Kentucky basketball is coming off the worst season in program history.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. A 9-16 season would be awful for any SEC program. For Kentucky, it’s otherworldly. The first losing season since 1989. The first season without an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.

By any objective measure, the most disappointing season in the glorified history of the program.

And the best thing about March 12, 2021, the day after the Wildcats ended their season with an SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State, is that the nightmare was over.

From there, it would be impossible for the 2021-22 Wildcats to go anywhere but up. The good news is that there is reason for optimism, even without such a horrid season in the rear-view mirror. Kentucky added perhaps the best transfer class in the nation, along with a couple of plum freshmen, and even returned a couple of players from last year’s debacle. Unthinkably, this is Kentucky’s oldest team since the 1950s. Given John Calipari’s history of young, inexperienced teams, this Kentucky squad will certainly be different.

But how good will it be? And what will this team look like? They’re ranked No. 10 in the preseason, but those are good questions and ones Big Blue Nation is certainly mulling over right now as we count down toward Tuesday night’s tip against No. 9 Duke.

Best player

Great question, but it’s probably TyTy Washington. The outstanding freshman guard is the kind of alpha dog point guard that Calipari loves. And even if he’s not at the level of, say, John Wall, there’s no reason Washington can’t be as good as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In any case, Kentucky missed that playmaking point guard for most of last season and Washington seems to be that guy.

That said, Oscar Tshiebwe might be the best player right now. The West Virginia transfer has displayed a “get every rebound” work ethic in the preseason that will help a UK squad that struggled mightily on the backboard last year. While his offensive game is not necessarily a finished product, his experience in the physical nature of P5 basketball from his days with Bob Huggins will be a substantial asset.

Biggest strength

Depth and, oddly, experience. For a Kentucky team that seemed to struggle to put 5 players on the floor at times last year, it’s amazing how many combinations and options Calipari can utilize. While Washington has the alpha dog status, Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler has plenty of actual SEC experience at point guard. When he gets healthy, Iowa transfer CJ Fredrick should add plenty of shooting, as can returnee Davion Mintz. As can returnee Dontaie Allen. Returnee Keion Brooks and versatile forward Bryce Hopkins are both multi-talented players who can plug any lineup vacancies. As is wing Kellen Grady from Davidson. Inside, Tshiebwe is by far the best option, but guys like Daimion Collins and Lance Ware have the potential to help.

Meanwhile, Kentucky has recovered from a team where guys like BJ Boston and Isaiah Jackson just seemed out of touch with the experience of grinding through a college basketball season. That’s no indictment on either guy. But Kentucky had one of the least experienced teams in the sport a year ago, and given what a bizarre year it was, that issue blasted the ‘Cats again and again. This time, guys like Tshiebwe, Wheeler, Frederick and Grady won’t be phased by a run against them, or an end-game situation, or even a few losses. Kentucky added a lot of talent, but the experience might be even more important in the short term.

Biggest weaknesses

Inside depth and merging unfamiliar players. The latter is hardly new. Kentucky has a new team virtually every year. Granted, this new team is a combination of an actual new team and a veteran group of players. Truthfully, there’s a third component of returning UK guys who actually have experience. But melding those groups always takes time and a fair number of ugly November and December games. There’s no reason to think this is different.

As for inside depth, right now it’s Big Oscar and cross your fingers. Collins will probably complement him nicely as the season goes, but he still looks very untested at the moment. Ware is a banger but hasn’t really shown elite skills. Brooks can slide down low, but it’s more of a spot situation than a long-term solution. Same for Jacob Toppin. Tshiebwe will have to play lots and lots of minutes. An injury or foul trouble to him and Kentucky’s going to be playing small.

Key to the season

One single key seems elusive. Forgetting last year is pivotal, for the guys who return and could remember it. Getting better in close-game situations is key. Last season’s team was awful in part just because it couldn’t catch a break in a close game.

Perhaps the key to the season is defining who exactly will take the big shot. Washington feels like that guy, but on a team full of players with much more experience, will he hesitate to take the leadership reins? Tsheibwe is the player who feels the most like a known quality, but it would be expecting something unusual to run the offense from the inside out in late-game situations. Veterans like Grady, Wheeler, and Mintz could be that guy– or it could be each of them at different times. Figuring that out is probably the biggest key to the season.

Scouting the backcourt

While Tyty Washington has the alpha dog status, Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler has plenty of actual SEC experience at point guard. Wheeler’s 644 points and 332 assists at Georgia demonstrate his ability and past history. Calipari will benefit from the two, and won’t hesitate to play them together.

At the other guard slot, when he gets healthy, Iowa transfer C.J. Fredrick should add plenty of shooting, as can returnee Davion Mintz. As can returnee Dontaie Allen. Fredrick’s 47% three-point percentage at Iowa should fit right in with a Kentucky team that can always use a scorer. Mintz was a product of Creighton, and now has 925 points between his years as a Blue Jay and his season as a Wildcat. In-state standout Allen shot 40% from trey last year, but has struggled to put together his all-around skills.

None of this should leave out Davidson transfer Kellan Grady, who scored just over 2,000 points there. Grady was a four-year starter at Davidson and can score off the dribble or from deep (37% shooter), but like Mintz will make the transition from lower-level league to Kentucky. He might be the best of the group right now. Calipari started 3 guards in UK’s first exhibition and he may do so throughout the season.

Scouting the frontcourt

Returnee Keion Brooks and versatile forward Bryce Hopkins are both multi-talented players who can plug any lineup vacancies. Brooks had 18 points in 21 minutes in UK’s first exhibition of the new season, going 4 for 6 from three-point range. He can also be a ferocious rebounder and interior defender. Hopkins isn’t a finished product, but he shows flashes of significant skills. Forward Jacob Toppin has been banged up, but he’s another versatile guy who will provide some depth.

Inside, Tshiebwe is by far the best option, but guys like Daimion Collins and Lance Ware have the potential to help. Big Oscar averaged 11 points and 9 rebounds in his time at West Virginia, and again, will have to play significant minutes this year. Collins is raw but has top-shelf athleticism and some shot-blocking skills. Ware is an old-fashioned grinder.

Predicting how far they’ll go in March

Is this another 9-16 team? Not a chance. But it’s also not necessarily a great team. Given the upgrade in scoring and athleticism around the league, it’s probably not fair to expect Kentucky to go from 9-16 to winning the SEC.

It is fair to expect Kentucky to be competitive for the league, and to be back in the NCAA Tournament. Calipari’s squad isn’t his most talented, but there’s enough here to work with. Going to the Final Four — or beyond — will require a blending job worthy of Tubby Smith’s 1998 NCAA champs. That said, Calipari has had teams (see 2011 or 2014) that didn’t look like world-beaters in February but ended up at the Final Four.

But in terms of expectations, a top-3 finish in the SEC, 20+ wins, a seed better than No. 6 in the NCAA Tournament, and a Sweet 16 performance in the Big Dance seem reasonable.