It was a rough season for the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team. After a dazzling debut against the tournament-bound Morehead State Eagles, the Cats lost their next six in a row, and they never recovered from the disastrous start to the season.
There were many reasons as to why the Cats struggled this season; but one of the biggest and most glaring reasons was that the guys that were supposed to be stars at Kentucky just weren’t good/consistent enough to play big-time college basketball yet.
John Calipari struggled to get this team to buy in to his philosophy and bemoaned that fact many times throughout the season. The “team empowerment” that Cal sets as a benchmark for his players never happened. There just wasn’t a far and away leader in this bunch, and none of them really ever embraced the role outside of Davion Mintz near the end.
I do one of these posts every year as a way to reflect on the season, the players, and prognosticate what the roster may look like next season. This is the earliest I’ve ever had to do one of these articles, and it’s probably one of the more difficult rosters to project. Jimmy Dykes stated during his call of the game at Ole Miss that Calipari wants to bring in seven or eight new guys. That doesn’t leave a great deal of room on the roster for current players.
Dykes had spoken to Calipari that day, and the thought was that the words coming from him had their genesis from Cal himself. It was clear throughout the season that Calipari felt that he missed on multiple guys, and they just weren’t ready for life as a Kentucky basketball player.
I’m not completely sold on a massive turnover, but if the past is any indicator, there will be some guys leave that we don’t expect. And to complicate matters, the grad transfer players have the option to stay an extra year due to the COVID pandemic.
Two Wildcats have already made their decisions as Devin Askew is set to return for his second year at Kentucky, and Cam’Ron Fletcher has entered the transfer portal. I believe both players made the right decision. A second year of Askew could be really good for Kentucky as long as he puts in the work to get better and stronger.
As for Fletcher, it showed a lot of character to come back and join the team after being sent home. But in the end, I think both parties agreed that it just wasn’t going to work for him at UK.
I’ll try to sift through this the best I can. And please remember this: I have no inside information and am just using common sense and guesswork here.
Terrence Clarke was a top-10 recruit and was thought to be one of the stars at Kentucky before the season started. He is the type of guard that Calipari loves: long, physical, and has the ability to break down a defender.
Unfortunately Clarke was limited to only eight games as a Kentucky Wildcat due to a lingering foot injury. He did play in the final game of the season in a loss in the SEC Tournament. He was surprisingly good in spite of the fact that he had not played since December 26th of 2020. His stats weren’t jaw-dropping, but one could see flashes as to why he was coveted by multiple big-time programs and the G-League.
It would be nice to see Clarke at full strength for a full season at Kentucky, but I seriously doubt that happens. He flirted with the G-League before the season even started, and I think he had in his mind he was going to be at Kentucky for one year no matter what.
Even though he will not be close to a lottery pick as projected, this will almost certainly be the only season Terrence Clarke will spend in Lexington.
The big man grad transfer from Wake Forest was viewed as a game-changer for the Wildcats once he committed and was then deemed eligible to play. He had solid numbers coming out of the ACC and was a Third Team All-ACC player. Once he got the approval from the NCAA, it was supposed to be Final Four or bust for the Cats.
What a bust.
Olivier Sarr was as disappointing as any player for UK this season but I don’t put that all on him. Sarr reminded me of players like Skal Labissiere and Sacha Killeya-Jones: big guys that don’t like physicality and prefer to play away from the rim.
And just like the players before him, Calipari tried to fit a round peg into a square hole and completely failed at it. Calipari, for good or bad, prefers old-school bigs that like to bump and post. That’s not Sarr’s game and he struggled to produce for Kentucky.
I think Calipari and Sarr would agree that the fit was wrong and that staying at Kentucky, especially with Oscar Tshiebwe being the type of big Cal loves, isn’t in the player’s or team’s best interest.
Isaiah Jackson was the one freshman that lived up to the offseason hype. Although he was ranked outside of the top 10, Jackson was the one player that proved to be lottery worthy. His size, athleticism, shooting form and nose for blocks make him extremely desirable to NBA franchises. He is the prototypical modern NBA big.
His one bugaboo was foul trouble. He was such an impact on the game itself that his absence was felt immediately whenever he had to go to the bench because of early fouls. Kentucky just wasn’t as good when he wasn’t on the floor.
Jackson has gone from a second-round projection to a first-round lock and a possible lottery pick depending upon what he does at the combine. With his wingspan and athleticism, I expect him to wow NBA personnel.
He’s the one guy that I feel is ready for the NBA, and he should go ASAP.
Brandon Boston, Jr. was supposed to be the “next guy” at Kentucky. Everything looked great: top-five recruit, projected top-five NBA draft pick, multiple high school accolades, played for an elite high school team, and a body like Kevin Durant. Unfortunately Boston was not ready to be the next elite player at Kentucky.
The glaring issue with Boston was his avoidance of any and all physicality. He had trouble finishing at the rim and seemed to wilt against teams that wanted to brawl. His final game of the season against Mississippi State solidified that, as he took only four shots, failed to log a single point, and grabbed only three rebounds in that game.
Nobody takes Boston’s aspirations as an NBA player seriously at this point. It would be shocking if he went in the first round. Boston needs another year of weight training and work for him to be anywhere close to the lottery.
Because of this John Calipari did something that he rarely does: he seemed to publicly state the case for a sophomore season for BJ Boston. He referenced PJ Washington and Immanuel Quickley as “two and through” guys that came back and transformed their game. For Washington it meant lottery instead of fringe second-round pick. For Quickely it meant a first round draft pick and a great spot with the New York Knicks.
I think Boston could be an elite player. He still has it in him if he is willing to come back and follow the path as the players previously mentioned. I know he can’t be happy about falling well below expectations.
But one never knows the mentality of these young guys. It’s quite possible that he could have people in his ear telling him to go or he may view himself as a failure if he stays. Whatever the case may be, John Calipari believes he could get Boston to stay, and that would be a huge factor for the success of next year’s team.
Out of all the players on this team, I felt Mintz was one of the few players that either met or exceeded expectations. He was the primary reason that Kentucky won or was at least close to winning most of their games.
We all thought that Mintz would come in as the sixth or seventh man off the bench. A guy that Calipari would be able to turn to if Kentucky needed some three point shooting. Mintz, like Julius Mayes before him, was forced into a much bigger role due to the fact that the guards that Calipari had just weren’t good enough for various reasons.
Davion Mintz refused to comment about his future after the loss to Mississippi State, and that’s understandable. But I do feel like there is some real discussion about Mintz coming back to Kentucky thanks to the COVID rule. His Master’s program is a two-year deal, and his retention would be just as important as that of Boston’s. He is a veteran leader and a pure scorer, something that Calipari is in short supply of next season.
A Mintz return would be a fan favorite, and it’s a strong possibility but one has to ask if he is ready to move on from college life.
Jacob Toppin was a pleasant surprise for this Kentucky team. The transfer from Rhode Island was supposed to come in and redshirt for a year. But due to being immediately eligible and Kentucky struggling to put effective players on the floor, Toppin was forced into heavy minutes like Davion Mintz.
He improved as much as if not more so than any player on the team. I recall watching him during the UK Pro Day and thinking to myself, “This kid is going to take a while to form into a good player.” Instead, there were times this season where John Calipari couldn’t take him out of the game.
I think the ceiling for Toppin is extremely high. If he can get a consistent shot and improve his ball-handling, he could be a legit Division I swing player. He also has the makings of a lock-down defender. We saw him put the clamps on smaller, quicker guards like Scottie Pippen Jr., and Sharife Cooper.
I think Calipari absolutely loves this kid, and he has a bright future at Kentucky.
It was a rough season that was sprinkled with some real highlights for Keion Brooks.
Things got off to a rocky start as Brooks was unable to play for the majority of the early season due to a calf injury that would just not go away. His first game back was against the Florida Gators where he played 25 minutes, scored 12 points, and grabbed six rebounds. All of us in BBN thought at the time that he was just what this team needed to get going.
While there were games where Brooks balled out, there were too many in which he just didn’t make an impact. He reminded me a lot of freshman PJ Washington. His season averages were very good with 10.3 points per game and 6.8 rebounds.
Brooks is vitally important to next year’s team, and I think he can break out as a First Team SEC type of player. He is a true stretch four that Calipari can trust as an upperclassman and leader.
Recent rumors of an impending transfer have been squashed by Brooks’ father. If Brooks can add some muscle and add more of an inside presence to his game, he will be a day one starter for the Kentucky Wildcats. The question is if Brooks feels like sticking around for a third year or will he decide he’s had enough at Kentucky and needs to go.
Lance Ware is one of the bigger projects on the team. There’s no doubting his motor or his hustle, but he was pretty far away from being a productive college basketball player for most of the season.
Ware is offensively challenged and needs to work on court awareness as well. But the seeds are there for a high-energy guy off the bench that can come in and instill some toughness. Ware’s problem for the immediate future is the logjam that may happen in the front-court.
Oscar Tshiebwe is for the most part penciled in as Kentucky’s starting five next season. Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins are the new incoming big men with Collins having high expectations. If Brooks does indeed return, then I think Ware will have a decision to make. If Brooks opts for the pros, then I think there’s a very good chance Ware returns.
Dontaie Allen was one of the more polarizing players this season. Fans clamored for the Kentucky native to get more playing time as UK struggled to score. He finally received major minutes during a double-overtime win at Mississippi State to start conference play. He scored 23 points in that game.
Unfortunately Allen wasn’t able to replicate that performance until the very last game of the season, where he once again scored 23 points against Mississippi State in a losing effort in the SEC tournament. He also seemed to be the focal point in the Calipari vs. the Fans debate. That was unfair to Allen and, to his credit, he seemed to not let the tug-of-war between the fans and Calipari phase him.
Many thought that Allen would be quick to transfer, but his recent comments after the game when he implored the fans to ‘stick with us’ made it seem pretty clear that he will be back at Kentucky.
Allen could be a great college basketball player. It’s essential that he returns to Kentucky in order to give the team that shooting threat that it so desperately needs.