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John Calipari has a diverse set of players who can redefine what a Wildcats team looks like

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

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Houston vs Kentucky Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky doesn’t win the SEC every season. Last year, LSU claimed the title, while Tennessee and Auburn shared it two seasons ago. Despite three long years since the Wildcats won the conference, you don’t hear fans calling for John Calipari to be replaced.

Obviously, Cal isn’t fretting about his job security, yet there might be some slight anxiety creeping into the fan base because the Wildcats haven’t made a Final Four run since 2015, a season where they rumbled to a 38-0 start before hitting a roadblock in Wisconsin in the National Semifinal. Since that game, Cal has fielded several very good teams, but none quite as deep and talented as that one.

You can usually count on Kentucky to be a national title contender when they merge a few steady returners with an(other) elite recruiting class. And that’s precisely the blend in Lexington this season, one where Florida appears to be the only other SEC foe who can mount a challenge for first place.


Previous SEC Previews

Kentucky Preview 2014

#1 Kentucky Wildcats

Last Season: 30 - 7 (15-3 in conference) No. 8 KenPom

My Prediction: 26 - 5 (16-2, 1st in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 15.3-2.7 (1st in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 1st in conference

KenPom Projection: 25 - 6 (14-4 in conference) No. 2

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Houston vs Kentucky Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: John Calipari | Tenth Season, 305-71

What else can we say about Calipari? I’m sure he drives people crazy. In fact, he drives me crazy. But he’s also good for the game and builds teams that are fun to watch. Cal tipped roster construction on its head by turning a blue-blood program into a high-end prep program for future NBA draft picks. It’s not only won a lot of games, but exposed the charade that is the NCAA’s model of amateurism.

Yes, Kentucky is a revolving door, but it’s also a program that puts players — their game and their well-being — at the center. An offer from Kentucky means you’ve arrived. In essence, you’ve been picked for a fast-track to a professional contract and development. The reason for that is Calipari.

Seat Temp: COLD

kentucky 10 year look 2019

I’ve looked at a lot of these charts, and Cal has had one bad season. That year, the Wildcats were a top-15 beginning to gel when its best player, Nerlens Noel, tore his ACL. The Wildcats gimped down the stretch, bombing out in the first round of the NIT. Yet, the combination of a weak recruiting class and a devastating injury made that campaign an outlier.

By and large, Cal’s method has not only proven sustainable but just damn good. Good on offense, good on defense, highly rated by KenPom and resulting in NCAA tournament teams. Kentucky is one of the rare programs where a failure to make the field of 68 is a genuine shock.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
P.J. Washington professional 35 68.72% 18.92% 19.68% 13.74%
Tyler Herro professional 37 80.94% 18.50% 18.04% 16.19%
Keldon Johnson professional 37 76.31% 17.75% 15.86% 15.26%
Reid Travis graduation 32 61.28% 12.79% 13.43% 12.26%
Quade Green transfer 9 10.74% 2.57% 2.27% 2.15%
Jemarl Baker transfer 28 17.05% 2.28% 1.23% 3.41%
63.01% 72.81% 70.51% 63.01%

I’ll admit that I didn’t think I’d enjoy watching the product Cal put on the floor last season. Seeing the growth of PJ Washington from a high-energy reserve into a skilled floor-stretcher changed my outlook. Meanwhile, Tyler Herro was a sweet-shooting freshman who supposedly signaled Cal’s shift toward recruiting multi-year players. While Herro was an elite talent, few projected him as a potential first-round pick. Herro, who was physically tough and underrated athletically, turned himself into a one-and-done player.

Keldon Johnson, however, arrived as a more heralded prospect and expectations to become UK’s alpha scorer on the wing. In the end, Washington and Herro developed rapidly enough that Johnson was slightly overshadowed. Then there was Reid Travis, a graduate transfer who gave Calipari a physical presence around the rim. Travis could lean on big men, compete on the glass and was a low-usage, high-efficiency option on offense.

Finally, point guard Quade Green could never carve out a role in Lexington, eventually transferring to Washington. The same circumstances apply to Jemarl Baker, a wing who found a landing spot at Arizona.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Ashton Hagans SO PG 37 70.74% 10.12% 55.80% 11.48%
Immanuel Quickley SO CG 37 45.91% 6.88% 54.80% 5.62%
Nick Richards JR POST 37 29.93% 5.24% 64.90% 6.47%
E.J. Montgomery SO POST 37 37.45% 4.95% 50.30% 5.95%
Zan Payne R-FR G REDSHIRT
36.81% 27.19% 29.52%
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Ashton Hagans | SOPHOMORE | POINT GUARD

The expectations for Ashton Hagans coming into college were incredibly high. The five-star guard arrived with a reputation as a hard-nosed defender, one that translated relatively fast for the Wildcats. On the offensive end, though, there were some hiccups. The Georgia native has excellent instincts with the ball in his hands and exceptional speed. Still, playing out of ball-screens — a fixture of UK’s system — proved a challenge. Meanwhile, his jump-shooting was inconsistent.

It’s also easy to forget, however, that Hagans should have been a high-school senior but reclassified to speed up NBA draft clock. Once you factor that in, it’s easier to understand why he looked tentative or endured stretches of inconsistency. Since this would actually be his freshman year, now Calipari has a version of Hagans armed with crucial lessons to make good on his vast potential.

Backing up Hagans is fellow sophomore Immanuel Quickley, who was one of the SEC’s best 3-point shooters in league play last year. While he’ll be used to space the floor again, Quickley is a capable lead guard and a change of pace, too. With the ball in his hands, he relies more on shifting gears and manipulating angles, while Hagans uses his burst to get downhill toward the rim. At almost any other program, he’d be slotted in along Hagans, but this is Kentucky, where he’ll have to fight another crop of talented players for minutes.

Up front, EJ Montgomery arrived as one of the Wildcats’ more heralded freshmen, but Washington’s growth and Travis’ experience squeezed him out of the rotation. I’ve always liked his ability and figured he’d take on a bigger role at combo forward this season. As for Nick Richards, the junior has been a frustrating enigma for Calipari and his staff. His athletic gifts are obvious, but he’s remained raw and scattershot offensively. His path to the next level will be as a rebounder, rim protector and reliable roll man. Yet the Wildcats haven’t been able to tap into those commodities enough.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Tyrese Maxey 6'3 198 ★★★★★ 10 CG
Fr Kahlil Whitney 6'6 210 ★★★★★ 12 WING
Fr Keion Brooks, Jr. 6'7 205 ★★★★★ 23 WING
Fr Johnny Juzang 6'6 214 ★★★★ 32 CF
Jr Dontaie Allen 6'6 200 ★★★★ 107 WING
G-Sr Nate Sestina 6'9 224 - Grad-Transfer POST
High School Basketball: McDonald’s High School All American Portrait Day Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrese Maxey | FRESHMAN | COMBO GUARD

Every year there’s a freshman who establishes themself quickly, but it’s always a toss-up for who it will be. Last year, it was Herro. Two years ago, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander grabbed the brass ring. And you can make a compelling case for De’Aaron Fox or Malik Monk in 2017. The list goes on.

This year, I’d place a bet on Tyrese Maxey, a gifted scorer who can hit any shot taken from any angle. How he fits into the rotation will be interesting to follow, too. Maxey was a scoring point guard in high school, but Hagans figures to be the ball-dominant player in Cal’s system. So how do Maxey’s inordinate gifts as bucket-getter translate when playing off the ball? Ideally, Maxey follows the path of prior players and excels at coming off screens. Given that Maxey is more crafty and not entirely reliant on raw athleticism, that intelligence can come in handy moving around the floor. Either way, he’ll be tough to keep out of the scoring column.

If you want to hedge bets, the other potential breakout freshman is Kahlil Whitney, an explosive wing scorer from Illinois. Last summer, Whitney’s play elevated him into the tier of recruit that Kentucky usually mines and right out of the hands of Illinois, which had long been the prohibitive favorite (Mizzou fans hoping to see Cam’Ron Fletcher in Columbia can understand). Whitney has an ease to his game in that everything just looks easy for him. His shot is fluid, and he’s good around the rim and excellent at creating space.

Nate Sestina marks Calipari’s second graduate transfer and could play a vital role for the ‘Cats. A team always needs shooting, and the Bucknell alum can undoubtedly tick off that need. On simple catch-and-shoots for the Bison, Sestina was good for 1.186 points per possession. A combo forward with that skill is a boon in a rotation that still uses dribble-drive motion as the platform for its attack.

Keion Brooks, Jr. has the tools to be a really good player as well, but he’s streaky. The wing will be a crowded house, but you can envision him becoming a viable secondary option. If he can supply 10 points and six rebounds, you’ll be satisfied. Johnny Juzang is another quality wing who should see the floor plenty. While he’s less explosive than Brooks, he’s capable of hitting any shot from 20 feet in.

That brings me to Dontaie Allen, a developmental prospect and a Kentucky native that will have to bide his time. I actually think he can fill that same role Derek Willis or Dominique Hawkins played a few years back. They both sat for a couple years but had really quality roles as juniors and seniors.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Ashton Hagans Immanuel Quickley
(2) Combo Guard Tyrese Maxey Johnny Juzang
(3) Wing Kahlil Whitney Keion Brooks, Jr
(4) Combo Forward EJ Montgomery Dontaie Allen
(5) Post Nick Richards Nate Sestina

Kentucky has a few open scholarships they could give out to a variety of walk-ons if they wanted, but with 10 scholarship players, it’s going to be a tight rotation. If Calipari was inclined, he could build a nine-man rotation. Yet he’s tended to keep the bench short and roles clear. You can expect Hagans to pilot the offense and for Maxey to settle in at combo guard. I’d also expect Montgomery and Richards to anchor the frontcourt early on. The real intrigue is on the wing, where Brooks, Whitney and Juzang are jockeying for time. Keep an eye on Sestina, too. If Montgomery struggles, maybe Calipari switches gears and plays a four-out rotation around Richards.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 26-5 | KenPom Projected Record: 25-6

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Michigan State vs Texas Tech Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 5 Neutral Michigan State 1 L
Nov 8 Home Eastern Kentucky 261 W
Nov 12 Home Evansville 174 W
Nov 18 Home Utah Valley 198 W
Nov 22 Home Mount Saint Mary's 256 W
Nov 24 Home Lamar 281 W
Nov 29 Home UAB 123 W
Dec 7 Home Farleigh Dickinson 241 W
Dec 14 Home Georgia Tech 66 W
Dec 18 Neutral Utah 114 W
Dec 21 Neutral Ohio State 11 W
Dec 28 Home Louisville 3 L
Jan 25 Away Texas Tech 15 L
avg 134.15 10-3

This schedule is something. As a mainstay in the Champions Classic, the Wildcats always open the regular season facing another elite program. This season, it’s Michigan State. After the Spartans, the slate softens up. Quite frankly, it’s laughable. UK plays eight consecutive home games, and the highest-rated opponent is Georgia Tech, which sits at 66 in KenPom. They have some neutral-floor matchups in Las Vegas against Utah and Ohio State, and the latter of the two could be feisty. There’s also its usual rival game against Louisville. Finally, there’s a showdown against Texas Tech in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. This is really the kind of schedule where going 10-3 would feel like a disappointment.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Home Missouri 39 W
Jan 7 Away Georgia 53 W
Jan 11 Home Alabama 70 W
Jan 15 Away South Carolina 69 W
Jan 18 Away Arkansas 44 L
Jan 21 Home Georgia 53 W
Jan 29 Home Vanderbilt 148 W
Feb 1 Away Auburn 22 W
Feb 4 Home Mississippi State 53 W
Feb 8 Away Tennessee 19 L
Feb 11 Away Vanderbilt 148 W
Feb 15 Home Ole Miss 60 W
Feb 18 Away LSU 38 W
Feb 22 Home Florida 12 W
Feb 25 Away Texas A&M 58 W
Feb 29 Home Auburn 22 W
Mar 3 Home Tennessee 19 W
Mar 7 Away Florida 12 W
avg 52.17 16-2

It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Kentucky fall short of the 16-2 league mark because of how balanced the league is overall. Outside of Vanderbilt, who the Cats get twice, there isn’t a team who should finish the year outside of the KenPom top 100. The vast majority should wind up inside the top 70. The Wildcats have a home-and-home against Florida, but I’ve got them sweeping the Gators. That means Cal’s group probably gets picked off by someone else. I’d keep an eye on Arkansas, Georgia, Auburn or LSU.

OVERVIEW

When talking about Kentucky, you’re talking about a program that makes changes incrementally. For example, did you know the last top-five recruit to pick the Wildcats was Skal Labissiere in 2015? However, Cal’s still building elite classes, identifying five-stars who fit his style and grooming them to become lottery picks.

Over his first six years on the job, he signed at least one top-five recruit each cycle and zero since. It would appear he’s adapted his approach to what kind of players he sees as Kentucky kind of players. He still finds long elite level athletes at nearly every position on the floor. Instead of a true dribble-dive offense he brought with him from his Memphis days, Cal has adapted.

kentucky returning shot chart
Kentucy’s Returning Players Shot Chart per SynergyStats

These subtle shifts have made Cal’s approach more sustainable. Rather than collect raw talent and then craft a strategy to match, he’s inverted the formula — all without totally abandoning one-and-done talent.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Cal has moved the Wildcats in a more consistent direction, putting shooters in corners, ball handlers in space, and keeping his bigs off the block. It’s allowed guys like Kevin Knox and Tyler Herro to get a ton of open shots and should do the same for Kahlil Whitney and Tyrese Maxey this year. With Nate Sestina and E.J. Montgomery, there are bigs capable of stretching the floor. This version of the Wildcats is different than any one they’ve had before with more skill and shooters than previous squads.

When you combine bigs who can stretch the floor with enough guys who can attack off the bounce and a couple shooters, now the offense can get more dynamic. This is why Hagans’ growth could unlock this team in a big way. He’s so fast from end to end and can put big amounts of pressure on the defense to guard the rim. When that happens, the kick-outs to Maxey and Quickley, or dump-offs to Richards become easy offense. It’s interesting to see so much variation from a roster of Kentucky players.

They’re still long and athletic, and should challenge for a national title, but perhaps with a little more shooting and the same consistency you can count on defensively, the Cats can find the right answers in March (and maybe April) to get back to a Final Four.


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.