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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

The ‘Cats have a lot of youth - more than usual. And yet, they’re still a heavy contender.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Wildcats 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: John Calipari (249-53, 8 years at Kentucky. 652-191 career)

Last Year: 32-6, 16-2 in SEC; KenPom Rating: 4

Returning Starters: 1

Returning Possession Minutes: 11.6%

Recruiting Class Ranking: #2 Nationally; #1 SEC


How Did We Get Here?

The old adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While John Calipari has produced only one National Championship since arriving to Lexington in 2009, his methodology consistently produces results.

Year after year, Kentucky reloads, and churns out title contenders and players to the NBA. Cal has four 30-plus win seasons, six trips to the second weekend and three Final Fours. You might find it easy to rag on him for not winning it all, when that’s the endgame year after year. You might not be the biggest fan of the “One and Done” system. The fact is, though: Cal typically gets it done in a system that’s designed to chew you up and spit you out.

Last year was no different. The Wildcats won the SEC regular season and conference championships. De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, the ‘Cats had one of the most potent backcourts in the nation. Fox was a feisty defender (If you don’t take my opinion seriously, go ask Lonzo Ball) and a terrific assist man. Monk was the prolific scorer and go-to guy, who did the damn thing on more than one occasion. If not for Luke Maye’s dramatic Elite Eight shot, Monk’s ridiculous bucket to tie the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Elite Eight might hold some more weight.

If there was one flaw about the Wildcats, it was their interior defense. It was mostly average during the whole season, but conference play exposed them a little bit. They finished ninth among 14 teams in the SEC in 2-point FG% allowed. Bam Adebayo, Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis couldn’t get it done at times, and Wenyen Gabriel was able to only provide limited help. It may’ve been their undoing, as UNC made 55.8 percent of their 2-point attempts in the Elite Eight.

Whatever the case, last year is last year. This time around... it’s a brand new look for Kentucky. We typically say that a lot, but it’s really a brand new look. Only one player who started games - Gabriel, who made 23 starts a year ago - is back on the roster. Minus the walk-ons, there are two: Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones. There are eight scholarship freshmen coming in this year. Two of which who are hurt to begin the season.

This, certainly, will be an intriguing year in Lexington.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Quade Green 6'3 Fr. #26 recruit
3 Hamidou Diallo. 6'5" Fr. #10 recruit
10 Jonny David 6'2" Jr. walk-on
12 Brad Calipari 6'0" Jr. walk-on
13 Jemarl Baker 6'5" Fr. #72 recruit/Underwent knee surgery
22 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 6'6" Fr. #31 recruit
30 Dillon Pulliam 6'3" RS Jr. walk-on

This will be the first time since the 2013-14 Wildcats that Kentucky walks in with no legitimate experience in the backcourt. No disrespect to the likes of Dillon Pulliam, Jonny David or Brad Calipari, but none of the three averaged more than 3.0 minutes per game last season.

That year, Kentucky was infamously up-and-down. Until their run to the National Title game, of course. There’s a lot to like with the freshmen coming in, especially so for Hamidou Diallo. It wasn’t a certainty that Diallo would even be Lexington this season. After committing and joining the team in the spring semester, he was getting plenty of NBA looks. He nearly went into the NBA Draft, depending on how much you believe he was close to doing so.

Kentucky will reap the rewards of his presence in the lineup. The Putnam Science Academy/NY Rens alum has great size (6-foot-5) and wingspan (6-foot-11). His vertical of 44.5” in the Combine leads you to believe we’ll see some spectacular dunks from him. We got a look of what he was capable of in the FIBA U19 Worlds, where Diallo averaged 10.9 points while shooting 50.9 percent on 2-point makes. His 3-point shot was skittish, converting on just 20.0 percent of his attempts from deep. One should probably expect Diallo to attack the rim more often than he takes downtown jumpers.

There’s also Jemarl Baker, Shai Alexander and Quade Green. With the caveat being that Baker is hurt for the moment. He had knee surgery in October, so he won’t be around to start the season. Baker is one of Kentucky’s best shooters, or at least one with a lot of promise. He had a tremendous 3-point shot on the Under Armour Association circuit with Earl Watson Elite. He averaged 16.8 points per game with Earl Watson Elite and 17.1 points per game at Roosevelt High School in Corona, California. His presence will certainly be missed on a team that, right now, has sparse shooting.

Green, though, should be able to step in for the void left by Fox. The former St. John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic/PSA Cardinals point man is regarded as a great playmaker and an excellent passer. He’s a bit undersized (just 6-feet tall) but it wouldn’t be the first time that UK had an undersized ballhandler (hello, Tyler Ulis).

Alexander, meanwhile, originally hails from Toronto, played for UPlay Canada and attended Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Tennessee. He has a lengthy wingspan (measured 6-foot-10 at 2017’s Hoop Summit) and has shown a strong ability to defend. He has also displayed the ability to play the point, so expect him and Green to take turns handling the ball if/when they’re on the floor together.

With Baker out, the trio of Green, Diallo and Alexander will have to be ready, willing and able to make things happen. The lack of shooting in the backcourt may cause some issues from the jump. But, with any luck, they will find their form and have Diallo be the one who the offense runs through out of the backcourt, while Alexander supplements enough on defense and Green plays the role of playmaker.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
1 Sacha Killeya-Jones 6'10" So. 2.9 ppg/2.2 rpg/6.9 mpg
2 Jarred Vanderbilt 6'9" Fr. #12 recruit/Suffered foot injury
4 Nick Richards 6'11" Fr. #18 recruit
5 Kevin Knox 6'9" Fr. #11 recruit
14 Tai Wynyard 6'10" RS So. walk-on
25 P.J. Washington 6'7" Fr. #15 recruit
32 Wenyen Gabriel 6'9" So. 4.6 ppg/4.8 rpg, made 23 starts

The good news for Kentucky is that they return more frontcourt players than backcourt players. The bad news? It’s only two players. Wenyen Gabriel and Sasha Killeya-Jones are both primed for big seasons, but the loss of Bam Adebayo could sting a bit, at least in the early going.

The other good news? Kevin Knox is coming. Knox, a 6’9 five-star recruit from Tampa is one of the best freshmen in the nation, and possibly the best in Calipari’s class this season. He’s gifted on both sides of the ball, and will be a matchup nightmare for most of the SEC with his 7’ wingspan. While he’s tall, though, Knox lacks the body mass to be a true bruising low post player, so he’ll likely see more action on the wing or get buckets from driving inside.

The low post honor will likely go to fellow freshman Nick Richards. Richards is a 7-foot, 240 pound center from New York who found himself on the Preseason Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watchlist a couple weeks ago, so the hype is real. Kentucky has had no shortage of great big men in the past few years, and Richards is no exception.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they’ll likely be without 6’9 freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, at least until December. Vanderbilt hurt his foot in practice in September, but Calipari noted at a press conference that the big man is likely returning to practice at the end of the month.

It will also be interesting to see where 6’7 five-star PJ Washington fits in. Calipari’s problem, as usual, is his team has too many talented players, which is a good problem to have.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/10 Utah Valley
11/12 Vermont
11/14 Kansas (Chicago, IL)
11/17 ETSU
11/20 Troy
11/22 Fort Wayne
11/26 UIC
12/2 Harvard
12/9 Monmouth (New York, NY)
12/16 Virginia Tech
12/23 UCLA (New Orleans, LA)
12/29 Louisville
12/31 Georgia
1/3 at LSU
1/6 at Tennessee
1/9 Texas A&M
1/13 at Vanderbilt
1/16 at South Carolina
1/20 Florida
1/23 Mississippi State
1/27 at West Virginia (Big 12/SEC)
1/30 Vanderbilt
2/3 at Missouri
2/6 at Tennessee
2/10 at Texas A&M
2/14 at Auburn
2/17 Alabama
2/20 at Arkansas
2/24 Missouri
2/28 Ole Miss
3/3 at Florida

This is a typically stout Kentucky schedule. While they don’t play in any Feast Week tournaments, the high-profile matchups with Kansas Jayhawks, UCLA Bruins, Louisville Cardinals and West Virginia Mountaineers are worth noting. So will the collision with King Rice’s Monmouth Hawks at MSG. That game against the Virginia Tech Hokies could be intriguing, but the ‘Cats have the luxury of hosting the Hokies, instead of the flipside: A trip to the Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg.

UK’s SEC schedule works out somewhat nicely for them. They don’t avoid the Florida Gators, but the matchups are split out; they face them in January and then on the final day of the regular season in March. They have to play Michael Porter Jr. and the Missouri Tigers twice. The dangerous prospect for that is both matchups take place in February, a time where Mizzou may very well be fleshed out. Back-to-back trips to face the Texas A&M Aggies and Auburn Tigers could be leery as well.

Eh, what the hell? Watch them go 15-3 in SEC play anyway.


Outlook

This is as young a team that we’ve seen for John Calipari... basically anywhere. The losses of Jarred Vanderbilt and especially Jemarl Baker will hurt this team in spots, especially Baker at the jump. Still though, you have to like the upside of these freshmen. Especially Knox, who is forgotten among the Marvin Bagley III’s and Michael Porter Jr.’s of the world when it comes to great wings. Hamidou Diallo got his feet wet in the NBA Draft, and decided to come back, and now will likely be the go-to guy.

It will likely be the toughest test yet for Cal when it comes to experience. His reputation precedes him, though. And his rep is that of a damn good coach who rarely misses the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. A National Championship may happen, or it may not if the ‘Cats can’t find their jumpers. But don’t count on things falling apart in Lexington. Cal’s too good for that not to happen, and there’s still an abundance of talent.