After a disastrous 2020-21 campaign, Kentucky basketball is recharged behind key returners and a promising class of newcomers.
Riley’s Ranking: 5th
You can always count on Kentucky basketball to generate headlines in the offseason. From John Calipari inserting himself in the Dino Gaudio-Chris Mack feud to the NBA coaching rumors that arise every summer to the social media beef between TyTy Washington and Illinois, the spotlight seems to follow the ‘Cats. Such is the life of a blue blood (though let’s be real, they kind of relish it).
And yet, this season, the on-court product should produce the bulk of the stories. Calipari sets out to put a horrific 2021 behind him, resetting like he usually does with a brand-new roster. But this time, there’s something different.
The passing of the one-time transfer opened up a new dimension of recruiting, and Calipari took full advantage. Via the portal, the ‘Cats welcome immediate impact players who address their biggest weaknesses from last season.
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Perhaps no issue stuck out more for Kentucky basketball than its putrid offense. For example, they shot 33.6 percent from distance as a team — the third-lowest mark of the Calipari era. But their struggles weren’t limited to the 3-point line. The ‘Cats also ranked 289th nationally in effective field-goal percentage and finished dead last in the SEC in 2-point field goal percentage. Lastly, Kentucky took the 12th most mid-rangers in the country but made them at the 61st-lowest clip (Hoop-Math).
Calipari dealt with these roadblocks as soon as the new transfer rule appeared imminent. About two weeks after Kentucky’s season ended, the head coach landed former Davidson star Kellan Grady. A gifted offensive player, the 6-5 guard comes to Lexington with the hopes of ameliorating the scoring woes. Grady gives the ‘Cats a reliable threat from beyond the arc, whether off the catch or off the dribble. But he’s not just a shooter — his shot creation as a whole will bolster Kentucky. For instance, note how he uses his length to get to the rim before breaking out his automatic floater:
In addition to Grady, Calipari also reeled in Iowa sniper CJ Fredrick. The junior flickers all over the court, stopping on a dime and still maintaining perfect form on his jumper. Defensive limitations could relegate him to a bench role, but I’m a little bit higher on Fredrick than consensus. (Maybe it’s because I can’t shake this stupid game from my memory.) Regardless, worst-case scenario, he’s a steady marksman off the pine, a la Mychal Mulder. Best case scenario, he’s Super Low-Cal Tyler Herro.
The final transfer Kentucky basketball added this summer comes from conference rival Georgia — point guard Sahvir Wheeler. He provides an immediate upgrade over the departed Devin Askew, and thus, should also help remedy the offense. With the speedy lefty in tow, Cal may ramp up the pace and unleash him on the break. The ball dances off of Wheeler’s hands, gliding the length of the court to find open teammates:
The main critics of Wheeler note his shaky jumper and erratic turnovers. However, those issues should diminish as his usage and minutes-share decrease. At Kentucky, Wheeler will have far more capable players around him than he ever did in Athens. And most notably, another stud will join him in the backcourt.
The aforementioned TyTy Washington tie-ties the offense together. Even in the portal era, Cal netted another top-10 recruiting class, and Washington highlights the group. The floor general out of Phoenix fuses the old-school point guard mindset — like controlling the tempo, taking care of his teammates, etc. — with modern lead guard skills. With his tight handle and agile feet, Washington gets wherever he wants on the court. His offensive arsenal gives him the look of a future lottery pick:
Cal will hope Wheeler and Washington form his next successful point guard tandem — similar to past duos like Ashton Hagans/Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Ulis/Jamal Murray. The two newcomers will join incumbent Davion Mintz to comprise one of the deepest guard corps in the country.
Pivoting to the frontline, the ‘Cats will rely upon Oscar Tshiebwe to anchor the unit. A McDonald’s All-American in 2019, the big man started his career at West Virginia before transferring to Kentucky in February. Despite a disappointing start to his final season at WVU, Tshiebwe profiles as the type of post player that thrives under Calipari. He will solidify the interior defense and dominate the offensive glass, intimidating any challenger who steps to him. Just observe his 2019-20 stats: 4th in the Big 12 in block rate and 1st in offensive rebounding rate. Regarding the rest of his game, he plays exceptionally light on his feet, scoring with efficiency in the paint.
Next to Tshiebwe, Cal likely deploys fellow junior Keion Brooks. The 6-7 forward experienced a miniature breakout last season, scoring in double figures in 10 of his 16 games. He mainly scores on mid-range jumpers and drives from the elbow. But his two most significant contributions are his work on the boards and his passing out of the post.
Finally, Washington’s freshmen cohorts will complete the frontcourt. Daimion Collins, a top-15 recruit, possesses eye-popping bounce and what appears to be a 12-foot wingspan. But his less decorated classmate Bryce Hopkins may be more college-ready. The small-ball 4 plays with a motor always on 100, snaring rebounds and sprinting down the court in transition. His IQ also jumps off the screen — in the clip below from Kentucky’s exhibition, he displays a pinpoint pass off a grab-and-go. At the very least, he should carve out a role as an energy guy in the second unit.
With Kentucky’s infusion of talent, Big Blue Nation should rest easy. Throughout his career, Calipari has been a savant at meshing new pieces. In due time, last season will reveal itself as an anomaly. Hopefully, the haters had fun preying on the ‘Cats downfall — because they will very much be in the national championship hunt this time around.
Projected starters: G – TyTy Washington (Fr.); G – Sahvir Wheeler (Jr.); G – Kellan Grady (Gr); F – Keion Brooks (Jr); F/C – Oscar Tshiebwe (Jr)
Projected bench: G – Davion Mintz (Gr); G – CJ Fredrick (R-Jr); F – Bryce Hopkins (Fr.); F – Daimion Collins (Fr); G – Dontaie Allen (R-So.)
Strengths: Depth; guard play; interior defense
Weaknesses: Streaky shooting; perimeter defense
Best player: Washington
Breakout player: Hopkins