The Kentucky Wildcats’ quest for frontcourt help next season has been a long and winding road, but it’s finally complete.
Today, senior center Olivier Sarr was ruled eligible by the SEC for the 2020-21 season. He was previously ruled eligible to play by the NCAA but needed clearance from the SEC, which he now has.
In addition, sophomore forward Jacob Toppin has also been ruled eligible to play next season. KSR’s Matt Jones confirmed the news on both.
Earlier this offseason, the former Wake Forest center transferred to Kentucky, but as a traditional transfer, meaning he’d have to sit out next season unless given a waiver from the NCAA. It’s very uncommon for transfers to gain instant eligibility unless they’re moving closer to home or had some kind of medical/mental issue that led to their transfer.
Since neither was in play for Sarr, many experts expected him to be ineligible next season early on. Though that was before the NCAA started handing out waivers to just about every transfer, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pretty much every preseason top 25 rankings put out to this point has had Kentucky in the 11-25 range because they didn’t project Sarr to be eligible.
In addition, Kentucky needed clearance from the SEC because Sarr originally had just one year of eligibility remaining, and the conference requires non-grad transfers who join the conference to have at least two seasons of remaining eligibility.
However, that issue was addressed when the NCAA granted a free year of eligibility to winter athletes. Now that Sarr has two seasons of eligibility left, it was only a matter of time until the SEC ruled him eligible (but don’t expect him to play more than one season in Lexington before he goes pro next year).
With Sarr, this is a clear-cut top-10 team with a strong case to be in the top five and contend for a spot in the Final Four.
New beginnings @KentuckyMBB @UKCoachCalipari #LaFamilia ⚪️ pic.twitter.com/CBRsXsGgsP— Olivier Sarr (@sarr_olivier) May 6, 2020
Sarr, who is regarded as ‘the’ top transfer this offseason, averaged 13.7 points, nine rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in his junior campaign at Wake Forest. That includes performances of 21 points vs. Arizona, 25 vs. Duke, 30 vs. Notre Dame, and 16 vs. Louisville.
Over his final five games, Sarr hit 40/62 shots (65.5%) for 20.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. He blocked 2+ shots in 12 games, four of which came in the final seven games.
He also recorded a 26.1 Player Efficiency Rating. That would have been the highest mark of any Wildcat scholarship player since Karl-Anthony Towns (31.4) in 2014-15.
In ACC play, Olivier Sarr was:— Brian Evans (@KSRBEvans) May 6, 2020
15th in the ACC in Off Rating
15th in Effective FG%
14th in Block%
10th in Offensive Rebound%
2nd in Defensive Rebound%
2nd in Fouls Draw/40 minutes
1st in FT Rate
Great add for UK.
For comparison, Nick Richards finished last season with a 25.8 PER last season. PJ Washington had a 26.0 PER in 2018-19.
And Sarr’s game is exactly what Kentucky needs. The 7-foot transfer plays the game much like Nick Richards. He runs the floor, blocks shots, and has come a long way offensively, so he has the potential to be an SEC Player of the Year-caliber player next season.
As mentioned before, Sarr is not a graduate transfer, so he normally would have to sit out next season before playing in 2021-22. However, Wake Forest fired head coach Danny Manning in April, which also likely helped Sarr’s case for immediate eligibility.
It can’t be overstated how massive this news is for Kentucky. Without him, this frontcourt is a major question mark and potentially one of the weakest in the John Calipari era.
Now, Kentucky has a wealth of elite talent across the board and should be a strong Final Four contender next season.
As for Toppin, who transferred to Kentucky this offseason, spent his first collegiate season at Rhode Island. The 6-8, 190-pound forward averaged 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds in 30 games as a freshman, including five games in double figures. He was originally a three-star small forward in the Class of 2019 with offers from Rhode Island, Cal Poly, Stony Brook, Central Connecticut State and Quinnipiac.
Initially, Toppin was planning to sit out this season, but because the NCAA granted a free year of eligibility to winter athletes, Kentucky decided to go ahead and apply for a waiver so he could play this season, and it apparently didn’t take long for the NCAA and SEC to allow it.
Kentucky certainly would love more help in the frontcourt next season, though Toppin is viewed as more of a combo forward who will play on the wing a lot. He’s going to need to bulk up to be able to handle the physicality of a Power 5 conference like the SEC, so this could be a multi-year development situation where he doesn’t have a big role until 2021 or beyond.
Still, Toppin had several productive games against SEC foes last season, including 11 points on 4/7 shooting in a win at Alabama, and 10 points on 5/11 shooting in a loss at LSU. If nothing else, he’ll be the kind of emergency depth recent Kentucky teams have been lacking when injuries/defections occurred.
However, Toppin has been drawing a lot of praise in practice early on, so don’t be surprised if he’s getting significant minutes early and often this season. He’s already been labeled as one of the team’s best athletes and dunkers.
Oh wow @Jtoppin0 from @deemintz1 pic.twitter.com/sVpE0Lx70e— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) October 3, 2020
Jacob is the younger brother of Dayton forward and national player of the Year Obi Toppin.
Check out some highlights of the new Cats in action:
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