There’s a feeling many fan bases know well. It gets to everyone at some point. The feeling of watching a promising season go down in flames in a wild upset by an overwhelmingly outmatched opponent in an early round of the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately for Kentucky, they got to experience that feeling this past season when the no. 2 seeded Wildcats lost to St. Peters in the round of 64. The ‘Cats were led by a national player of the year, they were 3rd in offensive efficiency, held an unreal 37.7% offensive rebound rate, and were many people’s picks for a National Champion, or at least a Final Four. But the NCAA Tournament is random, and random events often leave lasting opinions. Kentucky made just four 3-pointers and had a weak 45.9% effective field goal rate in the game. St. Peters, meanwhile, hit 52.9% of their 3-point attempts, connecting on 9-of-17, and shot a 58.8% eFG, beating UK in overtime.
Had this happened in any odd year, Wildcats fans are likely more willing to move on. But this came just one season after Kentucky posted their worst record in the modern era, even worse than the post-NCAA scandal season in 1989. But ‘Cats fans have been getting a little antsy with John Calipari, who has had the gall of not making a Final Four since 2015. This season might be important for a variety of reasons, but getting the taste of that loss to St. Peters might be chief among them.
Previous SEC Previews
- 2. Arkansas Razorbacks
- 3. Tennessee Volunteers
- 4. Auburn Tigers
- 5. Alabama Crimson Tide
- 6. Florida Gators
- 7. LSU Tigers
- 8. Texas A&M Aggies
- 9. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Ole Miss Rebels
- 11. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 12. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
#1 Kentucky Wildcats
Last Season: 26 - 8 (14-4 in conference) No. 6 KenPom
My Prediction: 26 - 5 (15-3, 1st in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 14.7 - 3.3 (1st in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 1st in conference
KenPom Projection: 23 - 6 (14-4 in conference) No. 1
HEAD COACH: John Calipari | 14th Season, 365-101
John Calipari is not on the hot seat. Anyone who says he’s on the hot seat should be forced to become a fan of any other program in the country. While Cal only has one national title, his record of success at UK is outstanding. He’s restored the ‘Cats back to the upper echelon of the sport, and fields a top 10 team more often than not. Kentucky has missed just two NCAA Tournaments. The first in 2013 when UK was trending towards a bid when Nerlens Noel tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Kentucky went 4-6 without Noel in the lineup — including losses to teams rated 73rd or worse in KenPom — and were relegated to the NIT. They missed again two years ago, when a COVID-impacted offseason did not give Cal his usual time in reconstructing the lineup.
More than any other Coach, probably save for Eric Musselman these days, Cal has relied upon the offseason to reboot his team with talented freshmen. Absent that time, the ‘Cats struggled heavily and missed the tournament. But Kentucky looks to be back. They were really, really good last year, and despite the NCAAT hiccup, finished the season 6th in KenPom. St. Peters even went on to the Elite 8 before losing to North Carolina. Cal’s seat may not be hot, but this is the first time in his career in Lexington where there is actual job pressure. Chirping from the cheap seats may get louder if Kentucky doesn’t advance in the NCAA Tournament. Provided everyone is healthy, I have no doubt this team will be really good again this season.
Seat Temp: COOL-ish
With Nick Saban at Alabama, everyone is chasing Alabama. They may not win each and every SEC Championship, but that’s who you have to beat to get there. That is Kentucky in basketball. All of the entire Southeastern Conference has made a concerted effort to invest in basketball, and yet none of them can stack up to what Kentucky does. Even in their worst season they still went 8-9 in league play.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
TyTy Washington played the outlier. On a team stacked with high level transfers, Washington was the only highly rated freshman to see any consistent action, a departure for a Calipari Kentucky team. He started all but four games, and the games he didn’t start were games he was either, A) Injured, or B) working his way back from an injury. He was as much the bell-cow as anyone on the roster, as he averaged 12.5 points per game. In wins though, he averaged 14.3 points, 54% from 2FG and 38% from 3FG. In losses, that went down to just 7.5 points, 32.7% from 2FG, and 22.7% from 3FG. As Washington went, so did Kentucky. I was a little surprised he lasted to the 29th pick in the 1st round of the draft.
One of the best additions last offseason was Cal getting Kellan Grady on campus for one final season. Grady was incredible. He drastically dropped his usage and worked almost solely as an off the ball floor spacer. Doing that he shot 41.7% from behind the arc and a 125 ORtg. Meanwhile, Davion Mintz returned for his super senior season and improved on the solid season he had the year before. Walk on Zan Payne, the son of Kenny Payne, transferred to Louisville to play for his dad one last year.
Former 5-star recruit Keion Brooks transferred to Washington after an up and down career. He was never able to develop a consistent jumper from distance but was a high-level defender and good finisher at the rim. I thought it was a shame Bryce Hopkins gave up a year to play at UK; the skilled and talented but miscast small ball forward shined in limited opportunities. He transferred to Providence, where Ed Cooley should enjoy having him around. And Dontaie Allen certainly had his moments as a shooter, but his inability to defend consistently made him a liability and he transferred out to Western Kentucky.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Oscar Tshiebwe | SENIOR | POST
It’s rare these days when an All-American post can win National Player of the Year by averaging 17 points and 15 rebounds and come back to school for another season. But that’s exactly what Kentucky has in the middle of their offense this year when Oscar Tshiebwe opted to come back for a fourth season.
The West Virginia transfer was an immediate impact and was the top-rated player in the KenPom MVP ratings. He had the second best offensive rebound rate and the best defensive rebound rate while covering over 60% of his shot attempts. He had more games of 20 rebounds or more (5) than he did with fewer than 10 rebounds (2). He had 19 games of 10 or more defensive rebounds alone. These are just monstrous numbers. And he’s coming back. As long as Tshiebwe is healthy, Kentucky has a chance to be great.
Sahvir Wheeler returns as well after scoring 10 points and almost 7 assists per game. Wheeler stayed in line with a career assist rate around 35%, and while he didn’t shoot the ball well, he’s never been a primary scorer, so he fit in well running the offense last year.
Lance Ware saw less time on the floor than he did as a freshman, but it’s hard to find minutes in the middle of the UK offense when Tshiebwe is there. But when he plays Ware has a high motor and he rebounds and scores it around the rim. He needs to cut down on his turnovers, but he’s been a good backup. Playing even more sporadically was 5-star freshman Damion Collins, who is a freak athlete and very raw. But his 10.7% block rate would have been top 30 in the country if he’d have qualified with his minutes played.
Two years ago Calipari took a chance on Jacob Toppin as an under-recruited high-level athlete when he transferred from Rhode Island, that gamble is still kind of paying off. Toppin looked like he was on the verge of figuring it out last season, where if he can just shoot the ball outside consistently, he can take off. He’s so athletic in attacking the rim on cuts and put backs, he makes the back side of the offense so dangerous if he can knock down those corner threes.
CJ Fredrick redshirted after transferring from Iowa. He’s an excellent shooter and a solid secondary ball handler who should be able to help out after a leg injury, which was then followed up by a serious hamstring injury. The combination forced UK to sit him down for the season to recover but he’s ready to go this season. Brennan Canada and Kareem Watkins are back as walk-ons this season.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|SR||Antonio Reeves||6'5||205||TRANSFER||Illinois State||WING|
Cason Wallace | FRESHMAN | COMBO GUARD
Kentucky has seen its fair share of top-10 freshmen coming in, and Cason Wallace is who has next. The Texas native is an electric combo guard who is known as one of the best defenders in his class. At 6’4 he’s probably likely to start off the ball, but when he has the ball, he’s an attacker. Wallace should fit in to a long line of Kentucky guards who want to get downhill and put pressure on the defense and its rotations. He’s athletic enough to score over the top and strong enough to finish through contact.
With most freshmen, it’s easy to expect them to be ready from the jump. But very few are terrific right away. Wallace will need some time to acclimate to college basketball, and I’d expect him to come off the bench to start. But if Kentucky is having a good season, chances are Wallace is one of the main drivers for it late in the year.
What might have been the best offseason addition for the ‘Cats was getting senior transfer Antonio Reeves from Illinois State. Reeves has steadily gotten better during his three seasons in Bloomington-Normal, with last year being his best when he averaged almost 35 minutes per game and 20.1 points, while shooting 39% from outside. Reeves is a slight 6’5 wing from Chicago Simeon who wasn’t rated by any of the major services. He’s developed his body and has worked on his quick trigger outside jumper in order to become an efficient scorer.
After Reeves and Wallace the rest of the newcomers is a typical Kentucky class. The other highly rated freshman is Chris Livingston, a bulldozer of a wing who excels in attacking the rim and creating deflections with his length. Livington is a top 20 player and can play 2 through 4. Ugonna Kingsley-Onyenso is a top 50 post who reclassified to join UK early. He’s got great length at 7’0 with a +5” wingspan and has shown to be an instinctual defender with soft hands, even if his post game is still developing.
The last player in the class is one you might want to keep tabs on. Adou Thiero, who is only a 3-star recruit, but is the son of Almamy Thiero, a 6’10 forward who played for Cal at Memphis. Adou is a combo guard who shot up in height his senior season and is reportedly still growing. 247sports gave him 4-stars as his growth over his senior season wasn’t just his height, his game really blossomed. He’s the kind of late blooming prospect who could surprise people with a good freshman season, and turn into a draft prospect quickly.
|(1) Point Guard||Sahvir Wheeler||CJ Frederick|
|(2) Combo Guard||Cason Wallace||Adou Theiro|
|(3) Wing||Antonio Reeves||Chris Livingston|
|(4) Combo Forward||Jacob Toppin||Daimion Collins|
|(5) Post||Oscar Tshiebwe||Lance Ware||Ugonna Kingsley-Onyenso|
Pegging down the lineup early for the Wildcats isn’t easy since Tshiebwe has been recovering from a minor knee procedure. Both Calipari and Tshiebwe have downplayed the surgery, and Tshiebwe has insisted he’ll be ready to go for the opener. Complicating matters is Sahvir Wheeler, who left UK’s recent exhibition game with what appeared to be an ankle injury and did not return. If he’s available though, he’s the starting point guard, and Tshiebwe is the starting post. In between may get complicated, since C.J. Fredrick started the exhibition, along with Reeves and Jacob Toppin, with Collins standing in for Tshiebwe. Cal played all 10 guys, since he’s currently got 11 on scholarship. It would seem like Cal is going to have to play a lot of guys, because he’s got six returners, four really talented freshmen, and Reeves.
My Projected Record: 26 - 5 | KenPom Projected Record: 25 - 6
|Nov 15||Neutral||Michigan State||31||W|
|Nov 17||HOME||South Carolina St.||347||W|
|Nov 23||HOME||North Florida||219||W|
|Dec 21||HOME||Florida A&M||356||W|
People love to kill Calipari for his non-conference scheduling but this is actually pretty good. Sure, there are a couple duds, but Michigan State, Gonzaga, Michigan, UCLA, Louisville, and Kansas is quite a run of tough, traditional powerhouse programs. Louisville is expected to be down this year, but the Michigan schools could both be in the mix for a Big 10 Championship this season, UCLA looks like they’ll be good again with Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez back, and the Wildcats get Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks in the Big 12-SEC Challenge in late January.
However, there are no true road games for the Wildcats. Michigan State is being played in Indianapolis (part of the Champions Classic); Gonzaga moved the 1st game to Spokane’s event center instead of in the Kennel. Michigan and UK face off in the United Kingdom (yes, the game is being played in London, England). And the UCLA game is at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Last season, Kentucky started a “Unity” series where it will play schools from the SWAC each season. Last year it was Southern University, and Florida A&M gets the call this year.
|Jan 10||Home||South Carolina||78||W|
|Jan 21||Home||Texas A&M||45||W|
|Jan 31||Home||Ole Miss||49||W|
|Feb 15||Away||Mississippi St||53||W|
A lot of the success of any Kentucky season revolves around how they handle the early entry. And this year, there’s a little bit of a dangerous start to the UK season this time around. In between their home game against Florida A&M and a rivalry matchup against Louisville is the first game of conference play at Missouri. This is a sneaky game because, while Kentucky is better than Missouri and should win the game, Mizzou has enough energy around a new program and a sniper in Isiaih Mosley that the ‘Cats could get tripped up. If they avoid losing on the road at Mizzou, I think they win their first four games before being severely challenged on the road at Tennessee.
After the Tennessee game the schedule opens up a bit, as much as one can in the SEC. There are two home games against Texas A&M and Georgia, followed by winnable road games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, tougher home games against Florida and Arkansas, but then two more winnable road games at Georgia and Mississippi State. The good news is that we get to see Kentucky take on Arkansas and Tennessee each twice, along with Florida. That’s where they’ll need to win the league.
The College Basketball season is a long slog that finishes in the flurry of the NCAA Tournament. The tournament is when more casual fans lock in, and it’s the tournament which preserves the most memories for how good or bad a season was. That’s where legacies are born, when more eyes are on the sport. And for Kentucky, they have not been in front of the NCAA Tournament eyes at large for a while. That needs to change.
Last season was a good season by most measures, despite how it ended. But one thing stood out about last year's Wildcats. Kentucky had their third worst defense in the Calipari era by Adjusted Efficiency. They produced a top 5 offense, which was tied for the second-best offense under Cal, but the defense was just okay. Offense is always one of those things which can leave you at the wrong times, and for Kentucky, a team who relied upon Tshiebwe around the rim creating second shots, as well as good outside shooting, it did. Those options are limited, and even if limiting those options was a challenge, it can still happen. The trick is to be able to rely upon your defense when the dry spell hits.
But too often the defense fell short, at least based upon past success and program expectations. Kentucky allowed an Offensive Efficiency of 100.0 or better in 15 games last year, and seven of their eight losses came in those 15 games. The only game where they allowed less than 100.0 Efficiency rating or worse and lost was against LSU when the offense could only muster 0.841 points per possession. Part of the issue was Sahvir Wheeler got hurt in that game and the offense stalled. But the defense gave up 0.912 points per possession to a team with one of the worst offenses in the SEC last year.
If John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats want to change the recent narratives around the program, the defense needs to get better. The ‘Cats have always made scoring the ball tough because of their athleticism and length, by leading in blocking shots and affecting shots around the rim. If you go back through the seasons when UK looks dominant, their defense is elite through Block rate and 2pt FG defense. And to conceded the point a bit, for as good as Oscar Tshiebwe is, he’s long been a positional defender and not a shot blocker. But more than that the guards Kentucky ran out last year were less athletic than many previous versions.
Maybe moving on from Dontaie Allen, Keion Brooks, Davion Mintz, and Kellan Grady and shifting those minutes to more athletic and defensive minded players like Cason Wallace, Jacob Toppin, Daimion Collins, and Chris Livingston may be enough. But on top of that they really need Sahvir Wheeler to be better defensively. As Wheeler goes, so too will the Wildcats.
That’s mostly what Kentucky will be about this season. As long as Tshiebwe and Wheeler are healthy, Kentucky will be a top team in the SEC. If Antonio Reeves gives them a little bit of a scoring punch from the wing, Fredrick provides outside shooting, Collins provides rim protection, and Wallace and Livingston both turn into future 1st round picks, then Kentucky will be great.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
This is probably Kentucky’s best roster in a few years. Maybe since 2016-17. They return the National Player of the Year, which is something that just doesn’t happen in College Basketball these days. There’s young, NBA-level talent, mixed with older, more mature great college players. Barring a disaster off the court there’s no reason this team shouldn’t be locked into the top 10 all season, and in the mix for the top overall seed.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
The last time Kentucky was a 1-seed was in 2015, and Cal at Kentucky haven’t been dominant in years. The rest of the league is catching up with Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn, and Alabama all looking to be just as talented as Calipari’s Wildcats. With the lack of on-court success Kentucky fans got accustomed to in the early days of Cal’s tenure, it’s easy to see how some of them are maybe getting a little restless.
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.
* - 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.