What to Expect From Kentucky this Season
On Friday the Wildcats will play their first game of the regular season against Utah Valley who is coached by former Cat Mark Pope. John Calipari has as young of a roster as he has had at Kentucky and that has many fans wondering how this season will go. Like most teams Cal has had in Lexington the product on the floor in the early months will look nothing like it will in March. At this point that should be no surprise to fans but it somehow catches a large number of fans by surprise every single season. So let’s get this out of the way up front, this team is going to lose some games and struggle on the road. They will lose more games than they lost last year and at some point there will be a full on panic attack for many fans. Perhaps fans have finally learned not to freak out early in the year and that Cal will have the team ready in March but don’t hold your breath. With that said here are some thoughts on what we expect this season.
Kevin Knox is the real deal and he is better than most in the national media realize. He is the most skilled offensive small forward that Cal has had at Kentucky and he will be a match up nightmare for teams. It will be very interesting to see how Cal develops a game plan to best utilize the talent of Knox. He will not score on the same level as Malik Monk and Jamal Murray but part of that is because the team has a balanced scoring attack. Missouri freshman Michael Porter has gotten a lot of pre season accolades but Knox will be his biggest challenger for winning freshman of the year in the SEC. Enjoy watching him play because this will be his lone season in Lexington. Also remember that all the recruiting pundits said he was a lock to Duke before he spurned coach K and picked Kentucky.
This team’s identity will be as a defensive monster but it will take time to get there. Kentucky has size, length and athleticism up and down the roster and that is a recipe for a great defense. The wing spans of players on this team are ridiculous and it will give opponents fits this year. It will not happen over night because even with all the raw talent it takes time for freshmen to learn how to use it and defend the way Cal wants them to. The faster they figure it out the better because in March it is defense that is needed to grind out wins.
Another area that this team should excel in is transition offense. Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, and Jarred Vanderbilt are all at their best in the open court. Scoring in the half court will be what this team struggles with early on, so scoring in the open court will be key. The good thing is that it is something that comes naturally to this team. Highlight reel fast break dunks will be something fans can enjoy all season long.
Quade Green will not wow you with quickness or athleticism but what he will do is win. He is the perfect facilitator for a team with so many offensive weapons. He plays with poise and a great pace that should help calm the team when things get rough. He also might be the most consistent shooter in the rotation and that will make him an important asset as well. He has the competitive fire that is needed for a floor general and by season’s end he will clearly be the heart and soul of this team. Fans that doubted Quade Green are in for a very pleasant surprise this year.
One huge question mark for this team is when Jarred Vanderbilt will be healthy and ready to play. This roster is deep and can still be very good without him but make no mistake about it, he is a big time difference maker that the Cats need. He is a point forward that can handle the ball and create offense for his teammates as well as creating for himself. I see him as the straw that stirs the drink for the Cats. It seems he may return a little sooner than originally expected which would be great news. The key date is if he can be ready to go by the start of SEC play on December 31st. That would give him 16 games plus the SEC tournament to help get him ready for the NCAA tournament. An earlier return than that would just be a bonus but the key is to make sure he is fully healed when he returns. He is a dynamic personality with an equally dynamic game on the floor. The importance of his return can not be over stated.
Kentucky should have the most balanced scoring attack that they have had since the 2015 team. Knox, Diallo, Washington, Vanderbilt, Green and Gabriel should regularly score in double figures. On top of that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones will be double-digit scoring threats from one game to the next. That kind of scoring balance will make it very hard for other teams to game plan against.
After two straight seasons of playing three guard lineups this season will be a return to a huge lineup. There will almost always be at least three players 6’8 or taller in the game and four players 6’5 or taller. That size should give the Cats a big advantage rebounding the ball. At times the best offense for this team will be to shoot the ball and put back in the miss. With all of the height the Cats will also be a better shot blocking team than they have been since 2015. Nick Richards will be the primary rim protector but they have a slew of other players that should pick up a lot of off the ball blocks. As a matter of fact Cal said that Jarred Vanderbilt may be the best shot blocker on the team because he is so good coming from off the ball.
With all of those positive words it would be easy to get sucked into thinking that this team will roll over the competition. The truth is that is never as easy as it sounds. The out of conference schedule is very tough with games against definite NCAA tournament teams in Kansas, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Louisville. Plus the “cup cakes” in the pre conference schedule are a lot of teams that will be favorites to win their respective leagues. On top of that the SEC is deeper and better than it has been in many years if not ever. Winning on the road in conference play is never easy and it will be even tougher this year. My best guess is that Kentucky will head to the SEC tournament with a 23-8 record. Obviously that is a shot in the dark but it should be something very close to that. As far as the NCAA tournament goes I believe this will be a team that will be capable of making a run at the championship but they could also fall shorter than that. At this point I feel confident saying they can be an Elite Eight team with the potential to go further. The thing for fans to remember early on is that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Give Cal and the team time to grow and figure things out. Brush off the lumps and enjoy the high points. No one gets a prize for being a great team in November, December, January and February. It is the teams that play well in March that get remembered. If history tells us anything it is that Cal will have the Cats as one of the teams playing well in March. Does anything else really matter?