- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: PJ Washington, Quade Green, Nick Richards
Key Losses: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt, Sacha Killeya-Jones
Key Newcomers: Reid Travis (Stanford), Keldon Johnson, EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro, Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, Jemarl Baker (Redshirt)
Outlook: The Wildcats struggled (relatively) last season despite an influx of yet another top 2 recruiting class in the country. Objectively, the 2017-18 UK squad was Calipari’s worst since 2012-13. A few factors led to the “disappointing” year: 1) the SEC was just tougher in general, making UK’s usual cakewalk to the regular season title much more difficult; 2) the Cats were YOUNG; I mean they’re always young, but last year was Coach Cal’s youngest in his tenure, as 7 of the 9 guys that got consistent minutes were freshmen; 3) they couldn’t shoot, or rather weren’t willing to: while UK did shoot an average percentage from three, the Cats ranked 344th in 3PA%, the lowest in the Calipari era; and 4) frankly, Hamidou Diallo was astronomically overrated – I think his departure will prove to be an addition by subtraction (Hot take? Not so hot take?).
Calipari brings in (surprise) another top 2 recruiting class in 2018-19, only this time he has a good core of veterans to pair with his talented rookies. Cal’s 2012 championship team had second-year vets Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, and senior Darius Miller to go with a star-studded frosh class. The 2015 near-undefeated team had the Harrison twins (sophomores) and junior Willie Cauley-Stein. The point being, I have far more faith in a Kentucky team that pairs experience with freshmen instead of just the latter.
The lone returner to the backcourt is sophomore combo guard Quade Green, a player that was overall inconsistent during his first year in Lexington. Green shot the ball well enough (.507/.376/.808 (2P/3P/FT)), but his decision making, particularly down the stretch, left much to be desired. With two 5-star point guards in Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley coming in, expect Green to play more off the ball, which should suit his skill-set better. Green’s shooting will be a major key for a team that needs a spaced floor to execute its preferred dribble-drive attack.
Those two freshmen point guards will have hefty loads on their shoulders, especially as they try to replace Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Quickley, a McDonald’s All-American and the #25 player in the class of 2018 per ESPN, is a pass-first point guard with a developing outside jumper. While not overly athletic, he does have a quick first step to get by initial or close-out defenders. Hagans, the #20 prospect per ESPN in the 2018 class (formerly #9 in the class of 2019), is more explosive than Quickley and much more of a “playmaker”. He’s not a great outside shooter, but Hagans will have value as a dominant ball handler and a defender who can rack up steals.
Shooting was clearly an Achilles Heel for Kentucky last season, but this year’s squad should be better equipped on the perimeter. Aside from Green, UK brings in Tyler Herro, the #30 player per ESPN and former Wisconsin recruit, and welcomes Jemarl Baker, a redshirt freshman that ranked in the top 100 of the 2017 class. Herro could be the best shooter in this year’s freshman class, but he’s more than just a catch-and-shoot guy, showing driving ability and budding athleticism in high school. Baker sat out last season with a torn meniscus, a shame considering he was touted as one of the best shooters in the class of 2017. Both guys may come off the bench, but both should be used in key spots with their shooting ability.
On the wing, Calipari fills the hole left by Lottery pick Kevin Knox with the signing of Keldon Johnson, another McDonald’s All-American out of Oak Hill and ESPN’s 7th best recruit. Johnson is a smooth wing slasher who possesses excellent court vision in traffic and in the open floor. Like Quickley, Johnson won’t overwhelm anyone with his athleticism, but his crafty footwork on drives and length make him a tough mark for any defender. While not known for his outside shooting, his form isn’t bad, and if he can hit 34% from deep on a medium volume like Knox did last season, that’ll be good enough for this roster.
Like so many other Calipari teams, this year’s Cats team has immense size in the frontcourt. Returning twin towers PJ Washington and Nick Richards will team up with 5-star McDonald’s All-American EJ Montgomery and Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis to form arguably the best and deepest frontline in the country. Kentucky did two things very well on offense last season: offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. Washington was a big driver of both metrics, notching the 3rd best free throw rate in the nation and doubling as a fierce offensive rebounder:
The 6’8” sophomore is a very good scorer in the post and clearly has untapped potential; 2018-19 could be a big year for Washington.
Richards started every game for the Cats last season but ended up not logging a ton of minutes. He was the best rebounder on the team last year by rate and is super valuable as a rim protector on defense. Richards finished well as a freshman, shooting 61% from the field, but most of his offense can be reduced to “catch and dunk”.
Montgomery should add as much value on defense as Richards but far more value on offense. The 6’10” lefty has great touch around the basket and out to the mid-range and is a very good passer for his size. His length (7’1” wingspan; 8’10” standing reach) will make him yet another asset on the glass and in the paint on D.
Travis made headlines when he announced his transfer from Stanford and then made headlines again when he announced he would likely go to Kentucky or Villanova. It’s not often in the NCAA you see a bona fide star player on a power 6 team go team up with an already stacked team. Travis’s counting stats are gaudy, some of which is a result of him being Stanford’s entire offense, but the burly senior passes the eye test. He has a unique combination of strength (the guy must do BowFlex), size, speed, and handles that allow him to be a threat from anywhere on the floor. Not many players Travis’s size can do this off the bounce:
Travis started experimenting with his three-point shot last season, posting a 29.5% clip on 61 attempts. That isn’t great, but if he can grow into even a low-30’s three-point threat, that will further help UK’s spacing cause. Even without the shooting, Travis will be able to space the floor with his ability to penetrate from the perimeter.
UK once again has a team with a roster that fits what it wants to accomplish on both ends of the floor. It has multiple slashers to execute Calipari’s dribble-drive offense with just enough shooting to keep defenders honest. Defensively, UK has the length and athleticism at every position to close-out on shooters and create forests inside the arc. Cal played more zone last season than he ever has before, but with a more “switch-capable” lineup, I’d expect to see his preferred style to trend back towards man. Either way, Kentucky has a strong case for being the best team in the country (at least in the preseason).