with Rick Barnes at the helm. They’ll also head to Auburn which is one of the toughest places in the SEC to play. But they do get Alabama at home, so that’s a bit of a break. Overall, the Wildcats have as difficult of an SEC schedule as you could draw up without making them play themselves.
Most of the time when you preview any team, you should spend a fair amount of time talking about last season in order to dissect the upcoming season. When it comes to the Wildcats the previous season can be completely thrown out the window more often than not. This is because John Calipari recruits a brand new roster each year and then they all go pro most of the time. But what about this version of the Cats?
They’re deep. Legitimately deep. It will be easy for Calipari to get to nine and sometimes even get to 10 on a nightly basis. There are roughly 100 different lineups that could work depending on matchups, and as usual they’re really big as well. The interior depth is fantastic and they’ll likely start with 6’10 Kevin Knox on the wing, and his backup (when he’s healthy) is 6’9 Jarred Vanderbilt. And like most of Cal’s teams they’ve got a plethora of talent and length inside.
So why am I hesitating on Kentucky? The Wildcats appear to be missing a dude. There’s no Malik Monk or De’Aron Fox. I don’t see a Jamal Murray or a Devin Booker. There aren’t a bunch of shotmakers on this team. They’re all talented and the collection of talent will be enough most nights, but I’m just not sure if Knox or Diallo are guys who are going to buoy the offense when things get bogged down. Last year Cal could draw up a play for Monk or go to the low block with Bam Adebayo. This year, who is the guy?
Another concern for me is more based upon who I do like on this roster. I love P.J. Washington. So the concern is if Cal is committed to playing a big rotation does a guy who plays with high energy and efficiency and is so good around the basket get overlooked in lieu of guys who are maybe more talented but produce less? And how does Cal utilize the holdovers? Sacha Killeya-Jones barely played a year ago and now he’s competing against Nick Richards, Wenyen Gabriel, and Washington for minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, the Wildcats are still number one for a reason. They’re really, really talented and they’ll win a lot of games this year. I just don’t think this is the same top 5 or 10 UK team we’ve seen in recent years. Normally a Kentucky recruiting class has a top five kid or two and this one, while deep, only has Kevin Knox at the very back end of the top 10. The lack of a truly elite scorer makes me downgrade the Wildcats from a National title contender to one that’ll likely win the SEC but it wouldn’t shock me to see them in second or third place.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.
If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.
* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player
GP - Games Played
%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury
%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team
%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.
%pts - percentage of teams points scored
ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.