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When Kentucky has talent and experience the rest of the league suffers.

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Previewing the #1 team in the SEC, the Kentucky Wildcats

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Media Day Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky Preview 2014

#1 Kentucky Wildcats

Last Season: 26 - 11 (10 - 8 in conference) #17 kenpom

My Prediction: 25 - 6 (14 - 4, 1st in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 14.4 - 3.6 (1st in conference) #7 kenpom

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional Practice Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: John Calipari | ninth season 275-64

Every year John Calipari assembles the most talented roster in the SEC, and the 2018-19 season is no different. For the Wildcat faithful success is guaranteed, but the question is to what depth? Is this a championship level team or merely an NCAA tournament team?

From the start Calipari showed he wasn’t afraid to turn his roster over and continue to recruit NBA talent year after year as a means to sustain the level of success. Every year Calipari and his staff finishes either first or second in the national recruiting rankings, so whatever it is he’s doing is working.

Where Calipari is at his best though, is in managing a complicated roster, like the one he has before him this year. He’s long been adept at handling the elite personalities of mega-talented freshmen and finding a way to get them competing and working together even if they see their immediate minutes dwindle. When you sign to play at Kentucky you are likely signing away the chance to be a go-to guy and Calipari sells that much. He can sit in living rooms and sell Kentucky as a means to an end, the best path to the NBA even if it means sacrificing personal glory in a short college stay. This version of the Wildcats is no different from any other under Cal, they’re deep and elitely talented. But they’ve also got the one thing which has made the difference is virtually every season under Cal, they’ve got experience.

Seat Temp: COOL

sec basketball preview kentucky wildcats 10 year look

The expectation isn’t just an NCAA bid but a protected seed. Under Cal the Wildcats have failed to be a protected seed (a top four seed in the tournament) three times. Once missing the tournament (the year Nerlens Noel got hurt and changed the trajectory of their season), once as an 8 seed (when a lineup of virtually all freshman struggled during the season then made a final four in 2014), and again last year when they landed a five seed. This year anything short of a one or two seed will seem like a letdown.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
KeVaughn Allen graduation 36 75.95% 17.46% 16.02% 15.91%
Jalen Hudson graduation 36 55.74% 13.65% 10.04% 11.15%
Kevarrius Hayes graduation 36 61.79% 12.30% 18.30% 12.36%
Keith Stone transfer 17 22.41% 4.22% 3.85% 4.48%
Deaundre Ballard transfer 29 23.57% 5.41% 4.22% 4.71%
Chase Johnson transfer 2 0.82% 0.25% 0.27% 0.16%
Mike Okauru transfer 35 15.95% 2.01% 1.41% 3.19%
Isaiah Stokes transfer 26 12.71% 2.87% 1.43% 2.54%
53.79% 58.17% 55.54% 54.50%

Unlike previous seasons where the Wildcats had an obvious top 7 pick, last year Kentucky just had a lot of really good players capped off by the 9th pick in the draft Kevin Knox. Knox was the requisite go-to guy last year when UK needed a bucket. But he wasn’t a kick the ball and get out of the way sort of player. Running Knox off pin downs and baseline stagger screens freed him up enough to get an efficient jump shot off, which was often Kentucky’s best offense. The Wildcats best player last year was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was grossly mis-scouted by all the major services. SGA was one of the 5-10 best freshman last year and ended up being picked 11th. He came in ranked just 31st overall with 247 having him rated the highest of all the services as the 20th rated player. His ability to handle the ball as an advertised combo guard was basically understated as he was handed the keys early on a drove a pretty mediocre version of the Wildcats past their own threshold.

I was never a big fan of Hamidou Diallo because of his highly limited ability to shoot the ball and his inconsistent effort defensively. He has so much potential to basically be the wing version of Jarred Vanderbilt, who played with energy and fire on both ends of the floor. Vanderbilt used his energy to become an elite defender and high level rebounder and carved out a role which got him drafted by Denver. Wenyen Gabriel was another guy who found a role as a defender who could hit an occasional three, fitting in with much of the Wildcats roster.

Sacha Killeya-Jones never quite solidified a place on the floor and in the rotation and opted to move on to North Carolina State after two years of backup minutes. And Tai Wynyrd transferred to Santa Clara to find a larger role as well.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Saben Lee JR PG 32 81.09% 18.62% 56.80% 20.22%
Aaron Nesmith SO WING 32 72.22% 16.19% 54.10% 16.69%
Maxwell Evans JR CG 31 32.53% 5.41% 51.30% 5.09%
Matthew Moyer JR CF 30 32.68% 5.23% 46.40% 5.69%
Clevon Brown SR POST 32 41.17% 4.86% 49.80% 6.70%
Isaiah Rice* JR PG 4 0.47% 0.00% 0.00% -0.07%
Ejike Obinna R-SO POST REDSHIRT
52.03% 50.31% 54.32%
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Washington | SOPHOMORE | POST

I’m not sure Kentucky took advantage of P.J. Washington’s skill set often enough last year. Washington excels at a level of bully ball. He’s tough and aggressive around the rim and good at operating out of the high post attacking the rim downhill or in the low block. In some ways Washington has a level of throwback to his game as a low block bully who’s unafraid of contact and playing at the rim.

Of all the freshman last season I felt Washington was the most under utilized and under valued for his ability to be an effective around the rim scorer. The offense was often focused on creating driving opportunities for Gilgeous-Alexander and and jump shots for Knox and not enough chances for Washington around the rim with chances to draw fouls. Washington may not be priority one on offense again this year but if the Wildcats can better utilize his strengths their efficiency numbers should go up.

I guess I had higher expectations for what Quade Green could bring to the ‘Cats last season. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t great either. Gilgeous-Alexander took over the primary ball handling duties and Green became more of an off the ball shooter in the half court. This season he’s likely to be in the same role but it’s he can improve upon. A 37.6% three point shooter from last year, Green has the makings of a very good floor spacer and shouldn’t have any problems seeing a few more minutes this season. Nick Richards isn’t going to wow anyone with his offensive arsenal but he’s an extremely valuable guy because of his ability to get vertical. Richards can be the necessary rim protection the Kentucky needed with more consistency last season. Jemarl Baker is a guy who can help the Cats with their shooting if he can get on the floor. The former Cal commit redshirted last year dealing with a knee injury.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Dylan Disu 6'9 220 ★★★ 128 POST
Fr Scotty Pippen, Jr. 6'1 170 ★★★ 203 PG
Fr Jordan Wright 6'5 226 ★★★ 322 WING
Fr Oton Jankovic 6'10 212 ★★★ 377 POST
Fr Quentin Millora-Brown 6’10 229 Transfer POST
Jr DJ Harvey 6'6 235 Transfer - WING
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Media Day Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Reid Travis | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

The list of programs in the country who can import a guy who averaged 20 points and 8+ rebounds on a Power Conference team a year ago is probably limited to Kentucky and Kentucky alone. Travis is a 1,000 point scorer was was a 1st team all Pac-12 selection last year before graduating and declaring for the NBA Draft after his junior year. He wasn’t likely to be drafted to Travis instead decided to transfer to Kentucky with a chance to win and win big. The main draw back is Travis’ best position is the same as P.J. Washington. Both excel around the rim and at drawing fouls, but if you get them shooting jumpers you’re going to win.

I’d expect the UK offense to utilize Travis as much as possible because of his experience, but it will certainly be interesting how both Washington and Travis are utilized in the half court.

One thing Cal always seems to have is a lot of elite size and this year he secured the commitment of E.J. Montgomery. Montgomery was originally committed to Auburn but opened things up after the FBI news broke. E.J. is a more modern day big who is a smooth lefty capable of handling the ball and spacing the floor with his jumpshot so he should have no issues finding minutes and a role on this team thanks to his versatility. Keldon Johnson might have the highest ceiling on the roster. He’s a high level athlete who projects to the next level quite well due to his elite size and length on the wing. He’s only 6’6 but has arms for days and plays a lot closer to 6’8 or 6’9. Both Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley should duke it out for starting point guard and each player reflects the other. They’re supremely athletic and known for attacking the rim. However both aren’t guys who you expect to hurt you from deep just yet. The lowest rated guy could be the most valuable as Calipari swooped into Wisconsin to steal Tyler Herro out of the state. He’s a high level shooter and scorer and might be the most dynamic offensive player on the roster. I wouldn’t be surprised if Herro leads the Wildcats in scoring this season.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(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

Truth be told I think Cal will start either Quickley or Hagans, with Green playing more off the ball. Up front I’d give Quickley the slightest of edges as he might be a touch more physically mature. I do expect Herro to start, and Travis as well. But the rest is a mystery. The depth for UK is interesting because they seem to have guys who are more offensive threats and guys who can be elite defensively. If you want a stop you’d probably prefer Richards, Johnson, Quickley, and Hagans. If you want a bucket, Montgomery, Herro, Green, Travis, and Washington probably help you better in that regard.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 25- 6 | KenPom Projected Record: 24 - 7

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Syracuse vs Duke Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home SEMO 299 W
Nov 11 Home Texas A&M CC 284 W
Nov 14 Away Richmond 92 W
Nov 20 Home Austin Peay 202 W
Nov 22 Home South Carolina State 328 W
Nov 25 Home SE-Louisiana 319 W
Nov 30 TBA Tulsa 100 L
Dec 3 Home Buffalo 93 L
Dec 14 Home Liberty 88 W
Dec 18 Neutral Loyola-Chicago 99 L
Dec 22 Home UNC-Wilmington 266 W
Dec 30 Home Davidson 61 W
Jan 4 Home SMU 84 L
avg 178.08 9-4

Another trip to the Champions Classic to start the season and this time to face Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils. Duke has another team full of elite young players led by Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Then a very big soft middle before they ramp things back up to face Seton Hall, Utah, North Carolina, and Louisville. UNC on a neutral court in Chicago is a toss up, but the Wildcats should be able to win the other three games. Then they host Kansas at Rupp in the Big 12-SEC Challenge in a very marquee matchup. Kansas has the preseason number one team and a bevy of talent eligible to play this year.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 8 Away Auburn 22 L
Jan 11 Home Texas A&M 58 L
Jan 15 Away Arkansas 44 L
Jan 18 Home Tennessee 19 L
Jan 22 Home Alabama 70 W
Jan 25 Away South Carolina 69 L
Jan 29 Away Kentucky 2 L
Feb 1 Home Florida 12 L
Feb 5 Home LSU 38 L
Feb 8 Away Mississippi State 53 L
Feb 11 Home Kentucky 2 L
Feb 15 Away Florida 12 L
Feb 18 Away Tennessee 19 L
Feb 22 Home Georgia 55 L
Feb 26 Home Missouri 39 L
Feb 29 Away Ole Miss 60 L
Mar 3 Away Alabama 70 l
Mar 7 Home South Carolina 69 W
avg 39.61 2-16

Auburn twice, Tennessee twice, Mississippi State twice, and Florida twice makes this one of the more challenging schedules in the league and they don’t even get to play themselves. The SEC schedulers did the Wildcats no favors lining my projected 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 7th teams all sit there with a couple games each. And even Florida at 7th could be a top 4-5 team in the league if things break their way. Vanderbilt runs out elite freshman guard Darius Garland and a renewed lineup as well. Also road contests at Alabama and Missouri could be games where the Wildcats get tripped up as well. All in all this is a schedule where UK will get tested again and again, and it should prepare them well for the NCAA tournament.

OVERVIEW

It’s always easy to look at Kentucky’s roster and like the way things look. Last year it was easy to see a lot of flaws if you looked hard enough. The Wildcats were talented but they didn’t have the game changing talent they’re used to having on some of their more elite teams. Since Cal has been at Kentucky the Wildcats have been able to out athlete just about everyone. The adage of being able to assemble a roster with the most talent seems to be changing as the college game seems to be mimicking the NBA and focusing more on skill and shooting.

This is the first time I feel like I’m seeing Cal make the move to focus on guys who are more highly skilled over the elite athletes. Sure Kentucky still has those guys, but signees E.J. Montgomery and Tyler Herro show a little bit of a different side of Cal’s recruiting. The weakness of past UK teams, the ability to consistently knock in a 3-point shot, shouldn’t be an issue with slight improvement from Quade Green and Herro on the wings. Another key player to watch is how much run a player like Jemarl Baker gets. He’s another guy who wasn’t an elite level recruit but one who brings needed shooting and skill to the wing.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Media Day Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Having talent in place is important of course. There are legitimately 10 players on this roster who can be thrown into the mix without the Wildcats missing a whole lot. So how Cal decides to mix and match his lineups will be one of the more intriguing seasonal storylines to watch.

For me there’s no doubt Kentucky should be the best team in the league. They’ll get a fight from Tennessee and probably Auburn, but the Wildcats have the balance they lacked last season. If SGA or Knox weren’t taking over offensively there wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver, and this season it feels like there a few more directions to go.

There are ball screen and side handoff options with the young point guards, floor spacers at multiple positions, and reliable low block scoring. Cal has shown he’s willing to do a lot of ball screening, but hasn’t shown much proclivity towards throwing the ball into the low block in recent years. So how much will Travis and Washington get thrown into the offensive mix, instead being left to rebound and work for garbage point pickups.

Expectations are high for the Wildcats this year and this is a roster with Final Four and National Championship level potential. I don’t know if I see them winning a title this year but anything short of a long deep run in the NCAA tournament this season will be considered a disappointment for Cal and this version of the Kentucky Wildcats.


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.


GLOSSARY

* - 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.