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Kentucky basketball season preview roundtable and predictions

Breaking down the 2020-21 Wildcats and predicting how far they’ll go in the NCAA Tournament.

UK Athletics

We’re just days away from the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team beginning their season vs. Morehead State.

So, we decided to gather our staff and break down the 2020-21 Wildcats while predicting what record they’ll finish the regular season with, as well as how far they’ll go in the NCAA Tournament.

Jamie Boggs

Kentucky fans are used to having to learn some new names every year. But for the 2020-2021 season, the “who is that again” game is going to another level. Only one player, Keion Brooks, saw any significant minutes for the Wildcats last season. And at least in the early going, it looks like he may not be 100%.

I am not sure if we should attribute this to the lack of sports news or actual potential, but few players in recent years have been as hyped as BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke. When was the last time Kentucky had two scoring options on the wings? 2015? If these guys are close to as special as those around the program are saying, this is going to be a fun team to watch.

Olivier Sarr is the real deal, much more so than Reid Travis and Nate Sestina. He could end up being the most productive player on the team and work his way into the 2021 NBA Draft after being widely projected to go undrafted had he entered the 2020 draft.

Chemistry and depth are going to be the big questions around this team. Who will be the point guard running the show? Will this many new guys be able to gel on a shortened schedule? And will the season allow for enough consistent play to give them a chance to build championship-level chemistry?

Being a shortened season, there is less time for Kentucky to get through the growing pains of having a new team. But if the talent is as good as expected, they may not need it.

Regular Season Record: 22-5

NCAA Tournament Finish: Final Four

Jason Marcum

This Kentucky team has a little bit of everything, but one area they’ll stand out more than maybe anyone in college hoops is their ridiculous size and length. They have nine scholarship players at 6-foot-6+ and nine with a 6-foot-11+ wingspan. And they have the athleticism to go with it, as we got a hint of from Big Blue Madness and Pro Day, so this has the potential to be one of John Calipari’s best rebounding and shot-blocking teams ever.

There will be the usual growing pains with only two scholarship players returning and nine newcomers, but they have all the tools to become a Final Four-caliber team come March. The key to becoming a team capable of winning it all is how good prized freshmen Terrence Clarke and Brandon Boston are come tourney time.

That’s the usual big ‘if’ with Cal-coached teams. He always has elite freshmen in Lexington, though they don’t always hit their stride before being drafted into the NBA. Clarke and Boston both have the potential to be All-Americans and top-10 NBA Draft picks in 2021. If they reach their potential this season, good luck stopping two 6-7 guards capable of scoring at all three levels with an all-conference big man in Olivier Sarr roaming the paint.

The x-factor for this team is freshman forward Isaiah Jackson. Widely expected to be a multi-year player coming to Kentucky — ESPN and 247 Sports didn’t even have him among their top 30 players in the final 2020 recruiting rankings — Jackson has been a revelation in fall workouts, as well as Big Blue Madness where he imitated Michael Jordan’s famous dunk from the free-throw line.

Jackson even showed off some nice shooting touch in the three-point contest. If nothing else, he looks like, at worst, he’ll be a Marcus Lee-type pogo stick who blocks a lot of shots and throws down some highlight-reel dunks. That alone would be an unexpected boost compared to what was expected of him going into the summer.

But if Jackson can develop his offense and hold his own in the paint, he could wind up challenging Olivier Sarr for the right to be called Kentucky’s best big man by season’s end.

The regular season will be a grind with very few cupcake games and the SEC being as deep as it’s ever been, so the Cats will get dinged several times in non-conference and SEC play. But they have all the ingredients to be a special team, and as long as they stay healthy (another big ‘if’ with some of their recent injury luck), they should make a deep run in March.

Regular Season Record: 20-7

NCAA Tournament Finish: Elite Eight

Shane Shackleford

The 2020-2021 edition of the Kentucky Wildcats has their usual bevy of high-quality freshmen to mix with two graduate transfers in Olivier Sarr and Davion Mintz, traditional transfer Jacob Toppin, returning forward Keion Brooks Jr, and the debut of Dontaie Allen. That we know.

We also know that coach John Calipari has said how much he is enjoying this team, which he has said before. I’m interested in seeing if there are any changes to in-game coaching with assistants Joel Justus and Jai Lucas in prime roles.

But nice comments and changes don’t win games, and this team has to earn it on the floor. I think they will. I’m excited to see wings Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston play and give the Cats athletic, scoring wings. I also think forwards Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware will be nice compliments around the bucket to Brooks and Sarr. I’m also interested in seeing the development of Toppin and if Mintz and Allen give the Cats a lift off the bench.

The schedule breaks pretty well for Big Blue. Of course, I don’t see 27-0 (that’d be fun) but the non-conference slate has Kansas, UCLA, Louisville, and Texas and the usual conference schedule of dogfights. If Devin Askew can run the show and let his talent make plays around them, then I see no reason why the Cats don’t enjoy another successful season.

Regular Season Record: 22-5

NCAA Tournament Finish: Elite Eight

Samuel Hahn

The Kentucky Wildcats are finally back, after 263 days of long, coronavirus-plagued offseason. It feels like it was twice that long ago that EJ Montgomery tipped in the game-winning shot at Florida in their final game. Let’s go through these predictions one game at a time. Hopefully they’re better than my terrible football predictions.

First, Morehead. That’s an easy win. Second, Detroit. Another cupcake. Richmond will play great but not great enough to win at Rupp. I don’t know what to think about the Kansas game, but I’ll just flip a coin and give them that with not much optimism. They’ll then beat Georgia Tech and Notre Dame, lay an egg against UCLA, beat Louisville, South Carolina, Mississippi State (but not by much), and Vandy.

They’ll lose to Florida, beat Bama, lose to Auburn, beat Georgia, lose to LSU, beat Bama again as well as Texas, Mizzou, Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn, and Vandy. Finally, they’ll lose at Tennessee, and beat A&M and Florida to finish 22-5.

Eh, that’s a tad high. 21-6 with a loss to Kansas or Bama or Texas or somebody. Then they’ll win the SEC Tournament, and make the Final Four because they’ve come so close recently and are one of the more steady teams in the early rounds (in other words, the 2021 tourney muppet-craziness will hurt the other teams more than them).

Regular Season Record: 21-6

NCAA Tournament Finish: Final Four

James Streble

The Kentucky Wildcats are swimming with talent and depth this season. John Calipari was criticized last season for his short bench and he made up for it this year by adding three transfers along with his usual blockbuster recruiting class.

The addition of Olivier Sarr to the front court is what puts Kentucky over the top. His offensive ability and experience is a welcome addition to the post after the departure of Nick Richards. Isaiah Jackson has turned heads in a major way during practices and the UK Pro Day. The prospect of playing him alongside Sarr is definitely something that Kentucky fans should be extremely excited about this year.

Brandon Boston is going to be a star on par with Brandon Knight, John Wall, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns. NBA GMs are salivating over the 6’7 guard that can score on every level on the court. What is surprising people the most is his defensive prowess. Normally, it takes elite high school talent a little while to adjust to defense, but Boston has transitioned nicely.

Terrence Clarke is the other highly-touted freshman that fans will see in the starting line up on November 25th. Clarke’s ability to get into the paint is what is setting him apart from the rest of his teammates. He needs to control his body and work on the shot, but there may not be another player with more upside.

The point guard position seems to be up for grabs, but I have to give the edge to Davion Mintz. I liked what I saw from him at Pro Day. He has a big body and he can light it up from the outside. Another grad transfer that brings experience at the guard position is not something that Calipari usually has at his disposal. I like Mintz to start, but we will see plenty of freshman Devin Askew.

I don’t think it will take this team as long to gel as others. There is too much talent, plenty of experience, and plenty of depth. Keion Brooks is an x-factor that can provide a sixth man, off-the-bench boost for the Wildcats.

Regular Season Record: 23-4

NCAA Tournament Finish: Final Four

Nick Wheatley

Kentucky has one of the deepest teams in college basketball this season. They have two alphas in Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston, two veterans in Davion Mintz and Olivier Sarr, and a talented group of guys to round it out.

My only concern is youth and inexperience. The only returning player from last year’s squad is Keion Brooks, Jr., and while it’s nice to have Mintz and Sarr, they’re new to the system as well. This makes me tend to believe there will be growing pains, but the good news is that there’s a lot of talent and a lot of depth, so Coach Cal will have a lot of different lineups to tinker with.

I expect this team to be very defensive-minded. They’re huge across the board. Mintz and Devin Askew are only 6-3, but everyone else is 6-6 and above. The length and athleticism is ridiculous and teams will have trouble scoring and keeping the ball safe.

Offensively, Clarke and Boston should probably lead the way in the scoring department, while Sarr accumulates a lot of dunks, offensive rebounds, and put-backs. The point guards won’t need to do much except set up their teammates and hit the occasional outside shot, which they are both capable of doing. Finally, that four spot looks like it’ll be a fight between KBJ and Isaiah Jackson. KBJ will probably start due to his status as a returning player, but Jackson is going to get a lot of PT.

All in all, I like Kentucky’s outlook this year. I think a lot of people are overlooking them as some of the other top-10 teams are talented but don’t have the pure talent that the Cats have. Like I said, it’s a tough road, so there will be bumps along the way, but this team will be good to go come March. I wouldn’t say they’re the title favorite, but they are certainly one of a handful of teams that are contenders.

Regular Season Record: 21-6

NCAA Tournament Finish: Elite Eight

Ethan DeWitt

Kentucky Basketball is finally back. When the season abruptly shut down in March it seemed like we wouldn’t be able to ever get to see this talented team take the floor, yet here we are.

Looking at the roster, I think this is one of the better put-together rosters we have seen in the last several years for Kentucky.

Offensively it is was encouraging to see Coach Cal start shifting into some more modern sets. We saw some five-out, some high post play, which with the athleticism and potential shooting ability it shouldn’t be a problem for the Cats to put up some points this season.

Expect the ball to go through BJ Boston and Oliver Sarr the most. If we see Clarke running a lot of point, expect Jackson to be a lob-catching machine as well. Get some contribution from some of the wings coming off the bench and they will be hard to guard.

Defensively once again Cal has the team to be great. With the length in all five positions, it will be tough for opponents to deal with it 40 minutes a night. This team doesn’t have the on-ball hounding defender that Hagans was, but with some experience, expect Clarke and Askew to grow into that role later in the season.

It also appears that we finally have found a great rim protector in Isaiah Jackson. That’s a piece that has been missing for several years, and his presence in the paint alone will get into the heads of some guys.

One thing I do hope to see Cal do with the length is mix up some zone. If you watched the NBA bubble, even NBA teams are starting to experiment more with zone defense instead of just going straight man-to-man. There have been rumblings of it and we saw it a little last year, so who knows how much we see this year.

Overall this season is going to be a bumpy ride. Games are going to get postponed and practices are going to be stopped for teams across the country. That is why I think this year, experience and pure skill will outweigh all the normal variables from a regular college basketball season. Luckily the Cats have the skill, and some experience to go along with it.

Regular Season Record: 22-5

NCAA Tournament Finish: Final Four