#4 Kentucky 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

Key Returners: Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards
Key Losses:
PJ Washington (pro), Tyler Herro (pro), Keldon Johnson (pro), Reid Travis
Key Newcomers:
Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang, Nate Sestina (Bucknell), Dontaie Allen


Outlook: You really have to wonder if last year is going to hurt John Calipari’s reputation for putting elite talent in the NBA – I mean, he had zero players drafted in the Top 10 for the first time since 2007!!

(Editor: “Yes, but he had players taken 12th, 13th, and 29th, I think he’s doing just fine.” Shhh, let me be a troll.)

That “top 10 pick every year since 2008” stat in itself is ridiculous: year after year, Calipari has brought in phenomenal players, and he’s racked up wins as a result. This year’s roster may not have a top 10 pick either – Tyrese Maxey is right on the fringe for the Athletic’s Sam Vecenie (10th) and ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz (12th), and Kahlil Whitney isn’t far behind (16th and 19th) – but the Wildcats are still fully stocked with depth and athleticism, meaning Big Blue will once again be a national title threat.

Unlike most Wildcat teams, though, this Kentucky team is not blessed with a bevy of towering big men (remember when Trey Lyles played the 3?). EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards return as likely starters, and Coach Cal added Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina early in the offseason, but beyond that, expect to see a lot of lineups featuring a cadre of guards and wings. The approach will be similar, though: push the ball in transition, barrage the rim with drives and post ups, and relentlessly hammer the offensive glass. Opponents often wear down under such a wave of physicality, and Kentucky is able to get easy points off put-backs and kickouts against tired defenses. The expected frontcourt pairing epitomized that last year, gobbling the glass at an absolutely ludicrous rate:

A sample of 187 possessions isn’t huge, but it’s not nothing, either – that’s nearly the equivalent of three full games. For context, the highest offensive rebound rate in the KenPom era (since 2002) is 44.9%, by 2011 Old Dominion – and Kentucky blew that number away with Richards and Montgomery roaming the floor together. Of course, there’s a fairly straight line to be drawn between that rebound rate and the atrocious eFG%, which will also normalize over a larger sample size, but it illustrates just how potent those two are on the boards.

That number won’t sustain, but when you consider the athleticism that Kentucky can play on the wing alongside those two, the reality becomes a little more terrifying. Whitney and Keion Brooks are both long wing/combo forwards with above-the-rim games, and Whitney especially will be positively lethal in transition. Last year was one of Cal’s slowest teams in his Kentucky tenure, but with a speedster at point guard (Ashton Hagans) and a more wing-heavy roster, expect the tempo to tick up a few notches.

Hagans will be the primary ball-handler, but Maxey should be fed a heavy dosage of touches on the perimeter, as well. He’s an electrifying offensive player, capable of pulling up from distance right in an opponent’s face, scoring in the midrange with a deft floater, or finishing all the way at the rim against size. He’s currently more of a “combo” guard, and although his professional future likely lies at the point, he may be used somewhat similarly to how Jamal Murray was while at UK (run him off screens, get him the ball on the move, put him against backpedaling/shuffling defenders whenever possible).

As ever in Lexington, shooting will be the glaring question mark. Maxey is a purebred scorer from anywhere, and reclassified wing Johnny Juzang has a smooth stroke of his own, but the rest of the rotation won’t instill fear in opponents. They aren’t fully bricky: Whitney and Brooks were at least semi-competent in EYBL play, and Immanuel Quickley did hit 34.5% from deep last year. Even so, opponents will be comfortable letting them fire away, knowing it’s better than the alternative of exposing themselves in the paint. For this reason, Juzang will get plenty of playing time, and Sestina will also be a key figure. He blossomed as a shooter in his final season with the Bison, and if he gives the offense a “stretch big” element (or if Montgomery’s stroke shows up), the Wildcats become significantly harder to guard.

And you’ll need to guard them, because scoring against this team may end up as difficult as robbing a Vegas casino. Hagans is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, and although his off-ball awareness and decision-making were often befuddling in his freshman campaign, he is a tone-setter with his ability to generate mayhem. Last year’s Hagans brought plenty of positive contributions with his speed and quick hands:

But other times, he got lost in the woods (he’s the one who completely melts when screened on the bottom of the frame):

A year of experience should sharpen his instincts off the ball, though, and he’ll have one of the country’s best shot-blocking duos in Richards and Montgomery waiting to erase any mistakes in the paint. Brooks has the bounce to bother drivers, as well (and I expect him to play some power forward), giving the Wildcats potential defensive stalwarts inside and out. The collection of Quickley, Whitney, Juzang and Kentucky Mr. Basketball Dontaie Allen will fill in the space between, and while no one in that group has the reputation of “wing stopper,” Quickley and Whitney in particular have the physical tools to be excellent defenders.

Bottom Line: The 2019-20 version of Kentucky should look familiar to most college basketball fans. The Wildcats will be ferocious on the offensive glass, menacing defensively, and relatively averse to three-point shooting; a Calipari offense hasn’t ranked higher than 273rd in 3PA rate since 2010-11. The swing factor between “top 10” and “true title contender” will be if the top-flight talent (Maxey, Hagans, Whitney, possibly Montgomery) lives up to or even exceeds the hype offensively, boosting team performance and individual draft stocks simultaneously. Calipari will inevitably be smiling in the green room at the NBA Draft come next June, but just how wide that grin will be depends on the prospects’ emergence into can’t-miss stars.