A strong incoming transfer class as Kentucky basketball poised to return to the sport’s elite, marking the Wildcats as a Final Four favorite.
Kentucky basketball is coming off its worst season of the John Calipari era, posting a woeful 9-16 mark during a COVID-19-shortened year. It was the first time the Wildcats had a losing record — both overall and in conference play — since the 1988-89 season, which ended with the firing of then-head coach Eddie Sutton.
Calipari didn’t have to worry about his job status (he did sign a lifetime contract two years ago), but he did feel the pressure to upgrade his roster.
Typically, Calipari has done that by landing elite recruiting classes. He has brought in six No. 1 overall classes heading into his 13th season in Lexington and UK’s 2021 class, which is headlined by five-star prospects TyTy Washington and Daimion Collins, currently ranks sixth in the country in the 24/7Sports Composite.
However, many of this offseason’s reinforcements are coming via a different method: the transfer portal.
Calipari landed West Virginia transfer (and former five-star big man) Oscar Tshiebwe back in January to help bolster their front line before turning his attention to the backcourt this offseason. That has helped Kentucky land Kellan Grady (Davidson), CJ Fredrick (Iowa), and Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia) in roughly a month.
Not only are those four a sign of changing times in college basketball, but they also represent a change in philosophy for Kentucky, a change that might propel the Wildcats back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
Kentucky has been a one-and-done factory under John Calipari, routinely turning over almost its entire roster on an annual basis as top recruits leave the program to pursue professional options (or transfer) only to have those spots filled by the next batch of top recruits. As a result, UK typically has one of the youngest rosters in the country.
Those prospects have also reflected a recruiting emphasis on athleticism, quickness, and size, without any real concern for a prospect’s shooting ability (or lack thereof). While the rest of the basketball world has put an increased emphasis on the three-point shot, it has remained a constant weakness for the Wildcats.
Here’s a breakdown of Kentucky’s three-point shooting and roster experience during Calipari’s 12 seasons in Lexington:
Those two major weaknesses — experience and shooting — have been on full display over the past five seasons. Kentucky has had the nation’s most inexperienced team twice in that span and ranked outside the top 150 nationally in three-point shooting twice as well.
Yes, Calipari’s teams are always inexperienced, but even that has gone to a new degree of late. Most of those teams that made four Final Fours in five seasons from 2011-15 had core groups that consisted of returning sophomores or juniors. The 2013-14 team is the outlier here, yet it’s important to remember that team was a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and made it to the national championship game thanks to Aaron Harrison’s heroics.
The addition of those four transfers and Kentucky’s returners give Calipari the most experienced team he has ever had at Kentucky. Fredrick, Tshiebwe, and Wheeler are all entering their third year of college basketball, while Grady is using his free year to play his fifth. All four were starters at their previous stops, too.
Grady and Fredrick will also do wonders in improving Kentucky’s three-point shooting, too. Believe it or not, Calipari had some good shooting teams early in his tenure!
As the table above shows, UK ranked in the top 75 nationally in that category three times in the six-year span from 2010-11 through 2015-16. All four of Calipari’s Final Four appearances with the Wildcats came during that span. The first Final Four team (2010-11) and his lone national title team (2011-12) were the two best shooting teams he has had. It’s no surprise to see Kentucky struggling overall (by the program’s lofty standards) as it has struggled from three.
Grady is a reliable three-point shooter who made over 51 threes in each of his four seasons at Davidson while being the focal point of the team’s offense. One would believe he’s only going to get more open looks in more favorable spots playing for Kentucky.
Fredrick will be the best shooter, percentage-wise, Kentucky has had since Doron Lamb. Lamb shot 47.5 percent from deep during his two-year career from 2010-12 and played in big role in those Final Four teams (including the championship squad). Fredrick is a 46.6 -ercent career shooter through two seasons at Iowa, including a scorching 47.4 percent this past season.
Throw in the fact that TyTy Washington is a knockdown shooter as well, meaning it’s fair to expect Kentucky to be a much better shooting team than they were last year. The Wildcats could very well surpass, if not at least be on par with, those 2010-11 and 2011-12 teams in terms of efficiency from beyond the arc.
Kentucky’s most successful seasons under Calipari have come when the Wildcats have had reliable three-point shooting and a good amount of experience relative to their norm. UK has been severely lacking in both areas in recent years, and the pieces brought in this offseason should eliminate those weaknesses.
Don’t be surprised if these transfers are the major reason why Kentucky makes it back to the Final Four in 2022.