Finally, the new college basketball season is upon us.
It’s been one of the longest offseasons in recent memory, thanks in part to one of the most news-filled years of basketball we’ve ever seen. Between Cal’s USA U19 team, the Louisville scandal(s), the FBI investigation, or Hamidou Diallo waiting until midnight to come back, there's rarely been a dull moment in the last seven months.
Now, all of that is out the window (unless you’re Auburn or Alabama...welp), and now we can focus on the new Cats playing real games on the beautiful court of Rupp Arena.
Before the Kentucky Wildcats open their season with Utah Valley State, we gathered our staff for their thoughts on the upcoming season, what to expect, and some predictions for how far these Cats make it into March, and possibly April
John Morgan Francis
I've been on record saying this team will finish at least top five in both total defense and fast-break offense. Their length & athleticism is like none-other in the country. Though the young Wildcats will struggle from behind the arc, Quade Green's pre-season excellence from 3-point land shows promise. If Hamidou Diallo & Kevin Knox can follow suit, I really don't see anyone stopping them.
Calipari has had young teams every season he's been with Kentucky. Somehow, he is the wizard of transforming college freshmen into grown men by March. How long it will take him to do so is the question at hand. I definitely see Kentucky struggling early, though their length, size & athleticism should keep them in every game. As the season progresses, however, look for their chemistry to become exceptional.
To get to the specifics, I believe we'll see two main lineups this season.
The first being Cal's best, most efficient lineup. This starting five will consist of Green, Diallo, P.J. Washington, Knox & Gabriel. Cal will have four ball handlers while still being able to dominate inside. Shooting could be a question here, but if we're being optimistic one of Diallo or Knox should become a quality outside shooter down the stretch.
The second is more of my dream lineup but also a rational one for Cal to employ. The five will be Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Diallo, Washington & Knox. This small-ball, positionless lineup could be compared to the Golden State Warriors of the NBA. Now of course, these are 18-19 year-old kids. They aren't future hall-of-famers. They also won't blow people away from behind the arc. However, their outstanding length & athleticism will be a nightmare for opponents. They'll have ball handlers at all positions yet still be able to hold their own inside. They'll also be slightly better with outside shooting and elite in the fast break. Down the stretch of many games, look for this lineup to be on the floor.
There's no doubt in my mind that this team will win the SEC and be the heavy favorites to take the SEC Tournament title as well. While Kentucky has never won both the SEC Championship as well as the NCAA Championship, I'll leave it up to them to decide. This team makes their way into the Final Four, but from there it's on their combination of talent & coaching, as well as the will to win to make history.
This Kentucky team could be difficult to judge within the first couple of weeks or months of the season. They're practically an all-freshman team, but the talent is there. Kevin Knox has looked like a stud in the preseason and Quade Green has proven me wrong about the way he can play and shoot the ball.
To me, this team makes a Final Four if they can reach their max potential on defense. This is Kentucky's longest team since the 2014-15 team and we all know how great that team was. If Green can become Tyler Ulis 2.0 and Nick Richards can become a shot blocker on the level of, maybe, Willie Cauley-Stein, this team will be great. Cal has not had a prominent shot blocker since Cauley-Stein three years ago, and the defenses since then have showed that.
The schedule looks to be the same thing as it is every season, not having a true road game until after December, but the tests will be there early for this young Wildcats squad. Kansas will be the first test for Kentucky in the Champions Classic. Kansas lost a lot of their production during the offseason, but they return key pieces like LaGerald Vick and Devonte Graham, and they add five-star Billy Preston.
This is one of those games that I see Kentucky dropping early on, which I think they do. Kentucky also gets UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic down in good 'ole Blue Orleans. While this game won't be a walk in the park, UCLA is not as good as they were last year, and they lost quite a bit from that talented squad. LiAngelo Ball is not Lonzo Ball, and I think Kentucky gets the W in that match-up. And finally, Kentucky hosts Louisville this season after what feels like it's been an eternity since we last played Louisville in Rupp. Tensions will be high, as they always are, but something just won't be right. With no Rick Pitino, will we, as fans, lose that competitive edge? I'm just messing with you, of course we won't. I think Kentucky wins this game and gets payback for last year’s tough loss to the Cards. Although I do think this win won't be as sweet because Rick won't be there to give any of us the bird on his way out.
All in all, I think this Kentucky team goes 26-5 in the regular season with losses to Kansas, at West Virginia, at Missouri, at Texas A&M and at Florida. I hope I'm wrong, but this team full of youngins feels like they're going to struggle on the road this season, especially when we have those big road games like WVU and TAMU. With that being said, I think Cal gets this team ready for tournament play and we go to St. Louis and win the SEC tournament for the fourth straight season, we get a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, and we get to the final four this year for the first time since 2015. I'm not quite projecting a National Championship just yet, but the talent is there for this team to certainly be a national title team.
Strap in, it'll be a fun season.
I was unsure about this team until I watched the two out of the three exhibitions. I am more encouraged now than I was when practice started.
So what has me feeling more optimistic?
1. Quade Green is a much better player than I thought. He is a knock-down three point shooter (something this team desperately needed) and his court vision is beyond what it usually is for a freshman. If he continues to improve his relationship with his teammates on the court, then I think he can be an All-SEC caliber point guard by the end of the regular season.
2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is also better than I thought. He may not have the range of Green or the offensive tools, but he's a lockdown defender and he can play the point extremely well as a backup. Honestly I think the team looks the best when both of them are on the floor at the same time.
3. The team doesn't struggle scoring the ball like we feared. Green, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington and Wenyen Gabriel are all scorers. Hamidou Diallo is as well, but he doesn't quite have the range that the others do. Nick Richards is much further along on offense than we thought he would be at this time. As long as the defense comes along, and it will, this is going to be a good team.
While the youth may be an issue, I don't think it's going to take as long for them to click as some have predicted. John Calipari continues to say how these kids love to be coached. As long as they keep that attitude, they can make a deep run in March. There doesn't seem to be an ego on the team. It's a very much business-oriented unit.
With Jarred Vanderbilt returning sooner than later, the depth of this team is going to set it apart as the season progresses. Cal will still have his 6-7 man main rotation, but he is going to have more options coming off of the bench than he has had in two seasons.
This upcoming basketball season is going to have to be measured with perspective.
That’s not something Kentucky fans normally have in abundance. But it has to be practiced this year, especially early on. Why? Because I think Kentucky will take its share of lumps early in the season, simply because of the extreme youth. I don’t know what that translates to in terms of wins and losses, but I will say this: there will be losses. And there may be a loss to a team that surprises us (Vermont? Maybe. Or maybe someone else).
But here’s the deal: It won’t be the end of the world. We must keep perspective. This team will learn. And they will grow. And they will add players along the way (Baker and Vanderbilt, come on down whenever you want).
Hopefully they will learn to play defense. But I digress.
In many cases this team will make up for their lack of knowledge with sheer athleticism, and that will help.
But the SEC will also be tougher this season. Still, I think we will again contend for the conference regular season and tournament titles. And as we continue to improve, we will probably enter the NCAA Tournament with a bit of a lower seed due to a few more losses. But we will be hitting on all cylinders at the end of the year and we will be dangerous.
I see a repeat performance of last season, where we will again make the regional final but probably drop one before making the Final Four. Then we’ll take that experience and we’ll make another Final Four next year.
Go Big Blue!
This will be an interesting season to say the least for Cal’s newest group. This is going to be a team that doesn’t do the bulk of their scoring from outside the 3-point line. We will be seeing a lot of athletic plays getting to the rim and finishing through contact.
As for the season, I believe this team will go through some growing pains along the way due to the fact that we lost about 90 percent of our team’s scoring from a year ago, and once again Cal has one of the youngest teams in the country that will have to adjust to the speed of the college game.
This team has the potential to be one of Cal’s best defensive teams he has ever had. Almost everyone on this team is long and athletic with the potential to block a lot of shots this year. One thing that this team will do a lot of is something that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, and that is the altered shots they will force due to their length. This team may struggle scoring the ball at times but if they reach their defensive potential, that will more than make up for any lack of scoring.
With the season officially getting started Friday, I predict that this team will finish the regular season with a 27-4 record. I believe that they will lose to Kansas in the third game of the year as well as three road games: at West Virginia, at Texas A&M and at Florida. Then I believe that this team will go on to St. Louis and win the SEC Tournament and have the potential for a Final Four run, but I see this team at least making the Elite Eight.
With that being said, although this team could struggle at times, this will be a fun team to watch play and develop as they get ready for the run in March.
Every season of Kentucky basketball is always intriguing when John Calipari is at the helm, but there's something about this season that is peaking my interest more than Cal's other eight seasons. This is the youngest and one of his most talented bunches, which builds the intrigue in terms of how they'll develop (and if they can stay healthy despite the early season issues already).
As for the schedule, Kansas (in Chicago) for the Champions Classic, UCLA (in New Orleans) for the CBS Sports Classic, Louisville, the Missouri games for Michael Porter Jr., at Florida and at West Virginia for the Big XII-SEC Challenge are all games that stick out.
There's nothing too scary on the schedule in my opinion other than the Jan. 3-16 stretch in conference with four road games in a five-game stretch. The youth will take their lumps like all teams do. That stretch could bring some.
With a quick glance, 26-5 seems like a realistic guess, but I could see around 28-3. This team is fast, long and fun. They'll struggle, but these kids have some serious potential. A SEC title sweep could be in play, too, although Florida could definitely get in the way of that.
I think this team is an Elite Eight, maybe a Final Four team at their ceiling. Can they shoot? Not very well. Are they going to be extremely hard to guard anyway? Oh, yeah.
Plus, I personally think this team is going to be REALLY good defensively with their size and on the glass. I'd assume that's also Cal's hope.
Title or bust part nine is truly what this season feels like to most fans. With a top two recruiting class in every season of John Calipari’s tenure with UK and only one title to show for it, the question remains: is he a better coach or recruiter? We know Coach Calipari refuses to run a zone defense due to wanting to showcase players’ individual talents, and we know that going to UK is sure to put you in a primetime spot for NBA scouts. Showcasing that if you want to make it to the next level of basketball UK is the college to attend, but if you want to win a collegiate championship many fans are not so sure coach Calipari can pull it off.
Many fans (Including myself and coach Cal) have blamed late game coaching decisions (and horrible late officiating) to the reason we lost the Final Four game against Wisconsin in the 2014-15 season. UK was the much higher-skilled team, but Wisconsin had the veteran player knowledge and took advantage of it. This team may not have an undefeated regular season run, but they have the untapped potential to finish further than Karl-Anthony Towns’ team did.
This season looks bright and is another potential opportunity for Coach Calipari to silence the opposition. With the nationally-ranked No. 1 class full of top recruits Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, and more, this should be the season we not only sit atop the SEC but also finish as NCAA Basketball Champions.
This is probably going to be a fun, and sometimes frustrating, season for Kentucky basketball. As has already been fully covered, this team is young and athletic. How the freshmen adjust to the college game and how the team reacts to adversity on the road will determine how high the ceiling is for this team.
Offensively, I think we’re going to be fine. We have plenty of weapons on the offensive side of the ball and a number of guys that can step up and put the team on their back when needed. I think Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox are going to be two of the more explosive players in college basketball this year and I’m excited to see what they can do. Wenyen Gabriel will be the key for this team. If he can provide leadership and consistency down the stretch, I think this team will be just fine.
There is a lot of room for development in these players and the upside for all of them is tremendous. My two biggest questions going into this season are defensive performance and rebounding. All of Cal’s most successful teams played elite defense and limited extra possessions for their opponents. This team has the potential to fit into that mold, but there will be bumps as they learn how to play defense together, especially in hostile environments on the road in the SEC. I know Cal will get them where they need to be come March Madness, but the regular season will probably have more ups and downs as these players continue to learn and develop. Fortunately, the talent is there.
All in all, I’m hopeful for this season. The non-conference schedule isn’t horrible and I think Kansas will be the toughest opponent before SEC play begins. I predict, at most, one loss on the non-conference schedule, though Kentucky has the potential to start their SEC games undefeated. I think the SEC is going to be tough this year, and I think the Cats lose the regular season title but win their fourth straight conference championship. There are several tough games on the SEC schedule and I think Kentucky finishes the regular season 25-6. The NCAA tournament will be tough, as always, but I see the Cats making back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. But I don’t think they make the Final Four.
If you're looking for a theme this year, look no further than UK coach John Calipari's message on what it takes to become an elite athlete at the highest level. Whether it’s stories about eating spam, buying things on layaway or asking his players to fight like a starving dog for the last remaining bone, it's all about EFFORT and a will to win. But as we open a new season, who will be "the last one on the treadmill” and take this team to another level?
If we learned anything from the preseason, it’s that Cal was exactly right – this team has a long way to go. In fact, I believe his prediction that games will be closer than normal as we’re sure to have some growing pains as one of the youngest teams in college basketball. Fortunately, Kevin Knox and Quade Green will step up early and lead an offense that’s still trying to break bad habits and find its way via the dribble-drive motion offense. By midseason, look for P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt (if fully healthy) to find a higher gear and take this team to the next level as they battle it out for the treadmill award this season. To me, Vanderbilt is that one guy that stays on the treadmill the longest per Coach Cal’s call to action.
My biggest concern this year is on the defensive end, where trading baskets will not lead to a special season. This team needs Hamidou Diallo to step up and become a lock-down defender, not only helping the Cats win, but also helping his NBA stock as a potential NBA lottery pick. If Diallo can become a DeAndre Liggins-type defender, that just might be a game-changer in the postseason.
After winning another SEC Tournament, I look for the Cats to roll into March Madness as a top seed en route to another Final Four appearance. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that this team has the defensive tenacity or toughness on the boards to beat teams like Duke, Michigan State, Arizona or Kansas so I do not expect a 9th National Title. If this team does come up short, I can assure you that it won't be for lack of effort down the stretch. Cal will make sure of that.
Final Record: 33-6
Tournament Prediction: Final Four
To preface, I have a whole different set of expectations for the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team than the majority of the BBN. I have lived through the probation era of Eddie Sutton, the frustrating end of the Tubby Smith era, and the full-fledged dumpster fire era of Billy Clyde Gillispie. I've seen some lean years. I know what it is like to go 14 years between titles so my expectations are a little different from other members of the fanbase. All I really ask if that by the end of the year, my team is in the conversation at the end and they have a legitimate chance to make a Final Four. My minimum expectations for any Kentucky team is to be top 10-12 by the end of the year and to advance to the Sweet 16 at least. Once you get four games from a title, anything can happen.
This is John Calipari's youngest team at Kentucky ever. That says a lot. And there are already injuries. This could be a bumpy start to the season.
The early schedule is kind, however, sans the Kansas game. Even with the youth, Kentucky should still have just one loss at the most entering mid-December when they face Virginia Tech, UCLA and Louisville. At this point, we should have a good bit of chemistry, even if Vanderbilt is still out. While I expect the going to get tough at some point, especially when we enter road play in the SEC, I am still very excited about this team.
This is perhaps the most athletic team that Calipari has had at Kentucky and that says a lot. I like the fact that Quade Green looks ready to lead this team from day one and that Wenyen Gabriel appears ready to have a breakout season. I think that a player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be a special player in that he can also run the point but plays well off the ball. I'm excited as hell to finally see what Hamidou Diallo can do. Even though there may be struggles, this will be the most entertaining team in the country to watch.
As for expectations, I expect an SEC title and I think that this team will be ranked around #8 by the end of the season. Let's put them down for five losses and at least a Sweet 16 appearance. Once you get to that point, it is all about matchups and it's too hard to predict what will happen 37 games from now.
However, the No. 5 rating is indicative of where this team will be at the end of the year, not now and I see a team that has a good chance to make a Final Four. I'm not going to predict No. 9 for the Wildcats, but this team will have the potential, especially if Jarred Vanderbilt can recover and make a significant impact.
I don’t know, I may just have a different view than a lot of people, but I think this team is really going to cause some angst among our fanbase. I think there are a couple of areas that are really going to cause problems for the Wildcats, and in turn, fans are going to have a bit of unrest, especially early on.
To name a few: 3-point shooting (will be a nagging issue all season), rebounding, defense, and finding a go-to scorer late in a close game. Do I think Kentucky can solve all of these? Absolutely. Quade Green and Wenyen Gabriel have shown to have better outside shots than originally expected, if Nick Richards can stay out of foul trouble, he will be a big help on the glass, Cal’s teams seem to always mold together into a strong defensive unit by February, and I think Kevin Knox will evolve into a go-to scorer. But early on, count me in the camp of people who think this team will struggle.
I think they very well could drop a surprise game early in the season. Vermont will challenge Kentucky, and I seem to think that Harvard and Monmouth could give this team more than what they want. I won’t be surprised if Kentucky is on the wrong end of an upset in the non-conference. In the conference, the SEC is better than normal and that makes those road environments with a freshman-laden team that much more challenging.
Much like Cal’s 2013-2014 team, I think this team will drop more than a couple road games in conference. At Florida, at Texas A&M and at Missouri jump out, as well as that road date with West Virginia out of conference.
If I’m making a record prediction (which I hate doing), I’ll guess 25-6 on the regular season, and a Sweet 16 appearance. After that, anything can happen, so I’m not going to predict where they will be eliminated in the tournament.
For this year, I will preach patience. It will take awhile for this team to come together. They will play close games against teams they are clearly better than and may get a rude awakening against a Kansas team that has several veteran players and a lot of talented youth.
Just don’t overreact to early-season performances because when March rolls around, if Kentucky has a 1-5 seed, I think they will be in the conversation to cut down the nets.