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Kentucky Basketball 2018-19 Season Preview Roundtable and Predictions

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This has the potential to be a special season. How special can it be?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, college basketball season is on the horizon. Expectations are high for the Kentucky Wildcats, and it seems like this group is embracing the challenge.

John Calipari has led the Wildcats to four Final Fours during his tenure and a National Championship in 2012, and fans are pining for another banner to hang in Rupp Arena.

Will this be the year that Kentucky gets championship number nine? The staff at A Sea tof Blue have all put their two cents in on what to expect for the upcoming basketball season. Here is what they had to say.

Jamie Boggs

This seems to be one of those “perfect storm” years for Kentucky basketball. There are strong returning players in Nick Richards, PJ Washington, and Quade Green. There are five incoming freshmen that are ready to immediately contribute. And the cherry on top is senior transfer Reid Travis, a two-time All Pac-12 selection.

The best John Calipari teams at Kentucky have always had a mix of new talent and veteran players with something to prove, and this team fits right into that mold.

Additionally, this team seems to have no obvious weakness. There are four post players that all have NBA talent, dynamic playmakers on the perimeter, and guys that can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. There are pure scorers on the team that can hold their own defensively, and lock-down defenders that can make things happen on the offensive end.

Possibly the biggest strength of this team is going to be its depth. As mentioned previously, the front court is loaded and deep with Washington, Travis, Richards, and EJ Montgomery, who probably has the highest ceiling of the group. Foul trouble down low should not be an issue with so many options, and playing these guys in different combinations will create unique match-up challenges for opposing defenses.

The back court is two deep as well, for the most part. Between Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, the point guard position is as solid as it has been since Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis in 2014-2015. On the wing, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro are killers that will need to be the catalysts on the offensive end. Quade Green can play either guard spot, but will see more time off the ball and is expected to be a primary scorer on the offensive end. Jemarl Baker has been promising in the preseason, but continues to be limited with knee issues.

All in all, this is one of those years that anything short of a Final Four will be a disappointment. A national championship is definitely on the table, but given the tournament format the best team does not always win. I do think this will be the best team in the country when it is all said and done.

Season Prediction: 28-3 regular season record, SEC regular season and tournament champion, NCAA Final Four run

John Morgan Francis

Despite winning the SEC Tournament in March, the Wildcats saw an early exit in the NCAA tournament. While their two best players indeed departed for the NBA draft, Nick Richards, PJ Washington, and Quade Green all elected to return for a second year with head coach John Calipari.

The return of key players didn’t stop Calipari from winning the offseason, as he landed graduate transfer Reid Travis from Stanford and once again pulled in the second-ranked recruiting class.

Names such as Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro will be some of the “youngsters” to see the floor this season. Jemarl Baker, who is returning from a knee injury, should also make a significant impact on the team.

Kentucky isn’t alone when it comes to star power, though, as Duke landed the nation’s top three overall recruits and Kansas seems to be every expert’s pick to cut down the nets in April. Gonzaga also returns heavy experience, as well as the SEC rival Tennessee Volunteers.

The Wildcats do have a much better overall roster, though, vastly improving their three-point shooting as well as inside presence and overall depth at each position. Calipari has his most diverse team in regards to age since the 2014-2015 season, of which he started 38-0 with Kentucky’s one loss narrowly coming in the Final Four.

Setting 38-0 expectations for any team would be ignorant, but their ceiling certainly has the potential to bring a ninth championship to Lexington.

2018 seems to be the year for ending streaks relating to Kentucky athletic teams. In 2019, could the Wildcats become the first team in program history to cut down both the SEC Tournament & NCAA Tournament nets?

Season Prediction: 29-2 regular season, SEC regular season champion, SEC tournament champion & NCAA Tournament Champion

Shane Shackleford

In my opinion, this is the perfect storm of a basketball team in Lexington. When I look at this club, there are three characteristics this club has that stand out to me.

  1. Veterans: In PJ Washington, Quade Green, Nick Richards, and Reid Travis, the Cats have players who have been through the wars of college basketball and can help steady the ship when the storms of big games and conference play start. Huge positive.
  2. Depth: UK has depth in spades. The fun part is in the era of positionless basketball, UK can roll out any type of lineup to either matchup with or create matchup problems with any team on the schedule. Four guard lineup? No problem. Four bigs on the floor? Easy. UK is easily 11 deep. No one in college basketball can boast that.
  3. Chemistry: It was apparent during their trip to the Bahamas that these Cats really enjoyed playing basketball with each other. Heck, coach John Calipari has said on multiple occasions how much he enjoys coaching these kids. Love can be the glue that holds teams together when the inevitable tough times come. The Cats have that as well.

There is no question that if everything breaks right, Kentucky can cut the nets and claim their 9th national title. But the road sure won’t be easy, and that’s ok. Dates with Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas will pressure test the Cats pipes for sure. League dates with Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, and Mississippi State are no small tasks either.

I see the Cats possibly losing 3-4 games in the regular season but hitting on all cylinders by the time the postseason rolls around. The Cats will win the SEC tournament and make it to the Elite Eight.

Once there, all bets are off on the Cats closing the deal and winning the National Championship.

Tournament Prediction: NCAA Tournament Champion

Sam Gillenwater

This is going to be an intriguing year for Kentucky basketball because there are so many compelling story lines all over the floor.

This group of freshman looks like an unreal class. Keldon Johnson is going to be an alpha dog all over the floor. Tyler Herro has the potential to lead this team in scoring and can be part of the resolution of the Cat’s annual three-point shooting problem. Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans are the typical Calipari point guard prospects as the former is a finesse playmaker and the latter attacks the lane while being a pest defensively in what should be his senior season of high school. Finally, EJ Montgomery has a complete game from either big man position.

As far as the returning players, the Cats brought back a talented trio along with a piece we’ve never seen under Calipari. Quade Green was solid in his time as the starting point guard and will look to build on that this year. Nick Richards struggled in his freshman campaign, but looks primed for a successful sophomore season on both sides of the ball. PJ Washington is an NBA talent that could have left, but returned with his pure physicality and overall improvements. Reid Travis adds a whole new dynamic to the Cats with his size and unmatched experience. Throw in a shooter like Jemarl Baker and this mature group is exactly what these young players need in their leaders.

This team has a chance to be special. Whenever Kentucky combines top-notch freshman with any kind of veteran leadership, special things happen. This team is prepared to make statements all season long on offense and defense.

Even with a tough schedule full of blue bloods and a strengthened SEC, I see the Cats going at least 25-6, winning another SEC Tournament Championship, campaigning for a Top-2 seed in the NCAA tournament and making a Final Four run to Minneapolis.

Regular Season Record: 25-6

Tournament Prediction: Final Four

Greg Goins

The intensity level inside the Joe Craft Center has reached a fever pitch as some epic battles have already been reported during early preseason drills and scrimmages. But can the Cats turn up the heat when it really matters as a tough, non-conference schedule and a loaded SEC will test another young crop of five-star recruits?

The biggest difference this year is that there’s no talk of the dribble drive offense or “positionless” basketball as graduate transfer Reid Travis and returning big men PJ Washington and Nick Richards leave little doubt that this will be a “post up” team that will punish opponents in the paint. Throw in 6-foot-10 freshman EJ Montgomery and the Cats are as deep as ever on the interior with plenty of experience to win those tough battles in the SEC.

Long known for producing elite point guards, this UK team actually has some unanswered questions at both guard spots this season as five different guys are fighting for minutes. Keldon Johnson will most certainly lock down one starting position - either at the two or the three spot - and just might be the team’s leading scorer with his ability to get to the rim and jump over people. However, trying to figure out where Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Quade Green and Tyler Herro fit into the mix will continue to be a work in progress. Green and Herro both have the ability to knock down big shots so it will be interesting to see multiple combinations early, especially against a zone defense.

Once the smoke clears, I look for Hagans, Johnson, Montgomery, Washington and Travis to emerge as UK’s best lineup with EJ Montgomery quickly rising up NBA draft boards as a stretch four that can step out and knock down perimeter jump shots. In addition to his size and length, Montgomery has a high basketball IQ with the ability to either start the break as a skilled passer or finish with a thundering dunk. He won’t fly under the radar for very long.

Assuming this team can hold its own on the defensive end, the Cats seem destined for Minneapolis with a legit shot at hanging another banner. It all begins November 6th. Bring on Duke!

Final Record: 34-5

Tournament Prediction: Final Four

Nick Wheatley

Kentucky basketball is back. And this is going to be a very, very fun season.

This team is absolutely loaded with talent. They bring a trio of veterans back in PJ Washington, Quade Green, and Sophomore Nick Richards. They also bring in the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, and not to mention Stanford grad-transfer Reid Travis. This is Calipari’s deepest and most talented team since the 2014-15 team that went 38-1. They are physical, they can shoot, and they possess a variety of options both offensively and defensively.

Offensively, they have both PJ Washington and Reid Travis who can bully opponents in the paint and grab offensive rebounds. Tyler Herro is lights out from mid-range and the three-point line. Hagans, Quickley, and Green each possess different abilities that will force John Calipari to play all of them. Hagans has excellent court vision and Quickley and Green can both score the basketball. Sophomore Nick Richards will look to dominate the paint with the sky hook, as EJ Montgomery can float out and knock down mid-range jumpers. Then, you have the dynamic Keldon Johnson, a slasher who can hit jump shots at a pretty high clip. This team can score and they can score in a variety of ways. They have a ton of weapons.

Defensively, this team has a ton of potential. We didn’t really see it against Transy or IUP, but they’re just scratching the surface. Hagans is an absolute menace. He’s constantly in passing lanes and his hands never stop. PJ and Reid aren’t going to let teams get many offensive rebounds, and Richards is finally starting to look like the rim protector Coach Cal has missed for a few seasons.

Finally, you have the length and athleticism of EJ, Keldon, and Quickley, who will give opponents fits all season long. Add in the nonstop trash talking of PJ, Keldon, and Hagans and opposing offenses are going to HATE playing these guys.

However, as good as this team is, they have one of the toughest schedules Calipari has ever had at Kentucky. They’re bound to drop a few games with a schedule that includes Duke, UNC, Louisville, Auburn (twice), Kansas, Mississippi State, LSU, Florida (twice), and Tennessee (twice). That is nine (!) games against preseason top 25 teams. Not only is the non-conference loaded with blue bloods and top 25 teams, but the conference is now the best it’s been in a very long time.

But these Cats are made to withstand it, and they will. March Madness is the one of the most unpredictable sporting events, but the best teams find a way to win. And that’s what this team will do.

Final Record: 36-4

Tournament Prediction: National Champions

Aaron Gershon

The 2017-18 season was a failure by Kentucky standards. Despite a Sweet 16 appearance, Kentucky broke a lot of significant program marks in a not so good way. John Calipari suffered his longest losing streak and the teams forever long three-pointer streak ended.

With all that said, the Cats still made it into the Sweet 16 and had four players drafted into the NBA with five making NBA rosters and two being lottery picks.

Going into the 2018-19 season the Cats finally have some veterans. Nick Richards, Quade Green, and PJ Washington all bring back valuable experience and all seem to have improved mightily going into the year.

The key to this team is Reid Travis. When’s the last time Kentucky had a grad student play for the team?

2013-14 with Jon Hood.

Travis isn’t just any grad senior. He is a dominant player who was an All PAC-12 big man for Stanford and brings great leadership to this Kentucky team that has lacked it for a few seasons.

Not to mention this year’s freshman cast is again stacked and seems further along in development than last year’s team at this point.

It’s going to be a fun season. I see Kentucky as the SEC champions in both the regular season and tournament despite a stacked conference.

Will they win it all?

I’ll say no simply because I don’t want to jinx it. I truly believe Duke is the best team in the country, but with so many freshmen I don’t see them winning it all. I don’t have a prediction quite yet on a national championship but I’ll say it won’t be Kentucky. I will say elite eight at least for Coach Cal’s squad.

Final Record: 35-5

Tournament Prediction: Elite Eight

Drew Koch

Does this year’s Kentucky team have a weakness? They’re athletic, have experience, outside shooting, and a dominant presence on the interior. Not much to dislike about this team, at least on offense.

As is the case with most of John Calipari’s teams, the defense will no doubt be the biggest question mark this season. However, by the time conference play rolls around, I expect the Cats to be firing on all cylinders.

Kentucky has several difficult games against non-conference opponents and some tough SEC contests as well. There will be a few losses along the way.

I expect the Cats to lose a couple games out of conference and another couple once they enter SEC-play. But, I think UK will be catching fire once we hit the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. I think Kentucky will make a deep run in the Big Dance, but fall just short.

Final Record: 34-5

Tournament Prediction: National Runner-Up

Jason Marcum

It’s clear this team has a great front court with PJ Washington, Nick Richards and PJ Washington that could carry this team early and often. But they also have a lights-out perimeter scorer in Tyler Herro, so this team can beat opponents in multiple ways offensively.

Defensively, it’s another story, at least for the time being. While this team showed a world of potential in the Bahamas, the two exhibition games were a reminder that this is still a work in progress. It’s clear the defense is still learning how to defend for 30 seconds against college teams who’ve been playing together for years.

The good news is it’s been abundantly clear that this team loves basketball, playing with each other, and working tirelessly to reach their potential. It may take a little longer to get there than we anticipated, but I am still very confident this team will reach its potential and make the Final Four.

I do think they’ll lose seven games before NCAA Tournament play begins. Between Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Florida twice, Tennessee twice, Auburn twice and Mississippi State, Kentucky could play double-digit games vs. top-25 teams before the Big Dance even begins. Then you have another challenge in the SEC Tournament, but by then, this team should be firing on all cylinders.

Ultimately, I think they’ll fall in the Final Four, but just making it to Minneapolis will be a tremendous accomplishment, not to mention a great story for Minneapolis native Reid Travis.

Final Record: 32-8

Tournament Prediction: Final Four