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SEC Basketball Preview: #3 Kentucky Wildcats

Previewing the No. 3 team in the SEC, the Kentucky Wildcats.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It might be hard to imagine this but I’ve been writing these previews since 2014. That would make this the 10th edition of the SEC Conference Basketball previews. I have never NOT picked Kentucky to finish first in the league. 9 years, 9 first place picks. Year 10? Third.

The mood around Lexington these days might have you believe that things are in dire straights with their head coach. John Calipari has been leading the Wildcat program now for 14 seasons and it feels like he’s got real job pressure for the first time. But if you look at the results, Kentucky has still been really good! In this span they’ve won the league 4 times, finished 2nd twice and 3rd once, 4th once, and then they had an ugly season in 2021 (like a lot of teams). So removing a year where a lot of teams struggled thanks to an uncontrollable easily transmittable virus, and Kentucky has largely been doing what Kentucky does.

The problem of course is most of the success is front loaded, and there’s been a severe lack of NCAA Tournament success in the last four years with just one win. Granted one of those seasons didn’t have a tournament. But you can’t tell these things to Kentucky fans.


Previous SEC Previews:

Kentucky Preview 2014

#3 Kentucky Wildcats

Last Season: 22 - 12 (12-6 in conference) No. 27 KenPom

My Prediction: 23 - 9 (12-6, 3rd in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 12.4 - 5.6 (3rd in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 4th in conference

KenPom Projection: 21-10 (11-7 in conference) No. 18

Kentucky v Kansas State Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

HEAD COACH: John Calipari | 15th Season, 387-113

The run of success John Calipari has had at Kentucky is really pretty astonishing. But it’s hard to keeping winning at that high of a level for that long without a few bumps along the way. It’s worth wondering how much of the discontentment with Calipari would still exist had there been a tournament in 2020. That Kentucky team was 15-3 and were steaming towards a good seed before COVID stopped everything. But the league has improved as schools all through the SEC have invested into basketball. Jeff Lebo isn’t coaching Auburn, John Pelphrey isn’t at Arkansas, Avery Johnson isn’t at Alabama. At the beginning, Cal really only had to worry about Florida and Billy Donovan. Now he’s got Nate Oats, Rick Barnes, Buzz Williams, Eric Musselman, and Bruce Pearl, who has flipped from Tennessee to Auburn.

But Cal is still Cal. He’s going to do things his way, and he’s going to cajole the media, and be hardheaded, and coach his players hard, and this season... probably win a lot of games. The experiment of returning to what Cal knows, elite talent over experience, is going to be in front for everyone to see this season.

Seat Temp: WARM

It really speaks to how well John Calipari has done at Kentucky when we’re warming his seat after a 12-6 year in the league and a 6 seed, plus just a season removed from a 2 seed and a 14-4 league record. Even as the rest of the SEC gotten far more competitive, and Kentucky is still really good; they just haven’t been elite. Maybe that just shows how spoiled a lot of UK fans are. After all, this is the same school who ran off Tubby Smith after two meager 8 seeds in the NCAA Tournament (coincidentally that last 8 seed the Wildcats were still 13th in KenPom).

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Oscar Tshiebwe graduation 32 78.47% 20.81% 27.46% 19.55%
Jacob Toppin professional 33 75.62% 16.15% 15.49% 16.08%
Cason Wallace professional 32 75.18% 14.81% 16.15% 15.47%
Sahvir Wheeler transfer 21 43.80% 6.36% 6.80% 8.33%
Chris Livingston professional 34 55.62% 8.49% 7.82% 8.53%
CJ Fredrick transfer 27 43.87% 6.48% 5.11% 6.07%
Lance Ware transfer 28 20.00% 2.25% 2.74% 2.74%
Daimion Collins transfer 25 14.45% 1.86% 1.39% 2.63%
81.40% 77.21% 82.96% 79.40%

Returning to the ways of old, Kentucky flipped what is roughly the entire roster including multiple NBA draft picks and a former player of the year. Oscar Tshiebwe capped a rather brilliant college career by averaging 16.5 ppg and 13.7 rebounds just one season removed from being named the National POY by multiple outlets. Tshiebwe is an awesome college player and a monstrous rebounder, but his fit professionally remains in question, although he is on a two-way contract with the Pacers.

Cason Wallace was drafted with the 10th overall pick after averaging 11.7 points and being generally a defensive menace. Kentucky was sort of middling through the season until Wallace took on the lion’s share of the minutes at the point guard spot in mid-January. But as the season wore on Wallace got banged up and lost some effectiveness which slowed Kentucky’s usual late season surge.

Kentucky recruited Jacob Toppin banking on his ability to become some version of his older brother Obi, and while the younger brother took a little while to get going he did turn into a very good player late in his junior year and expanded that as a senior. He began to put everything together but could never quite get the deep shooting numbers high enough to get drafted, but he is on a two way deal with the Knicks.

The last of the players who turned pro is Chris Livingston, who left after a good but far from great freshman season. Livingston’s role grew as the season wore on and he looked prime for a breakout sophomore campaign, but the lure of the NBA was too great and he was selected late in the 2nd round by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Sahvir Wheeler was a fixture at point guard for the Wildcats in in 2022, but was banged up and ineffective for most of the 2023 season. He transferred to Washington for his final year. CJ Fredrick had a similar story of being too often injured, so he transferred to Cincinnati for his final season. Lance Ware opted to transfer to Villanova after three years, mostly as a backup, at UK. And Daimion Collins transferred to LSU after sitting behind Tshiebwe for two seasons, as the former 5-star recruit rarely played more than 10 minutes a game.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Antonio Reeves G-SR WING 34 69.20% 19.27% 54.90% 12.82%
Ugonna Onyenso SO POST 16 8.10% 1.58% 53.94% 2.51%
Adou Thiero SO CG 20 13.87% 1.82% 52.85% 1.89%
Brennan Canada* G-SR WING 5 0.66% 0.12% 50.00% 0.08%
Kareem Watkins* SR PG 4 0.58% 0.00% 0.00% -0.05%
Walker Horn* SO CG 4 0.58% 0.00% 0.00% -0.20%
18.60% 22.79% 17.05%
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Providence vs Kentucky John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Antonio Reeves | GRAD SENIOR | WING

John Calipari doesn’t have to be all young NBA talent all the time, sometimes he likes some experience and he has that in Antonio Reeves. An Illinois State transfer Reeves became a go-to scorer from the perimeter and had the ability to shoot Kentucky to big wins. He shot a career best 39.8% from 3-point range last year and that shooting helped him towards a 14.4 ppg average including over 16 ppg in SEC play. There was some trepidation on whether Reeves would return or not, and in the end getting him back in Lexington is a bit of a security blanket for Cal this season.

With so much youth on the roster this year, it was important to have someone who’s been through the gauntlet of the league play before. It’s not entirely clear what sort of role Reeves will play this year but just having him on the roster and filling in minutes as a reliable scorer and leader is important to the success of the program this year.

Ugonna Onyenso didn’t play much at all as a freshman but Kentucky talked him out of the transfer portal with the hope he can develop. As a high school prospect Onyenso was talented but a bit of a project, and at least this year he should be able to provide some interior defense and rim protection. Then there’s Adou Thiero, the son of a former Cal player at Memphis, who wasn’t highly recruited until he sprouted late in high school and then continued growing as a freshman. Now up to 6’8 and playing as a guard, Thiero may be overlooked early on this year’s roster as well, but he’s got the raw ability to be an impact player sooner than later. He was a bit of a standout during Kentucky’s summer tour and could challenge the young freshmen for a starting spot.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Justin Edwards 6'8 190 ★★★★★ 3 WING
FR Aaron Bradshaw 7'0 210 ★★★★★ 5 CF
FR D.J. Wagner 6'3 175 ★★★★★ 6 CG
FR Rob Dillingham 6'2 160 ★★★★★ 21 PG
FR Reed Sheppard 6'3 180 ★★★★ 79 CG
FR Jordan Burks 6'9 190 ★★★ 176 CF
FR Joey Hart 6'5 180 ★★★ 189 WING
FR Zvonimir Ivisic 7'2 220 NR NR POST
G-SR Tre Mitchell 6'9 225 TRANSFER West Virginia POST
High School Basketball: McDonald’s All American Boy’s Game Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Bradshaw | FRESHMAN | POST

Common sense might say to put the player with the biggest hype to be a very high NBA draft pick, that would be Justin Edwards. But the reason I’m choosing Aaron Bradshaw is because I think his value to the roster may be higher. Bradshaw is a 7’0 forward who can stretch the floor, and has mobility enough to attack of the bounce against other bigs.

Why Bradshaw is important is the Wildcats look to have plenty of good guards, but the interior is where they’re vulnerable. In need of rim protection and rebounding, there’s a lot of focus on whether or not the ‘Cats can get Bradshaw’s surgically repaired foot healed in time to be an impact player this season. He’s also represented by Klutch Sports, a group known for being conservative with their young players dealing with any sort of injury. Just look at what happened with Arkansas and Nick Smith, Jr. last season and you get the idea. If Bradshaw plays and is healthy, he’s a budding lottery pick. But if he sits out all year he’s still likely a 1st round pick. But Kentucky sure hopes he plays and is ready early.

Calipari is enrolling another top flight recruiting class and it’s the top ranked class this year. Bradshaw is the second best player in it, per the 247sports.com composite rankings. The top ranked player in Kentucky’s class is the #3 player in Justin Edwards. Edwards is a 6’8 wing who many have slated as a shoe-in for a top 5 pick this upcoming NBA draft. Edwards’ ability is undeniable; he can score at all three levels, and he defends and rebounds well. During UKs summer trip, Edwards was the leading scorer so it won’t be much of a surprise if he does all of that this season. He has a real chance to be one of those guys for Cal.

The rest of the class is no slouch with 6th ranked D.J. Wagner, the son of Dajuan Wagner. One of the best scoring guards in his class, Wagner looks and plays a lot like his dad. He can score it in a variety of ways, but his outside shooting is still a bit touch and go. If Edwards isn’t the leading scorer, Wagner might be a good bet. He’s joined by Robert Dillingham, an exciting playmaking scoring guard who was ranked at the tail end of the top 25. Both he and Wagner are ball dominant guards and neither is a true point guard. So it will be interesting to see how they play off each other.

The rest of the freshman class is a little un-Kentucky-like but still intriguing, it’s led by Reed Shephard, the son of Jeff Sheppard, a former National Champion Wildcat in ‘96 and ‘98. His mother is also a former Kentucky player so there’s a lot of Kentucky and even more basketball in his DNA. Sheppard is a skilled player who can stretch the floor and is a good decision maker. Then there’s Jordan Burks, a mid-3-star who has the type of skill set and body that could be interesting if he develops. At 6’9 and with a good looking shooting stroke Burks was originally committed to Ole Miss but landed at Kentucky after Kermit Davis was fired. Joey Hart is another top 200 prospect who was signed at UCF but was let out of his LOI and committed to Kentucky over his home state Indiana.

The biggest wildcard of the freshman class is Croatian prospect Zvonimir Ivisic. At 7’2 with range past the three point line, NBA evaluators are intrigued with Ivisic, but Kentucky is still waiting on him to be cleared by the NCAA. If available, he’s a big time rim protector with good footwork and timing on blocking shots, and his quick load time on his catch and shoots make him tough to challenge his shot.

Then the last piece of the class is a transfer, it’s surprising that Kentucky was only able to lure one transfer to Lexington when portal shopping is so prevalent but here we are. And even that transfer was one that needed an offseason scandal to shake loose. Tre Mitchell, a West Virginia transfer, entered the portal only after Bob Huggins was let go following his arrest for a DUI. Mitchell has a high level of skill for a post player, and he can shoot and score the ball, but he’s on his 4th school in 4 years and the record has been fairly mediocre.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard D.J. Wagner Rob Dillingham
(2) Combo Guard Antonio Reeves Reed Sheppard Joey Hart
(3) Wing Justin Edwards Adou Thiero
(4) Combo Forward Tre Mitchell Jordan Burks
(5) Post Aaron Bradshaw Zvonimir Ivisic Ugonna Onyenso

Upfront, the post depth is concerning right now. If the season started tomorrow the Wildcats would only have one post player available in Tre Mitchell. Aaron Bradshaw is still working himself back, Ivisic hasn’t been cleared, and Onyenso has been nursing an injury as well. At guard there will be plenty of options, but it looks like Wagner and Dillingham will both play a lot at point guard, and while Antonio Reeves will probably start early he came off the bench plenty last season and is accustomed to that role. Edwards could be a star, and Theiro should play good minutes also. Sheppard can provide spacing and ball handling, but likely in just spot minutes early.

The real key is going to come down to how much they get from Ivisic and Bradshaw. If both are available I think you could see both on the court together with Bradshaw playing more of the 4-spot.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 23-9 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-10

NCAA Basketball: James Madison at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home New Mexico State 178 W
Nov 10 Home Texas A&M-Commerce 283 W
Nov 14 Neutral Kansas 2 L
Nov 17 Home Stonehill 346 W
Nov 20 Home Saint Joseph's 104 W
Nov 24 Home Marshall 162 W
Nov 28 Home Miami (Fl.) 45 W
Dec 2 Home UNC-Wilmington 148 W
Dec 9 Away Pennsylvania 215 W
Dec 16 Neutral North Carolina 17 L
Dec 21 Away Louisville 109 W
Dec 29 Home Illinois State 177 W
Feb 10 Home Gonzaga 5 W
avg 137.77 11-2

Every year Kentucky plays basically the same schedule. They get a tough early game in the Champions Classic, and this year it’s Kansas. But for the bulk of the first month they hibernate at Rupp Arena and try to just beat a bunch of mid-majors in hopes the talent begins to mesh. They’ll probably play a few games that are closer than they should be as Cal tinkers with lineups and different looks, but they’ll probably reach the CBS Sports Classic against North Carolina in Atlanta with one loss and looking like they’re starting to figure it out.

That’s probably the game where we’ll learn the most about the Wildcats in the non-conference.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Away Florida 39 W
Jan 9 Home Missouri 55 W
Jan 13 Away Texas A&M 24 L
Jan 17 Home Mississippi State 27 W
Jan 20 Home Georgia 57 W
Jan 23 Away South Carolina 66 W
Jan 27 Away Arkansas 14 L
Jan 31 Home Florida 39 W
Feb 3 Home Tennessee 8 W
Feb 6 Away Vanderbilt 79 W
Feb 13 Home Ole Miss 82 W
Feb 17 Away Auburn 15 L
Feb 21 Away LSU 47 L
Feb 24 Home Alabama 10 W
Feb 27 Away Mississippi State 27 L
Mar 2 Home Arkansas 14 W
Mar 6 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Mar 9 Away Tennessee 8 L
avg 38.33 12-6

This isn’t the schedule you want when you have a young team who is still likely to be figuring things out in early January. Starting on the road against what should be a solid Florida team, then you get a home game but it’s against one of the most experienced teams in the league in Missouri. And then you make a road trip to who might be the league favorites, before coming back home to face the brutal defense of an experienced Mississippi State squad.

A short reprieve against Georgia and South Carolina (and you probably don’t want to look up UKs history with SC if you think that's a guaranteed W), before a road trip to Arkansas. Kentucky will have their hands full with this schedule.

OVERVIEW

We’re about to take on a grand experiment. How you view Kentucky will come down to how you view the post-COVID college basketball scene, are you a portal junky who wants to bet heavy on experienced older players who will never sniff the NBA or are you a believer in the best talent tends to win the most games?

Most of College Basketball media tends to fall into category one. You need experience and older players to win big in College Basketball, they say. But 10 years ago if John Calipari was enrolling the number 3, 5, 6 and 21 players in the country to go with the top European center prospect, a double digit scoring transfer, and a returning scorer who averaged 14 ppg the year before, he’d have a preseason top 5 ranking. But in Gary Parrish’s top 25 & 1 rankings, he has Kentucky 16th. KenPom.com rates the Wildcats at 18.

COVID has completely changed the world of college sports in so many ways. The transfer rules were completely flipped on its head, the cancellation of an entire year of eligibility also changed everything, name image and likeness has given players not good enough for the NBA a reason to stick around, and so college basketball is chalk full of experienced 5th and 6th year players. The Kentucky model has never been to pursue mediocre but experienced talent, and when Calipari tried to go that route the results were disappointing.

NCAA Basketball: Big Blue Madness Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

That’s why I think this roster makes more sense for Cal, and for Kentucky. In 2021 Cal was funneling minutes to Davion Mintz at point guard, and Devin Askew, a freshman who should have been a senior in high school. He had Olivier Sarr taking most of the minutes at the five and no answers at the four spot. The only pro was Brandon Boston who is in his third season of a so-far unremarkable pro career with the Clippers. In 2022 the ‘Cats were again really good and while most people point to the dominance of Oscar Tshiebwe, I think it was more about TyTy Washington who brought a dynamic playmaking ability to the perimeter.

If you go back before COVID, the roster had guys like Tyrese Maxey, P.J. Washington, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Aaron Fox... the list is long of dudes who are pros. For the first time it feels like Calipari has leaned back into his model of collecting the best talent and seeing where it goes. So this is only an experiment because we’ve changed our belief into what matters when it comes to how to win in college hoops.

I tend to think talent matters. I look at this roster and I see the most NBA talent Kentucky has had since the 2019-20 season. But the NBA and College Basketball are very different animals, and even Cal’s best teams took some time to adjust before they kicked it into gear. So it’s quite likely this team will look very different in March than it does in November.

It’s also possible this all goes awry. and in a meaty conference schedule with 23 and 24-year olds the Cats melt. Or maybe talent wins out. Maybe Justin Edwards turns into a deserved instead of a projected top 5 pick. Maybe Aaron Bradshaw gets his foot healthy and he looks like a lottery pick. Maybe Zvonimir Ivisic gets cleared and becomes a dominant rim protector, and D.J. Wagner learns to be an elite point guard and facilitator.

It’s all on the table and I’m still betting on the talent.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

There is a load of talent on this roster, and maybe more NBA draft picks than any other team in the conference. If you’re still a believer in talent winning games, which I am, then there’s reason to believe this team will be elite.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Ever since 2019 this program has been on a slide. Calipari seems to have dug his heels into a style of play and method of roster building in an environment where things require way more adaptation than before. Cal hasn’t adapted. Where most coaches are looking to get old, Cal went the other way and a team brimming with freshman is just very hard to win with in college basketball these days.


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.