Ranking the top 10 teams of the John Calipari era at Kentucky
This week, we asked readers for any questions related to the University of Kentucky’s basketball recruiting efforts or the upcoming Wildcats’ season, and you delivered.
In part two of our mailbag, Herald-Leader sports writer Ben Roberts answers questions about John Calipari’s 2019-20 squad, which is regarded by national experts and Vegas betting lines as one of the favorites to win this season’s NCAA championship.
(Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and format.)
An email submission from Mark R.: Although I’m disappointed in our inability to land any of the targeted big men for this year, I realize this team has great talent. Despite the fact that it’s probably still too early to speculate, what do you see as our typical starting lineup and the first two or three off the bench?
The Cats did indeed miss on their biggest frontcourt recruiting targets for this cycle, and the 2019-2020 starting lineup would look different had UK been able to land James Wiseman, Isaiah Stewart, Vernon Carey and/or Kerry Blackshear Jr., but that obviously didn’t happen.
There’s still plenty of talent throughout the roster, and there’s still plenty of upside in the post.
As of now, I think Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and EJ Montgomery are pretty much locks to make the starting five. Hagans is clearly Calipari’s primary point guard for this season, Maxey has perimeter versatility and should be the most dependable scorer on the team, and UK’s coaches are looking for Montgomery to make a major step forward.
I’d also pencil in Nick Richards as the starting “5.” The best version of this UK team is one that features a confident and contributing Richards, who has struggled through his first two seasons. Calipari needs Richards to step up in year 3, and putting him on the floor from the start should help maintain his confidence.
The final spot is where it gets tricky.
The safest prediction — and the one I’m going with — is Kahlil Whitney.
A 6-foot-6 forward, Whitney isn’t as much of an offensive threat as some others in the mix for major playing time this season, but he brings five-star athleticism, a tenacious approach, and a willingness to play defense. Those traits will be important for UK to set the tone — and, often, overwhelm — opponents from the opening tip, and Whitney is uniquely equipped to provide that defensive versatility while still contributing on offense.
That leaves Maxey as the only true perimeter threat, but if shots aren’t falling early, Calipari will have plenty of instant-impact scoring options at every position. In those scenarios, look for Immanuel Quickley, Johnny Juzang and Nate Sestina to be on call for some quick-fix offense off the bench. Keion Brooks will be at the ready, too, and Dontaie Allen could compete for playing time. “Shooting galore,” one summer practice observer told me recently.
Calipari’s biggest lineup challenge will be finding meaningful minutes for all of that talent. There will be ample attention paid to UK’s starting five in the early going, but the most important lineup questions will be how Calipari manages rotations throughout the game, and who will be on the floor in those crucial final moments.
That will likely take some time to figure out.
From @DrColtRain on Twitter: Can UK freshman Johnny Juzang be as good this season as Tyler Herro was last season?
The short answer is, yes, he can.
Juzang has long been billed as a college-ready player who is already capable at just about every aspect of the game and excels at finding areas to make an impact regardless of the personnel around him. Like Herro, he can shoot, and he can score in a variety of ways.
As Herro learned early on in his UK career — before his first college game, in fact — Calipari places a greater value on defense, and that’s the quickest way to immediate playing time.
Herro wasn’t exactly the nation’s greatest stopper last season, and there were defensive missteps along the way, but he surprised many — Calipari included — by his play on that end of the floor. He made it a point of emphasis to improve his game in that area, and he earned himself a spot in UK’s starting five.
On the court, Herro played hard defensively and used his basketball instincts to fill passing lanes and get easy steals, which often led to easy points for him and his teammates.
Sometimes he found himself out of position, but that was usually the result of hustle and trying to make a big play. Calipari will forgive that more easily than if a defender is in the wrong spot due to confusion or lackadaisical effort.
Juzang can also earn more run if he proves to be a capable rebounder, something he excelled at on the high school level. If UK ends up playing some small ball this season — and that will almost certainly be the case — the Cats will need quality boardwork from the guard and wing positions.
The 6-foot-6 freshman has the physical tools, the basketball IQ, and the competitiveness to make this happen. If he shows himself to be a willing and capable defender and rebounder, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Juzang slide into that “3” spot instead of Whitney, or start alongside him in a small-ball lineup. Either way, he should get lots of playing time this season.
From @mutehornsection on Twitter: I’m curious what you think about the recruiting misses leading to this small-ball stuff. I’m worried about the whole frontcourt situation. Can Richards stay on the court? Has EJ made the jump? What can Sestina realistically give? And if Whitney ends up having to play power forward, are there any recent examples of Final Four teams with a similar situation?
I think the “4” spot this season will be used as a balanced blend of “traditional” lineup roles and a more modern, small-ball approach that could pump a little more tempo and excitement into UK’s games.
As far as the three frontcourt players mentioned: I’m most confident in EJ Montgomery being able to take that next step. He’s shown in the past — dating back to high school — that he is most comfortable facing the basket, and a more modern approach this season should allow him more freedom to do that on the offensive end. He’s also long and athletic enough to make a mark on defense, especially as a help defender. In short, I’m expecting a breakthrough season.
Sestina is a versatile frontcourt player who also excels away from the basket but has the body and mindset to mix it up in the post. He should be a major contributor.
Richards, as we’ve all seen, is the wild card. He clearly has the physical tools to be a difference-maker. He clearly has the work ethic and drive to be a great player, and I’ve been told that’s still been the case during this summer’s workouts. The people around him are rooting hard for his success, but will it happen this season? We’ll have to wait and see.
One potential plus is that Calipari won’t have the luxury of giving Richards the quick hook at every mistake or sitting him on the bench for entire halves, unless the UK coach is willing to go all-in on small ball, which seems unlikely. So Richards should get a little more leeway to play through miscues this season. Perhaps that will lead to more confidence and more consistent play?
If Montgomery can give 25-30 minutes per game, and Sestina and Richards can give 15-20 — all reasonable, possibly conservative expectations, especially in Richards’ case — that would leave about 20 minutes of time for a lineup that featured a smaller player at the “4.”
Regarding recent history of similarly sized teams and postseason success, there’s plenty.
Last season’s champions, Virginia, had only seven guys play more than 10 minutes per game, and only three of those players were 6-8 or taller (and one of those was listed as a guard). Mamadi Diakite led Virginia’s “frontcourt” players in minutes with just 21.8 per game.
The team Virginia beat for the title, Texas Tech, featured an eight-player rotation with just two of those players listed as taller than 6-6.
Villanova’s title team the year before had a trio of 6-9 rotation players, but no one taller than that, and no other major contributors taller than 6-7. The team Nova beat for the title that season, Michigan, had an eight-man rotation with a 7-1 player, a 6-10 player, and no one else taller than 6-8.
Other recent teams have gone far in March with less “traditional” lineups. Obviously, the experience and basketball skill levels vary from roster to roster in those cases, but, if we’re just talking size and length, there are plenty of recent examples of success.
An email submission from Matt C.: Regarding criticism of UK’s schedule — so what if the non-conference home games are against small schools. For me, a quality home game is one where we dominate and win by 15-20-plus points. Having enough things taking years off my life, I don’t need to be on the edge of my seat with the final shot deciding the game. These games aren’t just confidence-builders for our usually young team, but it benefits these smaller schools as well. What do you think?
I think that’s about right.
I completely understand the consternation among UK fans thirsting for better home-court competition, but — as long as Calipari keeps trotting out these super-young rosters — it doesn’t make much sense for the Cats to stack their November and December slate with stud opponents.
And if UK were playing the current ilk of opponents and blowing them away with an exciting style of ball, I think you’d hear a lot fewer complaints about the opponents themselves. Right now, a lot of Kentucky fans feel like they’re getting neither entertainment nor fulfillment (i.e. beating big-name schools) with those early games. Whenever squads like VMI and Utah Valley and Troy are hanging tight in Rupp Arena, the folks paying money to see it live are going to be frustrated.
But the flip side is obvious.
If a young UK team can’t beat Vermont by more than four points early in the season, how will those Cats fare against a Virginia or Villanova or Michigan in Rupp Arena? And more to the point, how about the next season when UK has to go play on one of those programs’ home courts? Because those teams aren’t coming to Rupp unless you return the favor.
Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story recently crunched the numbers and found that Kentucky has actually scheduled more (not fewer) home games against major-conference opponents than their big-name peers over the past few seasons. In the last five years, Rupp Arena has hosted North Carolina, Kansas (twice), Louisville (twice), UCLA, Utah, Virginia Tech, Providence and Texas. Louisville and Georgia Tech will play there this season. That’s in addition to the Champions Classic and the CBS Sports Classic and the other various classics that UK plays on neutral courts every season. And then there’s the Southeastern Conference slate, which features a growing number of quality programs each winter.
For an even stouter non-conference home schedule to make sense, Calipari would … A) Need to start recruiting players that add continuity to the program, meaning more experienced UK teams for those very early season games; or B) Start loading up the schedule with home-and-homes against big-name programs that could probably make things difficult on the young Cats — and not in a “great learning experience” way — to begin the season.
“A” is not happening anytime soon. “B” would almost certainly lead to even louder complaints.
In this case, the scheduling status quo seems to be Kentucky’s best scenario.