Sitting at 7-13 on the yr with simply 4 confirmed video games on the schedule to shut out the common season, alternatives for Kentucky to show issues round are slim, to say the least. Even contemplating John Calipari’s push so as to add “a pair video games” to the schedule over the last week of the common season, we’re speaking six extra video games heading into SEC Tournament play, that means the very best successful share UK can have is .500 at 13-13 general.
Sure, the Wildcats may finish the common season on a magical eight-game successful streak, make a run in Nashville and declare the SEC title to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, making a season restart of types. Coach Cal and the gamers are actually dreaming large, utilizing each media alternative to speak about how they nonetheless have a lot to play for.
But what if UK runs out of runway and so they’re unable to win all of it in Nashville, basically ending the crew’s probabilities of making the NCAA Tournament? What in the event that they by no means get the storybook end Calipari is hoping for?
With that risk very a lot on the desk, together with the unending COVID-19 hurdles, inconsistent play, accidents, lack of followers, and, to place it bluntly, an underwhelming school expertise this season, would a two-year plan make followers really feel higher in regards to the full product? Instead of it as one horrible season, what if UK averted a mass exodus and returned the vast majority of its roster, making a two-year challenge for Calipari and the Kentucky teaching employees?
Think again to the 2019-20 roster that noticed Nick Richards (junior), Immanuel Quickley (sophomore) EJ Montgomery (sophomore) and Ashton Hagans (sophomore) all return from the yr earlier than, with Nate Sestina (graduate switch) additionally seeing vital taking part in time. The crew completed 25-6 on the yr, however gained 9 of its final ten video games down the stretch, with the lone loss coming in a sport the Wildcats led by 17 factors within the second half in opposition to Tennessee. We’ll by no means discover out if that crew was able to successful a nationwide championship, however they had been taking part in in addition to anybody down the stretch, and a giant purpose for that was the standout play of the crew’s veteran leaders.
Looking again on the Calipari period in Lexington, that 2019-20 group was probably the most skilled by way of returning items and incoming graduate transfers for the reason that 2016-17 roster introduced again 5 in Isaiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins, Isaac Humphries, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis. The historic 2014-15 roster returned probably the most throughout Calipari’s tenure, bringing again eight scholarship gamers in Willie Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Hawkins, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Willis.
Before we get any additional, let me first state the plain that it’s not possible to pencil in returnees this far prematurely, irrespective of how the season goes or how particular person gamers are performing. At Kentucky, gamers who ought to return should not all the time those that truly do, with final yr being the prime instance. In a really perfect world, Hagans, Montgomery and Kahlil Whitney (who left this system in January 2020) don’t enter the NBA Draft – all three went undrafted – and Johnny Juzang returns for one more season versus transferring out of this system, giving Kentucky 5 returning items to work with this yr versus only one in Keion Brooks Jr. They didn’t, and UK was left scrambling to interchange 94 % of its scoring, 98.6 % of its assists, and 92.4 % of its minutes from the yr earlier than.
In previous years, although, the crew success has at the very least been there. They obtained the complete Kentucky expertise with followers, high-profile occasions and campus life, even when the 2019-20 group had its postseason desires ripped away on account of COVID-19. This yr, the losses are piling up and the person on-court performances have been inconsistent and largely underwhelming. As a end result, draft inventory has dipped throughout the board, with Isaiah Jackson being the lone exception.
Considering the context of the season because it stands now, it actually feels doubtless that UK may see as many as eight returning gamers from the present roster (together with West Virginia switch Oscar Tshiebwe).
We’ll begin with the doubtless departures in Brandon Boston Jr., Terrence Clarke and Jackson. Despite vital taking pictures struggles for Boston to begin the yr, together with an injury-plagued season for Clarke, each gamers got here in on one-year-no-matter-what plans, and that hasn’t modified. It could be a significant shock to see both return for sophomore seasons. And with Jackson blowing up as a surefire first spherical decide and inching nearer towards the consensus lottery line along with his elite shot-blocking and rebounding talents, followers ought to put together for his inevitable departure, as nicely.
Nearly pursuing his skilled choices final offseason, senior switch Olivier Sarr additionally got here in on a one-year plan, and it will be a shock to see him return, as nicely.
From there, although, something and the whole lot is on the desk.
In phrases of significance, Keion Brooks Jr. is the important thing piece to regulate, because the sophomore ahead has proven vital development from yr one to yr two, however he’s not at present listed on any of the main draft boards in 2021. Factor within the calf harm that saved him out of play until January, Brooks may have a look at this season as a bridge yr earlier than taking off in 2021-22 as one of many high returnees in school basketball.
The different large identify to observe? Graduate switch Davion Mintz, who has emerged as Kentucky’s go-to scorer in crunch time, drilling three go-ahead 3-point makes an attempt and two game-winners in SEC play. Pursuing his Master’s diploma, each Mintz and his father have acknowledged {that a} return for his second season at Kentucky and sixth as a school basketball participant is on the desk. That’d give UK two of its high 5 scorers again, with each Brooks and Mintz averaging at the very least 10 factors per sport.
Rounding out the perimeter gamers, Oscar Tshiebwe may technically enter the NBA Draft and provides followers a scare just like that of Hamidou Diallo, who examined the draft waters after his mid-year addition in 2016-17. After leaving West Virginia mid-season and enrolling to open the spring semester, although, he’s already put in fairly a bit of labor to get to Lexington and begin making ready for the 2021-22 season when he may have merely opted out and begun coaching for the draft. As we’ve seen earlier than, you possibly can by no means say by no means at Kentucky, however Tshiebwe is anticipated again subsequent season because the crew’s anchor within the frontcourt.
From there, you’re previous the purpose of gamers even remotely able to discover their skilled choices, with all anticipated again barring a switch.
Averaging 30.3 minutes per sport – tied for second on the crew – Devin Askew has actually had his justifiable share of struggles by way of taking pictures and turnovers, however second-year guards have seen constant development at UK below Calipari, together with the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Andrew Harrison. Despite Kentucky’s current string of unhealthy luck with West Coast expertise transferring away from this system, sources near Askew inform KSR that the Sacramento, CA native is proud of Calipari’s onerous teaching and constructive criticism, his position on the crew, and this system’s long-term plans for him in Lexington. As he promised earlier than arriving on campus, a switch isn’t anticipated this offseason.
As for the opposite doubtless returnees, Jacob Toppin got here in as a long-term challenge piece for Calipari and wasn’t even anticipated to play this season previous to the NCAA’s determination to grant a free yr of eligibility for student-athletes competing in winter sports activities. Establishing himself as one in all Kentucky’s most constant position gamers off the bench, there’s robust optimism inside the program relating to Toppin’s potential down the street. It could be a shock to see him depart, as nicely.
Like Toppin, Lance Ware got here in as a multi-year challenge, in search of long-term improvement along with his physique and sport as a complete. He knew from the start his path would doubtless be completely different than different high-profile prospects, so the fluctuating minutes and manufacturing shouldn’t have come as a shock. There aren’t any switch rumblings with him as of in the present day, and until he feels just like the odd man out within the frontcourt or that he’s being recruited over, they’re not anticipated to transpire this offseason.
And then there have been two, with Dontaie Allen and Cam’Ron Fletcher seen as the 2 largest query marks going into subsequent season.
Even following Allen’s zero-minute outing in Kentucky’s loss at Louisville earlier this season, these near the redshirt freshman instructed KSR {that a} switch was not on the desk throughout winter break or in the course of the upcoming offseason, no matter circumstance. In current weeks, although, that tune has shifted, with quite a few people telling KSR the 6-foot-6 sharpshooter would take a wait-and-see strategy to the offseason and his future as a complete. While it’s actually no assure Allen leaves this system – the Falmouth, KY native grew up a diehard UK fan and understands he got here in just a few steps behind on account of harm – there’s an expectation that Calipari might need to do a little bit of recruiting and get on the identical web page relating to match and utilization shifting ahead. Above all else, the optics of shedding a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball standout to the switch portal could be a poor search for this system.
As for Fletcher, the St. Louis, MO native’s frustrations had been nicely documented and publicized early within the season, with Calipari going so far as sending him house again in December on account of “actions detrimental to (the) crew.” There are combined opinions amongst these near the freshman ahead relating to his future, with a choose few believing his departure is inevitable this offseason, and others who really feel he’ll spend the summer time working himself out of Calipari’s doghouse main as much as a turnaround sophomore marketing campaign.
From a pure expertise and improvement standpoint, each gamers ought to return. Will they? It will probably be attention-grabbing to see how issues play out.
Say Kentucky pulls off the clear sweep with gamers that would (and will) return in 2021-22, eight in complete. Without including any new highschool signees or transfers, it is a tough draft on the crew’s depth chart going into subsequent season, give or take just a few place changes:
Devin Askew/Nolan Hickman
Davion Mintz/Dontaie Allen
Keion Brooks Jr./Cam’Ron Fletcher
Daimion Collins/Jacob Toppin/Bryce Hopkins
Oscar Tshiebwe/Lance Ware
The starters and positional matches are topic to alter, however as issues stand in the present day, that’s 11 gamers on a deep and skilled roster that boasts three conventional sophomores, one redshirt sophomore, three juniors, and one sixth-year senior. It could be a roster that intently resembles that of a conventional, balanced, aggressive school basketball crew versus a relentless turnstile of gamers coming into the skilled ranks, one thing followers have been begging for all through the Calipari period.
The season has been lengthy and irritating, however would avoiding a mass exodus make up for it in 2021-22? Would a multi-year roster reconstruction make lacking the NCAA Tournament this season worthwhile?