Big Blue seek first Final Four since 2015
By now, the cycle is familiar at Kentucky. John Calipari welcomes a group of five-star freshmen to campus and works through some bumps along the road in time for a multi-weekend NCAA Tournament run. Those freshmen head to the NBA Draft, and Calipari starts the process over again.
But for once, the freshmen may not be the most important players on campus for Kentucky this season. The Wildcats did lose three first-round picks from last year’s roster, but Kentucky returns four key members of the rotation. With three players back who have started double-digit games in their careers, experience might be a strength for Kentucky for one of the few times in the Calipari era.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: John Calipari
2018-19 RECORD (SEC): 30-7 (15-3)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Auburn 77-71 in the Elite Eight
G Quade Green (8.0 ppg, 2.3 apg)
G Tyler Herro (14.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
G Keldon Johnson (13.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
F Reid Travis (11.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg)
F PJ Washington (15.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
Junior Nick Richards and sophomore EJ Montgomery both tested the NBA Draft waters before ultimately deciding to return to Kentucky and now seem likely to take over the starting spots vacated by PJ Washington and Reid Travis. Richards, who started every game as a freshman in 2017-18, has seen his role diminish in postseason play in each of the last two years.
Montgomery, a former top-10 recruit, started 10 games as a freshman but struggled to match up with more physical bigs at times.
Calipari has predicted significant improvement from both forwards, and Kentucky will need them to take those steps after failing to sign a traditional post in its 2019 recruiting class and losing Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. to Florida. At their best, Richards can be an elite defensive weapon with a surprising arsenal of offensive post moves and Montgomery can stretch the floor all the way to 3-point range while offering consistent effort on the glass.
Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina will be a key weapon for the Wildcats off the bench after hitting 38.0 percent of his 3-point attempts and 80.8 percent of his free throws while averaging 8.5 rebounds per game last season.
Five-star freshman forwards Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks prefer to play on the wing but could see minutes at the 4 in smaller lineups. Whitney is projected as a one-and-done and might be the best athlete on the roster. Brooks can do a little bit of everything, offering important versatility to the team.
For just the second time in 11 seasons at Kentucky, Calipari will return his starting point guard for a second year on campus after Ashton Hagans surprised some by not even testing the draft waters. Hagans has the potential to be one of the best point guards in the country, but he needs to become a more reliable 3-point shooter to keep defenses honest and show better decision-making than he did down the stretch last season.
Five-star guard Tyrese Maxey can play with the ball in his hands or alongside Hagans. His scoring ability and infectious personality figure to make him an instant star in what is expected to be a one-year stop at Kentucky. Fellow freshman guard Johnny Juzang, a 6'7" wing, was not as highly touted as Maxey, Whitney and Brooks, but he arrives at Kentucky in the same range in the recruiting rankings and with a similar skill set as Tyler Herro did a year ago. Juzang’s elite 3-point shooting makes him the sleeper to watch on the roster.
The return of sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley should not be overlooked as he brings needed 3-point shooting and experience to the backcourt off the bench.
Big Blue Nation may be growing a little restless after back-to-back disappointing NCAA Tournament upsets, but it remains difficult to argue with Calipari’s success in Lexington. The expectations will be high again for another preseason top-five squad. If the returners make the progress Calipari has predicted and 3-point shooters emerge, the Wildcats should be well positioned to end a four-year Final Four drought.
Postseason Prediction: Final Four
SEC Prediction: 1st