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SEC Basketball Preview: John Calipari has course corrected after a rough season last year

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

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Mississippi State vs Kentucky Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Sigh, another preseason preview of the SEC where we somehow end up with Kentucky at the top again.

But how? How could a team that was picked to be first last year, wind up 9-16 and still end up first again in the preseason, you ask?

Because it’s Kentucky.

Last year the cracks began to show on the John Calipari method of team building. The recruiting was good, but instead of landing elite lottery level players, UK was running out mere late first or 2nd round players. On top of that there hasn’t been an elite level interior player for several cycles. Too many compromises on the level of players the Wildcats were used to running out, and without the elite guard play they were used to, and virtually no preseason to put the pieces together, Kentucky was just... ok.

The fall wasn’t as bad as many would have you believe. Kentucky was still a decent team, just not an elite one. But Calipari hit the reset button in a way that only Calipari can.


Previous SEC Previews

Kentucky Preview 2014

#1 Kentucky Wildcats

Last Season: 9 - 16 (8-9 in conference) No. 49 KenPom

My Prediction: 24 - 7 (14-4, 1st in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 13.8 - 4.2 (2nd in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 1st in conference

KenPom Projection: 22 - 9 (11-7 in conference) No. 17

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: John Calipari | 13th Season, 339-93

This picture sums up John Calipari, the 2020-21 version. For over a decade, Cal has been able to say and do pretty much anything he wanted in Lexington and the Wildcat faithful put up with his antics because he put together some really good teams. But the natives got restless last year. Cal being Cal didn’t work when the team was getting slapped around by Richmond and Notre Dame at home, or Georgia Tech on the road. His press conferences seemed like a charade as he’s trying to explain a 6-game losing streak in the non-con, and losing 7 of 8 in conference play.

Calipari has a fairly long list of haters. And they showed up in droves last year. But the bear was poked enough that Cal did as only Cal can do. He switched up his assistant staff, recruited his butt off, and put together the kind of roster which looks a little more like a UK roster, only without all the young talent. While he was reforming his bench, he reformed the roster in a way he’d never done. And he did it really well.

Meet the new ‘Cats, same as the old ‘Cats.

Seat Temp: NON-EXISTENT

Kentucky 10 year preview 2021

It’s actually a little funny how last year reset the viewpoint of the blue win percentage bars in the chart above. In 12 years, Cal has missed the NCAA Tournament now twice. That’s 10 NCAA Tournaments with just two seasons where they weren’t a protected seed. So eight years of protected seeds with 3 one seeds. For what they’re paying Cal, I think you can miss once in that span, but the second NCAA tournament miss is better turned into a low seed. Which was probably more likely had Nerlens Noel not torn his ACL.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Brandon Boston, Jr professional 25 75.15% 16.30% 13.96% 16.47%
Olivier Sarr graduated 25 62.18% 15.33% 15.30% 14.45%
Terrence Clarke professional 8 22.57% 4.37% 2.38% 5.10%
Isaiah Jackson professional 25 51.39% 11.98% 16.97% 11.01%
Devin Askew transfer 25 71.49% 9.26% 8.96% 11.28%
Cam'Ron Fletcher transfer 9 5.94% 0.85% 1.10% 0.84%
Riley Welch graduated 3 0.69% 0.00% -0.01% 0.06%
57.88% 58.09% 57.57% 59.21%

It’s hard to judge how poorly the Kentucky freshmen were last year considering they didn’t have a normal offseason thanks to the COVID shutdown. Contact tracing made ordinary workouts a bit of a challenge and it looked like it once the season tipped. Brandon Boston was a top five prospect entering the season and he looked lost at times as he struggled to adapt to the next level. As the season wore on, he improved, but like a typical freshman it was sporadic. When Boston was good, so was Kentucky, because he was able to provide that offensive release the Wildcats did not have otherwise.

There’s no way to talk about Terrence Clarke without mentioning the tragic way he lost his life just before the draft. Clarke didn’t play a bunch for Kentucky as he was battling a series of small injuries throughout the year, and when he did play he wasn’t as impactful as you would’ve hoped otherwise. But Clarke was a top 10 6’8 combo guard with a bright future and it was cut short.

Kentucky leaned heavily on the offense of Olivier Sarr, and Sarr just wasn’t quite prepared to lead a high level team offensively. He was a gifted and skilled big with a soft shooting touch, but probably better served as a non-primary weapon on a good team. Meanwhile freshman Isaiah Jackson was a bit more of a surprise as he became an elite rim protector with a top 10 block rate, and he was elite on the glass as well. Devin Askew was a bit of a disappointment, but as a player who reclassified he often just looked a little overwhelmed. Cam’Ron Fletcher had a unique saga of throwing a fit on the sideline, leaving the team, coming back, and not really playing much before or after.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Davion Mintz SR CG 25 76.14% 16.35% 53.60% 15.58%
Keion Brooks, Jr JR CF 16 37.13% 9.37% 50.90% 9.91%
Dontaie Allen R-SO WING 22 30.59% 6.70% 55.60% 5.36%
Jacob Toppin JR CF 24 40.79% 7.04% 53.00% 7.94%
Lance Ware SO POST 21 25.05% 2.33% 46.70% 2.47%
Zan Payne R-JR WING 2 0.40% 0.11% 50.00% 0.16%
Brennan Canada JR WING 2 0.30% 0.00% 0.00% -0.08
Kareem Watkins SO PG 1 0.20% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
42.12% 41.90% 33.42%
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Keion Brooks | JUNIOR | COMBO FORWARD

After Kentucky 3-6, Keion Brooks returned to the lineup and was an immediate impact scoring 12 points on 6-8 from the field. He also had a block, a steal, four assists, and six rebounds in a big win over Florida. The buzz around the change in the Wildcats’ performance, along with Brooks’ performance, merged into a narrative which quickly dissipated when UK got blown out the next game against Alabama. But it shouldn’t be overlooked the element Brooks brings to the lineup. He’s a versatile defender who was often cast out of position his first two years, playing mostly on the wing. But as a combo forward he excels. Brooks as a mismatch has value, he’s good off the ball, diving towards and attacking the rim. With more floor spacing around him Brooks should find the lanes he needs to be a fixture in the lineup this year.

It’s easy to overlook Davion Mintz, the ‘Cats leading scorer from last season. But as with most of the roster, he was miscast often as a primary ball handler, and wasn’t allowed to be the reliable shooter he was known for. But Mintz shot well and ended up being the team’s leading scorer. Despite that, he’s likely to take on a secondary role for a much better team this year. It was also easy to get excited about the production from Dontaie Allen, but opponents were quick to exploit Allen on defense and hunted him on mismatches. Allen’s shooting often overshadowed his other deficiencies on the floor, but with better lineups around him, his ability to draw defenders away from the rim could be important.

Lance Ware was a solid high energy big off the bench. He knew his limitations, and was fine filling in where he needed to be. Jacob Toppin was a longer term gamble for Kentucky, hoping he ascended the way his brother Obi did at Dayton. While Toppin is an exceptional athlete, he’s still a work in progress as a basketball player.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR TyTy Washington, Jr 6'3 190 ★★★★★ 14 PG
FR Daimion Collins 6'9 190 ★★★★★ 15 POST
FR Bryce Hopkins 6'6 225 ★★★★ 38 CF
JR Oscar Tshiebwe 6'9 254 Transfer West Virginia POST
JR Sahvir Wheeler 5'9 180 Transfer Georgia PG
RS-JR CJ Frederick 6'3 195 Transfer Iowa CG
SR Kellan Grady 6'5 205 Grad Transfer Davidson CG
NCAA Basketball: Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament-Davidson vs VCU Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Kellan Grady | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

If you could pinpoint how to rebuild your roster with a group of high level college transfers, you could do a WHOLE lot worse than starting with Kellan Grady. A former top 100 recruit who chose Davidson, and was really good for the Wildcats right away. As a freshman, he hit 37% of his 3s, held a 61.1% true shooting, and a 120.5 Offensive Rating while holding a 22.8% usage. Those numbers declined over the years a bit, but his shooting numbers were mostly consistent, and even last year his 56.9% true shooting would have ranked 2nd on the Kentucky roster after Isaiah Jackson (a man who only attempted 2 3FGs). Grady is a bigger combo guard at 6’5, and can play all three guard spots. He’s not a huge assist guy but takes care of the ball with just a career 9.4% turnover rate. Grady might’ve been the kind of player UK needed a year ago, but he should still be a plug and play starter and potential All-SEC level player for the Wildcats from day one.

After Grady, Calipari landed multiple high impact transfers starting with West Virginia big man Oscar Tshiebwe. Tshiebwe is a mountain of a man at 6’9 and 260 pounds, and eats glass (quite figuratively, but literal is possible, I guess). As a freshman, Tshiebwe was the top offensive rebounder in the country, and was a top 50 defensive rebounder. His ORB% actually went up as a sophomore but he didn’t qualify to be ranked after deciding on a midseason transfer. He transferred as Derek Culver became more of an offensive focal point, so it will be interesting to watch how UK uses him.

Sahvir Wheeler was terrific on a pretty bad team at Georgia a year ago, with not many weapons around him, his efficiency waned, but at nearly 27% usage, he could easily see that cut down to 18% this season. He’ll still need to shoot better from outside, where he’s hit just 25.8% of his career attempts from outside. Making up for Wheeler’s lack of shooting is C.J. Fredrick, who’s 46.6% (!!!!) career shooting should make an immediate impact. Fredrick is a low usage combo guard, and while he’s not a great defender he’s surrounded by much more athleticism on defense than he was at Iowa.

No Kentucky Newcomers list would be complete without a list of elite freshmen, and while this group isn’t quite the same as years past, it’s got some nice balance. Bryce Hopkins is a skilled combo forward who can stretch the floor and make plays off the bounce. He’s solidly built, and while he isn’t explosive, he’s a really smart player who knows how to use his body and get where he needs to go. He’s also an elite level passer for his position. Damion Collins is like a foal still learning to walk. At 6’9 he can block any shot close to him, and covers incredible amounts of ground, but he’s still learning to play the game.

The most impactful freshman may be TyTy Washington, a slick and physical combo guard from Arizona who spurned the local Arizona Wildcats to move to the Bluegrass State. He’s a playmaker who can play both guard positions and shoots it well enough to make you defend up close, and can blow by with a quick first step. He’s good around the rim, and can create for teammates. He’s probably the most likely one and done prospect on the roster.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Sahvir Wheeler TyTy Washington, Jr
(2) Combo Guard Davion Mintz CJ Frederick Dontaie Allen
(3) Wing Kellan Grady Keion Brooks, Jr Jacob Toppin
(4) Combo Forward Daimion Collins Bryce Hopkins
(5) Post Oscar Tshiebwe Lance Ware

It’s always helpful for this section when a team plays a game before we post their preview. Getting a glimpse into the early thinking for Cal helps guide the depth. Not everyone was available for the UK matchup against Kentucky Wesleyan, but Cal went with Brooks at the four spot, and a guard combo of TyTy Washington, Wheeler and Grady. Mintz and Collins played a lot, but off the bench, while Allen, Hopkins, and Ware all filled in. Fredrick had offseason surgery and is still working his way back, but should be ready by the start of the season. And Toppin is still recovering from a shoulder injury. Fredrick will play, and it will be interesting to watch how Calipari deploys his forces with 12 scholarship players who were all used to getting minutes.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 24-7 | KenPom Projected Record: 22-9

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Neutral Duke 10 L
Nov 12 Home Robert Morris 284 W
Nov 16 Home Mount St Mary's 280 W
Nov 19 Home Ohio University 115 W
Nov 22 Home Albany 279 W
Nov 26 Home North Florida 235 W
Nov 29 Home Central Michigan 303 W
Dec 7 Home Southern University 319 W
Dec 11 Away Notre Dame 27 W
Dec 18 Neutral Ohio State 8 L
Dec 22 Home Louisville 36 W
Dec 31 Home High Point 274 W
Jan 29 Away Kansas 3 L
avg 167.15 10-3

I’ve never really enjoyed how Calipari schedules his non-conference games because they’re always loaded with boring nothing games after a big opener. The Champions Classic is always a fun event to kick off the College Basketball season, and taking on Duke to kick things off is no small change. Paolo Banchero is going to be a monster for anyone this season, and with Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement, puts a little more focus on the Blue Devils putting things together this year. But then the Wildcats go underground with seven games in a row, from November 12th through December 7th, where the average opponent ranks just 259th in KenPom. I’ll never accuse Cal of avoiding competition, because he does play on the road against Notre Dame, a neutral court matchup against Ohio State, the annual game against Louisville, and they get Kansas in the Big 12 - SEC Challenge this year. In all, it’s a tough schedule, it would just be nice to see a few more games against better teams over Albany or North Florida or whatever.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Home Missouri 96 W
Jan 4 Away LSU 43 L
Jan 8 Home Georgia 159 W
Jan 11 Away Vanderbilt 79 W
Jan 15 Home Tennessee 13 W
Jan 19 Away Texas A&M 78 W
Jan 22 Away Auburn 28 W
Jan 25 Home Mississippi St 65 W
Feb 2 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Feb 5 Away Alabama 19 L
Feb 8 Away South Carolina 86 W
Feb 12 Home Florida 25 W
Feb 15 Away Tennessee 13 L
Feb 19 Home Alabama 19 W
Feb 23 Home LSU 43 W
Feb 26 Away Arkansas 15 L
Mar 1 Home Ole Miss 57 W
Mar 5 Away Florida 25 W
avg 52.33 14-4

Opening with Missouri at home in SEC play feels like it’s about par for the course for the Wildcats. It seems almost every year they open at home and against a team not predicted to be a challenger. Consulting with the history books, that’s inaccurate. But this is the second time in three years Kentucky has opened conference play with Missouri at home. Then comes a winnable road trip to LSU, and a sequence of games where the schedule favors Kentucky. There are winnable road games at Vanderbilt — a team who hasn’t beaten UK in 10 tries — and Texas A&M (Wildcats are 8-2 in the last 10). With home games against Georgia and Tennessee, Kentucky could be undefeated heading into a Saturday matchup against Auburn, a team who has split the last 10 games against the ‘Cats. Only Tennessee has a winning record against Kentucky in the last 10 games, going 6-4. With a head-to-head vs Florida, Kentucky gets five games against the three teams with the most recent success against them in Auburn, UF, and UT. Then another two games against Alabama, the projected #2 team in the conference. How Calipari handles those 7 games are going to go a long way in determining whether the Wildcats win the league or not.

OVERVIEW

Things went really wrong for the Calipari system last year. Without a full offseason of workouts, the chemistry was thin, and the talent level wasn’t high enough to overcome it.

So Cal did the only thing he knows how to do— bank on himself. He went to work in the offseason putting together the kind of roster which might be overcompensating a bit for their struggles last year, but one with a lot of guys who can make shots, which was a big glaring issue for them last year. Kentucky was 289th in the country in effective field goal percentage last year, and had the worst 2FG% in the conference. And that was with Isaiah Jackson shooting a hair under 55%.

Kentucky 2021 Shot Chart per CBBAnalytics
Kentucky 2021 Shot Chart per CBBAnalytics

Instead of Synergy for the shot chart, I wanted to find something which was more accurate for the Wildcats last season. Typically, the shot chart can show you what sort of shots the offense generates, coupled with how well the team shot them. But what’s striking is simply how many mid-range jumpers UK took, and how poorly they shot them… Which is precisely how you get to a 45.5% (or 312th in the country) from 2FG. There aren’t many offenses which are designed to create mid range jump shots. The goal is to get to the rim, or at least into the middle of the defense, and force a collapse for either a dump off or kick out.

So the fact UK was attempting that many shots from mid-range should tell you the offense wasn’t working. It was evident watching Kentucky play as well. They were a decent three point shooting team, but the looks they were getting were only okay.

Enter Sahvir Wheeler, penetrator extraordinaire, and TyTy Washington, an elite physical combo guard.

High School Basketball: NOV 08 Pangos All-American Festival Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For most of Cal’s career in Lexington, he’s had elite guard play. His truly great teams had an elite lead guard. Not necessarily a point guard, but a guard who can handle, get his own shots, and change the dynamics of the game. There isn’t a John Wall, Marquis Teague, Jamal Murray, DeAaron Fox, or even a Tyler Herro in this group. But with a higher than normal group of outside shot makers, to go along with Washington and Wheeler attacking the rim, they should be much improved offensively over last year.

Other great UK teams have had lottery big men to funnel possessions through. Anthony Davis, Demarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Julius Randle, and Bam Adebayo are all absent from this roster, and Oscar Tshiebwe is not that kind of big.

In nearly every way, this is not your typical Calipari-led Kentucky roster. It’s just jam-packed full of good college players. But those good players compose what might be the most complete roster in the SEC. They just have every skill set you want. Drivers, shooters, defenders, rebounders. But they’re missing an elite guy. There’s no surefire pro that you can see.

Unless TyTy can become that guy.

That’s the difference between a UK squad that’s simply good, and one that can take off. Can TyTy Washington take off? If he does, he can take Kentucky with him.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

After last year, just being good again will be a nice refresher. But this team is really well composed, and with elite shooters and a couple guards who can get into the teeth of the defense, there’s everything Calipari needs to get this team back on top in the SEC.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Simply coming off the disaster of last year, it’s possible John Calipari overcompensated for his team’s deficiencies from a year ago and reset his roster with a team of players who’ve simply been good without being elite enough to move on. So while the expectations in Lexington are to compete for championships, it’s impossible to truly do that without NBA players on your roster, and Cal doesn’t have NBA players just yet.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for 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 Masses” picks. 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.