How Did We Get Here?
So, here is a fun statistic. In John Calipari’s eight years at Kentucky, here is where the Wildcats have been ranked in the preseason AP poll: 4th, 11th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 5th. They’re ranked 2nd to open 2018-19.
Here is where they’ve finished: 2nd, 11th, 1st, unranked, unranked, 1st, 10th, 5th, 18th. (In KenPom, they’ve finished those seasons ranked 4th, 7th, 1st, 55th, 13th, 1st, 6th, 4th, and 17th.) In five of the last six years, though, Kentucky has ranked lower at the end of the season than where they began. With the exception of 2012-13, they’ve made the NCAA Tournament in each of those seasons, and 2018 was only the second time under Calipari that they made the tournament and lost prior to the Elite Eight. But in general, Calipari’s Kentucky teams have been ranked highly to start the season, picked up a few losses in December and January, and then gotten things together in March.
What was the difference with the three teams that lived up to their preseason hype? For one thing, the 2010, 2012, and 2015 teams all had some continuity from the prior season. KenPom’s minutes continuity stat ranked Kentucky 260th in 2010, 216th in 2012, and 176th in 2015. The other five teams ranked 342nd (2011), 344th (2013), 336th (2014), 335th (2016), 322nd (2017), and 348th (2018.)
The other difference? Those three teams all had a future NBA superstar (or two, in the 2010 team’s case) on the roster. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins (2010), Anthony Davis (2012), and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015) are currently among the best players in the NBA. When the best player has been an NBA role player, though — a Brandon Knight or Nerlens Noel or Julius Randle, for instance — Kentucky generally hasn’t produced top five results.
So where does this year’s team stand? Good question. Kentucky does have some players coming back from last year — namely, PJ Washington, Nick Richards, and Quade Green — but those three accounted for just 31.5 percent of Kentucky’s possession-minutes last year. (That’s below the 40 percent standard for John Gasaway’s “Category 5” roster.) And judging from nbadraft.net, the highest-rated prospect in the 2019 draft is... Washington, who’s projected to go 30th. (Richards is projected to go 27th in the 2020 draft.) The highest-rated incoming recruit in the freshman class, EJ Montgomery, was ranked 9th in the 247 Sports composite.
Since I don’t really pay much attention to recruiting outside of Vanderbilt, projecting Kentucky has become an annual exercise of voices in the media saying “trust us, these guys are really talented” for much of the preseason, followed by an underwhelming performance in the regular season and a face-saving run in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky’s projected as a top five team, but I won’t be shocked if they fail to win the SEC and end up with a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The only surprising thing here is that the media hasn’t caught on.
Quade Green opened the 2017-18 season as Kentucky’s starting point guard, but after a midseason injury, he lost the starting gig to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That turned out to be a good call: Gilgeous-Alexander was a lottery pick in the 2018 draft. Green briefly was rumored to consider a transfer after the season, but ultimately returned to Kentucky, where he’ll be the experienced hand in a young backcourt.
The big issue with Green was that while he’s a skilled basketball player, he’s not really a true point guard — his main skill was a 37.6 percent three-point percentage. Calipari has brought in two freshman point guards to compete for the starting job. Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, both 6’3”, were both five-star recruits. Hagans was initially a Georgia commit in the Class of 2019, but not only flipped to Kentucky, he also reclassified into the 2018 recruiting class. (He also turned 19 in July, making him, uh, quite old for a guy who was initially a 2019 recruit.) After reclassifying, Hagans became the #12 overall recruit and the top point guard in the 2018 class. Quickley — who didn’t reclassify, but is only three weeks older than Hagans — was the #22 overall recruit and the #5 point guard in the class.
Green could also start at the two, though Kentucky has other options there as well. 6’6” freshman Keldon Johnson was the #13 overall recruit in the Class of 2018, and 6’5” Tyler Herro was #37 — but does have a readily identifiable skill as a lights-out shooter, averaging 32 ppg and shooting over 40 percent from three-point range in high school in Milwaukee. Herro passed on the opportunity to be the most Wisconsin player ever by joining Kentucky. In addition, 6’4” redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker Jr. — who missed last season with an injury — will provide depth on the wing.
Kentucky actually has some experience up front. A pair of sophomores — 6’8” PJ Washington and 6’11” Nick Richards — return from last year’s team. Washington was solid as a freshman, averaging 10.8 ppg and 5.7 rpg while shooting 54.4 percent inside the arc, but his main skill was getting to the free throw line — he attempted 208 free throws (it would have been helpful if he’d shot better than 60.6 percent on them, though.) Richards is much more of a defensive stopper and rebounder; though he started all 37 games for Kentucky last season, he only averaged 14.7 minutes per game and 5.1 ppg.
But this year Kentucky has something even more unusual: a fifth-year senior. Reid Travis could have been the preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year after averaging 19.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg at Stanford a year ago; instead, he’s come to Kentucky as a graduate transfer. Travis has a good all-around game and last year added a three-point shot to his offensive arsenal, though he only shot 29.5 percent. His averages will almost certainly come down — he goes from being the featured scorer at Stanford to having to compete with about three other guys for that title at Kentucky — but he’ll provide rare experience for a Kentucky team.
There’s also a freshman up front, and you know he’s hyped. 6’11” EJ Montgomery was the #9 recruit in the 247 Sports composite, which makes him the highest-rated recruit in Kentucky’s 2018 class. He also was once an Auburn commit before the FBI investigation came down on that program. (That three of Kentucky’s five incoming freshmen were once committed to other programs is an... interesting development.)
|11/2||Indiana (PA) (exhibition)|
|11/6||vs. Duke (Indianapolis, IN)|
|12/8||vs. Seton Hall (New York)|
|12/22||vs. North Carolina (Chicago)|
|2/9||at Mississippi State|
|3/5||at Ole Miss|
A short rant: I hate Kentucky’s nonconference scheduling. Aside from the annual series with Louisville (and the Big 12/SEC Challenge), they refuse to play in other teams’ gyms outside of conference play. College basketball media loves it when they do neutral-court games against Duke and UNC (early-season neutral-court, non-tournament games are as much a pox upon college hoops as they are upon college football), but it also includes things like the unbelievably petty step of making Seton Hall play them at MSG, instead of Seton Hall’s normal home court, the Prudential Center in Newark. Which is actually somewhat better than their “home-and-home” with Utah; you see their home game against Utah here, but the return game is for some reason being played in Las Vegas, a city which, you are probably well aware, is not in Utah. And they don’t play in tournaments aside from the Maui Invitational, as Chris Dobbertean pointed out on here, which means that they annually create their own event which gives them four home games against random teams. (Although, I do appreciate that they play two exhibition games against smaller schools instead of the stupid “secret scrimmages” that we do.)
In SEC play, they’ll play Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Mississippi State twice. There is a decent chance that those are five of the top six teams in the SEC, so the league office didn’t do them any favors.
I’m probably making too much of the media’s annual tendency to overrate Kentucky. Outside of one year under Calipari, they’ve always been good; it’s just that frequently they’re not top five good — and yet, year after year, that’s where they are ranked to start the season. The general reason is that the immediate impact of their incoming freshmen is frequently overstated, and that’s been especially true when they’re not landing the very top players in the class.
Which is definitely the case in 2018-19. The highest-ranked recruit in the class, per the 247 Sports composite, is #9; their second- and third-best recruits are sandwiched in between two Vanderbilt recruits in the composite rating. They do have some players coming back from last year’s team, but their results were rather underwhelming last season. Oh yeah, and they have a graduate transfer coming in.
The media is telling us that this team is loaded, but my gut is telling me that this is not the second-best team in the country, and it’s definitely not going to be the second-best team in the country in November. Maybe it will be in March, but my better guess is that this will be more like the #10 team in the country than the #2 team in the country. Which is still good! But it’s not going to be a lock to win the SEC or to make it beyond the first weekend of the tournament.
But you WILL know the names of every player on Kentucky’s roster by the end of December if you watch ESPN enough. That much is certain.