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Despite a tough start, there’s still a good roster in Lexington

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Previewing the No. 1 team in the SEC, the Kentucky Wildcats.

NCAA Basketball: Bluegrass Showcase-Morehead State at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Number one in your hearts, number one in the SEC — practically year after year. When in doubt, pencil Kentucky’s name at the top of the standings and work from there. Since the SEC expanded, the Wildcats have won the conference four times. Selecting UK as the champion is more about playing the odds. And oddly enough, I’ve picked them top of the heap each year since we started these previews.

The reality is each year with Kentucky is a new adventure. John Calipari recruits a bunch of elite level players, who go through early bumps, prompt a bit of doubt and, ultimately, come together by conference play. Even last year the Cats finished a modest, by their measure, 29th in KenPom and went 15-3 in the conference. Had the NCAA tournament taken place, UK would would have been a protected seed.

So, no matter the roster turnover or roster imbalance, UK endures.


Previous SEC Previews

Kentucky Preview 2014

#1 Kentucky Wildcats

Last Season: 25-6 (15-3 in conference) No. 29 KenPom

My Prediction: 19-7 (15-3, 1st in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 2nd in conference

KenPom Projection: 17-10 (12-6 in conference) No. 19

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: John Calipari | 12th Season, 331–79

I’ve made no bones about how much I enjoy John Calipari. He’s abrasive. He tries to project being weirdly aloof when, in reality, he’s dialed in and acutely aware of everything going around him. Cal has changed the landscape of the sport but also been incredibly adaptive in his own right. Once adamantly opposed to graduate transfers, Kentucky has welcomed them each of the past three offseasons. His recruiting glasses were once the exclusive home of five-star talents. Now, he’s taken in players whose time in Lexington will last more than a year and require development. It’s what makes this group fascinating. There are bits of Cal’s old philosophy merged with the new.

Seat Temp: COLD

Kentucky 10 year preview 2020

Kentucky has been remarkably consistent over the years. No, no perfect. But seven seasons have seen the Cats finish among the top 10 in KenPom’s ratings, and they’ve been a top-four seed eight times in 12 years. They’ve only missed the tournament once, and that was the result of a catastrophic injury to Nerlens Noel. Maybe they don’t have a reservation in the Final Four, but UK meets ridiculously high expectations.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Immanuel Quickley professional 30 78.96% 20.89% 19.38% 18.25%
Nick Richards professional 31 73.44% 18.86% 21.66% 15.96%
Tyrese Maxey professional 31 85.44% 18.77% 16.75% 19.12%
Ashton Hagans professional 30 79.68% 14.95% 16.70% 17.93%
E.J. Montgomery professional 28 53.76% 7.41% 8.50% 7.68%
Nate Sestina graduation 28 44.24% 6.98% 7.61% 6.39%
Kahlil Whitney professional 18 18.56% 2.60% 1.32% 3.51%
Johnny Juzang transfer 28 27.84% 3.55% 2.71% 3.83%
92.38% 94.01% 94.63% 92.67%

Talking about roster turnover in Lexington is like looking at the first draft of guest list for a wedding: expansive. You’re also not sure why some are there or whether others will be there at all. Last season, Kentucky leaned heavily on roster development and eschewed elite talent. Think about this: no player on the Wildcats was taken in the lottery of the NBA draft.

Tyrese Maxey went 21st overall to Philadelphia, but his dynamism was offset by inconsistency. The most reliable piece was combo guard Immanuel Quickley, whose shooting stroke teed up a breakout season and helped a team that endured offensive lulls. However, Quickley isn’t a lead guard doesn’t fit the dimensional or athletic profile of a future NBA wing. Still, he went 25th overall to the New York Knicks. Meanwhile, big man Nick Richards finally fulfilled his potential, and his improvement around the low block helped secure Kentucky’s place atop the standings. (He was taken with the 42nd pick to Charlotte.)

The rest of the Wildcats? All undrafted.

Ashton Hagans is a tough on-ball defender, but he never mastered the art of running the Wildcats offense, and his shooting stroke is problematic. E.J. Montgomery’s talent was obvious, but he never blossomed or carved out a role for a team that needed front court depth. Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina provided shooting and rebounding at the margins.

Johnny Juzang transferred to UCLA for a larger role, and Kahlil Whitney left the program early after struggling to find a role and went to concentrate on his professional career. He signed an Exhibit 10 deal with Charlotte after going undrafted.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Keion Brooks Jr SO WING 31 37.52% 6.52% 51.20% 5.40%
Riley Welch SO CG 4 0.24% 0.03% 0.00% 0.07%
Brennan Canada JR POST 5 0.24% 0.05% 0.00% -0.06%
Ben Jordan SO POST 3 0.08% 0.03% 0.00% -0.04%
7.62% 6.63% 5.37%

There isn’t much here: Keion Brooks Jr. and three walk-ons Brooks is a slender athletic combo forward whose minutes fluctuated , but he showed enough to give you the impression he might flash as a sophomore. Yet Brooks has been injured early and has a bit of a tough road back. If he returns soon, Brooks should crack the rotation and might give the Cats a boost they need.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr B.J. Boston 6'6 180 ★★★★★ 5 WING
Fr Terrence Clarke 6'7 185 ★★★★★ 8 CG
Fr Isaiah Jackson 6'9 200 ★★★★ 30 CF
Fr Devin Askew 6'3 195 ★★★★ 32 PG
Fr Lance Ware 6'9 215 ★★★★ 38 POST
Fr Cam'Ron Fletcher 6'6 180 ★★★★ 64 CF
So Jacob Toppin 6'8 190 Transfer Rhode Island CF
Sr Olivier Sarr 7'0 215 Grad-Transfer Wake Forest POST
Sr Davion Mintz 6'3 175 Grad-Transfer Creighton CG
HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL: JAN 18 Spalding Hoophall Classic Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

B.J. Boston | FRESHMAN | WING

B.J. Boston steps on campus as the highest rated player in Kentucky’s recruiting class, and the most likely player to land in the NBA Draft lottery next year. He’s a high-scoring guard who thrives at all three levels, though his outside shooting has been inconsistent to this point. But for Kentucky to be Kentucky, it needs a dynamic scorer. Boston is the best option. His pull-up jumper and ability to slither through a defense make him a good fit for the role of primary scorer.

Landing Olivier Sarr wasn’t only important but necessary. At Wake Forest, Sarr averaged 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds, while positing a 115 offensive rating. He’s not in the same echelon as bigs who came before him, but he plugs a massive hole in the front court for Calipari, who struggled to draw elite prep post players to Lexington in recent recruiting cycles.

Davion Mintz, a reliable combo guard who transferred in from Creighton, backstops freshman Devin Askew in the ball-handling department. The last transfer is Jacob Toppin, who arrives from Rhode Island after Calipari placed a bet the Obi Toppin’s little brother might pan out. Toppin is an athletic wing who has some long term potential, which is an unusual gamble for a program which usually only deals in the short term.

Isaiah Jackson is one of the more exciting prospects on the roster. He’s a super bouncy with great size and length who, despite his slender frame, provides much-needed rim protection. Askew, for is part, is an outstanding creator but young for his class after reclassifying. He can pass with the best of them and is very good at getting to the rim. Post Lance Ware is a top-40 post recruit who would be a focal point at any other program. The same could be said of St. Louis native Cam’Ron Fletcher, a super athletic wing whose path to early minutes likely starts at the defensive end. As a multi-year prospect, Fletcher needs to polish up his skill and develop a consistent jumper.

High School Basketball: JUN 02 Pangos All-American Camp Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Terrence Clarke | FRESHMAN | COMBO GUARD

For Kentucky to break through this season, they need Terrence Clarke to excel. Clarke was a top prospect in the 2021 class, but he reclassified up to play this year after committing in the spring. Clark is a skilled and lengthy combo-guard who can get his shot off against nearly anyone. He’s not overly explosive, but his length and ball skills help him maneuver to the spot he wants. He’s still developing his body, so he may struggle against stronger guards. But if Clarkes figures it out he’ll boost the Wildcats into another level.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Devin Askew Davion Mintz
(2) Combo Guard B.J. Boston Keion Brooks
(3) Wing Terrence Clarke Cam'Ron Fletcher Dontaie Allen
(4) Combo Forward Isaiah Jackson Jacob Toppin
(5) Post Olivier Sarr Lance Ware

With games in full swing, we already have a sense of where Cal is starting with his depth chart and minutes. As usual, he banks on youth and talent. Boston and Clarke figure to be fixtures, and Sarr is probably a lock a the five. Jackson’s athleticism and uncanny timing off the floor to contest shots earned him the nod at the four. But this lineup lacks a shooter that commands respect. Askew will face growing pains at the point. And post depth is shallow. Keep in mind, Cal usually keeps his lineup tight at seven players, but will he expand it to audition guys like Fletcher, Ware and Brooks for larger roles? If the frontline holds up, it would do wonders for the Wildcats.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 19-7 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-10

NCAA Basketball: Wade Houston Tipoff Classic-Western Kentucky at Louisville Louisville Courier-Journal-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 25 Home Morehead St 317 W
Nov 29 Home Richmond 62 L
Dec 1 TBA Kansas 5 L
Dec 6 Neutral Georgia Tech 73 W
Dec 12 Home Notre Dame 100 W
Dec 19 Neutral UCLA 28 W
Dec 26 Away Louisville 14 L
Jan 30 Home Texas 9 L
avg 76.00 4-4

Kentucky normally has a little more padding in their non-conference schedule, but this year isn’t normal. The Wildcats opened with games against Richmond, one of the nation’s best mid-majors, and a fellow blue blood in Kansas. They lost both. In each game, you could point to a lack of perimeter shooting as a culprit. But in a defeat against Georgia Tech, the Wildcats knocked down 8 of 19 attempts from behind the arc. The pressing issue is how quickly the Wildcats acclimate, especially Askew, who is essentially playing against guys two years older than him. Things don’t get easier, with games against Louisville, Notre Dame, UCLA and Texas all lined up. They’re really going to need to accelerate their cohesion and a 4-4 record or worse wouldn’t be shocking.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Home South Carolina 66 W
Jan 2 Away Mississippi State 83 W
Jan 5 Home Vanderbilt 128 W
Jan 9 Away Florida 24 L
Jan 12 Home Alabama 47 W
Jan 16 Away Auburn 76 W
Jan 20 Away Georgia 92 W
Jan 23 Home LSU 39 W
Jan 26 Away Alabama 47 L
Feb 2 Away Missouri 46 W
Feb 6 Home Tennessee 19 W
Feb 9 Home Arkansas 42 W
Feb 13 Home Auburn 76 W
Feb 17 Away Vanderbilt 128 W
Feb 20 Away Tennessee 19 L
Feb 23 Home Texas A&M 70 W
Feb 27 Home Florida 24 W
Mar 2 Away Ole Miss 45 W
avg 59.50 15-3

The opening of the schedule goes about as well as Kentucky could want: South Carolina in Rupp Arena, a road trip to woeful Mississippi State and back to Lexington against Vanderbilt. If there was any carryover of struggles from the non-conference slate, these three games give the Cats time to work through them. A oad game at Florida should be tough, but Kentucky traditionally plays well defensively. The Gators often struggle to score, too. If they can push past the Gators to a 4-0 start, it clears the road for them and puts them in the driver’s seat.

OVERVIEW

I’ll be honest: based on the first four games, I wouldn’t pick Kentucky to win the SEC. Yes, we’re accustomed to watching them scuffle along early in the season but steadily improve. Something about this group, though, feels different. But this order was selected before the season started, and in the immortal words of kids everywhere, no backsies.

kentucky synergy 2020

The difference between what we’ve seen in the past and this year’s Wildcats is the pandemic has thrown all kinds of wrenches into Cal’s machine. For one, it interrupted a normal offseason workout schedule where Cal attunes himself to which players are leveling up to UK’s expectations. Then there are preseason scrimmages, exhibitions and some buy games in non-conference. None of that happened. Instead, Kentucky has jumped right into the meat of its non-conference schedule.

There’s no litany of beatable mid-majors in front of a packed Rupp Arena building to a showdown with Louisville round Christmas. It’s all been chucked out the window. That makes the learning curve steeper. It also makes it impossible to cover up the growing pains.

It’s also important to remember that Cal’s resume speaks for itself. He and his staff usually sort out the kinks. They’ll just have to do it under tougher conditions than in the past.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 01 Champions Classic - Kentucky v Kansas Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Undoubtedly, Kentucky has some problems. Are they long-term ones? Maybe not. In terms of talent, this roster is up there among those Cal’s put together. It’s more than capable of winning the SEC. That hinges on what they get from Boston and Clarke. If they play like lottery selections, the Wildcats are the presumptive favorites. But should the offense rely on playing off Sarr in the post, it’s probably a warning sign.

Last year, Sarr made just 46.1 percent of his shots on post-ups and posted 0.92 points per possession, according to Synergy tracking data. That’s not a recipe for success in today’s game. Consider that last season, UK averaged 1.04 PPP as a group. Kentucky, however, doesn’t have a lot of answers outside of Boston, Clarke and Sarr.

Mintz was a nice addition, but he was a role guy on a NCAA tournament team at Creighton. Sarr excelled on a bad Wake Forest team. Askew and Clarke should both be seniors in high school. Ware, Fletcher, Toppin and Diontaie Allen were all highly recruited but not at the level Kentucky fans are used to. That puts a lot of pressure on Boston and Isaiah Jackson, and Jackson’s game lacks offensive polish.

The early struggles aren’t surprising, but the potential scope could be. Calipari has the talent to dig out of this mess, but the tide needs to turn sooner rather than later.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Just like every year, Kentucky has multiple players who can find themselves in the NBA fraft lottery. And if past is prologue, UK is far more likely to finish at the top or close to the top of the standings than anywhere else.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Is a 17-point loss to Georgia Tech, the No. 90 team in KenPom, ominous? Kentucky will have talent, but depth and skill are questionable right now. Boston and Clarke were already going to be under pressure, but the current state of affairs isn't sustainable. They not only need to find consistency but for some steady role players emerge. Does this roster have them?


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


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.