Kentucky basketball: Calipari reloads again, but can the 'Cats get back to Final Four?
Stop us if you’ve heard this before. Kentucky and John Calipari boast a deep, talented, and wildly inexperienced team.
As seems to be the case annually for the Wildcats, UK is almost completely starting from scratch, building a team off of freshmen, transfers (3 of those, which might aid the lack of experience) and 1 returning contributor — sophomore forward Keion Brooks.
Nobody in the SEC is going to be shedding tears for Calipari, though.
His annual bumper crop of recruits should gain comfort over the course of the season. The Wildcats claimed 247sports’s top recruiting class in 2020, led by a pair of outstanding guards who were in the site’s top 8 players in the nation, Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke. UK ended up with 5 players in the top 38 of 247sports’s ranking. The rest of the SEC had 4 players in that group — combined.
Kentucky starts the season ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, with annual hopes of finishing much higher. Here’s what you need to know about the 2020-21 Wildcats.
Boston is the odds-on favorite, as the 6-7 scorer from California drew All-SEC first-team honors from the media in advance of his first college game. Don’t be surprised if the early story is senior transfer Olivier Sarr, though. The 7-foot tall Sarr averaged 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last year at Wake Forest. His patience and experience may end up carrying the Wildcats early, while the younger guys grow into their roles.
The same 2 players could be picked here, just because Brooks is pretty much the only returning player from last season. Freshman big man Isaiah Jackson also deserves a mention. The 6-9 Michigan product has impressed with his athleticism, including his slam dunk victory at Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness, when he took off from near the foul line for the win.
As usual, Kentucky is ridiculously athletic and has a ton of size. The two highly-touted guards, for example, are 6-7 (Boston and Clarke). Given that kind of length, Kentucky could well play some units with no player under 6-6, and several approaching 7 foot.
Other than experience, there is reason to wonder about Kentucky’s perimeter shooting. Calipari was seen on a recent social media video talking with former Wildcat Immanuel Quickley and bemoaning that “Nobody can make a shot.” Senior transfer Davion Mintz might help. Mintz was a 35% 3-point shooter at Creighton and he won the team’s 3-point contest at Big Blue Madness.
Regular season outlook
One of the effects of COVID was that Kentucky’s traditional Calipari scheduling mode disappeared. There aren’t a ton of directional tech schools coming up in December. The opening week includes Morehead State, Detroit Mercy (and guard Brad Calipari) and Richmond. After that, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, UCLA and Louisville follow.
The ‘Cats will break up SEC play for a Jan. 30 game with Texas. Kentucky will likely take a loss or 2 in nonconference play. Last season’s 15-3 mark in the SEC seems a little optimistic as well, but 14-4 wouldn’t surprise. Pencil the ‘Cats down for a 21-6 regular season, with losses in Knoxville and Gainesville among the struggles. That would likely leave UK somewhere between 5th and 10th in the nation heading into postseason play, looking at a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee seems like the biggest obstacle to an SEC title, in the regular season or a conference tournament. The most likely guess would be a UT edge in the regular season with Kentucky returning the favor in the tournament.
In the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky is probable to be in as good of a position as anyone in the sport. It comes down to matchups in March, and as usual, Kentucky fans will be disappointed if Calipari isn’t able to return the ‘Cats to the Final Four, something he hasn’t done since 2015.
This team doesn’t seem likely to struggle as badly as some of Calipari’s younger teams, in part due to the veteran transfers, and in part due to the fact that the entire sport is upside down already due to COVID. If the ball bounces right, Kentucky could get back to the Final Four. And from there, it’s anybody’s ballgame.
21-6 regular season (14-4 in the SEC, 2nd in regular season), SEC Tournament title, 28-7, Final Four