John Calipari has used unconventional means for roster construction, but — yet again — Kentucky is loaded with elite talent and pointed toward the 2019 Final Four.
The Wildcats feature seven former five-star recruits and three four-star prospects, including Stanford graduate transfer forward Reid Travis, early enrollee point guard Ashton Hagans and forward PJ Washington, who returned after seriously considering a jump to the NBA. Calipari has an ideal blend of highly rated freshmen and returning veterans as he attempts to end Kentucky’s three-year hiatus from the Final Four.
“The best teams I’ve had here were the combination of young kids with returning veterans, and that’s the teams that have done good stuff,” Calipari says.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: John Calipari
2017-18 RECORD (SEC): 26-11 (10–8)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Kansas State 61-58 in the Sweet 16
G Hamidou Diallo (10.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
F Wenyen Gabriel (6.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (14.4 ppg, 5.1 apg)
F Kevin Knox (15.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
F Jarred Vanderbilt (5.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg)
Kentucky was already stocked in the paint before Travis announced in late May he would transfer from Stanford for his final collegiate season. Travis, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds last season, will likely start alongside Washington, who returns for a second season after a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament, when he averaged 13.7 points on 63.6 percent shooting in UK’s three games.
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“The biggest thing with [Calipari]: If you’re mentally tough, you play a lot,” Washington says. “You play a lot of defense. Basically you go out there and do your thing.”
Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery will also be in line for meaningful minutes. The 6'11" Richards started all 37 games as a freshman, but he struggled in February and March and played more than 10 minutes only one time in the last 10 games. His playing time in 2018-19 will be determined how much he has progressed, especially on the offensive end of the floor.
Montgomery, who originally committed to Auburn, might not be in the starting lineup despite being the highest-ranked recruit (No. 9 overall) in Kentucky’s 2018 signing class. But expect the 6'10" forward from Marietta, Ga., to receive plenty of playing time as a skilled stretch-4.
“Options” is the key word for Kentucky’s perimeter this season. There are three former five-star point guard recruits in sophomore Quade Green and freshmen Immanuel Quickley and Hagans. Redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker, who missed last season with a knee injury, and freshman Tyler Herro are expected to be better 3-point shooters than anybody Kentucky played at the 2-spot last season. And freshman Keldon Johnson is a five-star small forward best described as intense and a competitor.
The diverse skills in the backcourt should create better shooting, better ball handling and a more free-flowing offense compared to last season, when the Cats relied heavily on departed stars Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“It seems like everybody can shoot now, so you really have to guard everybody,” Green says. “You have to guard us now because we’re able to shoot at the 1-3 [positions].”
Kentucky may not have an overwhelming, transcendent talent like John Wall, Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns. But there does appear to be a degree of depth this season that is comparable to the best teams of the Calipari era (2010, ’12 and ’15).
Once again, winning the improved SEC will be the expectation, and anything short of a national title will surely be a disappointment.
“The biggest thing I had to talk to [the players about] is here’s what the culture of Kentucky is,” Calipari says. “It won’t carry you. You have to carry the culture. You have to take it to that next level. If you don’t move this culture, this culture means nothing. But, this is what we built the program on and around.”
Postseason Prediction: Runner-up
SEC Prediction: 1st