Justus: Kentucky a place where you get better and play around great players
John Calipari’s summer quest for a little more frontcourt help seemingly ended Tuesday with one last disappointment.
Five-star center N’Faly Dante — the most recent and likely final option for a late addition to the 2019-20 Kentucky basketball roster — announced his commitment to Oregon after a drawn-out recruitment that came down to the Ducks and the Wildcats, who hosted the Mali native for an official visit in late June and made him their No. 1 recruiting priority this summer.
By all accounts, that trip to Lexington went well, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Oregon, which had been considered a favorite in Dante’s recruitment for the past several months. The 7-footer also announced Tuesday that he will be able to reclassify to 2019 and play college basketball this season. He had been ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 9 overall player in the 2020 class, though it became apparent in recent weeks that a move to 2019 was likely.
Dante’s visit to UK came shortly after the Wildcats missed out on former Virginia Tech power forward Kerry Blackshear Jr., the offseason’s No. 1-ranked graduate transfer and Calipari’s first choice as a final addition to this season’s roster. Blackshear picked Florida after seriously considering a transfer to Kentucky.
The Cats also missed on several high-profile frontcourt players in the 2019 class, making serious moves for James Wiseman, Isaiah Stewart and Vernon Carey, among others, but coming up short in each recruitment.
With the fall semester set to begin in a couple of weeks and no obvious targets remaining for this season, Kentucky is expected to go into the 2019-20 campaign with a three-man frontcourt consisting of two reserves from last season — junior center Nick Richards and sophomore power forward EJ Montgomery — as well as former Bucknell power forward Nate Sestina, who ESPN ranked as the nation’s No. 2 graduate transfer this offseason.
That group might be one player short of what Calipari was hoping for, but it’s still a trio high on talent and upside.
Montgomery was actually UK’s highest-rated recruit in the 2018 class — No. 11 nationally, according to Rivals.com — and showed flashes of his versatile game throughout last season when he averaged 3.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 15.1 minutes per game.
Rivals.com national analyst Eric Bossi told the Herald-Leader recently that he’s looking for Montgomery to take a major step forward in his second season as a Wildcat, and Bossi said both Montgomery and Richards should reap the benefits of another year of experience.
“Despite what people might think about EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards and how they’ve performed so far — Nick Richards is going to be in his third year of college, and EJ is going to be in his second year, and I’m particularly expecting a big jump from EJ,” he said.
Richards started all 37 games as a freshman before graduate transfer Reid Travis pushed him to a bench role this past season, when he averaged 4.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 12.1 minutes per game.
Coaches and teammates have raved about Richards’ work ethic and genuine attempts to improve his game, but he’s been plagued by confidence issues over his first two seasons as a college player, and mistakes on the court have often led to a quick hook from Calipari, who — even when Richards was starting as a freshman — has gone with more dependable players in crucial situations.
Richards played just one minute in the Cats’ overtime loss to Auburn in this year’s Elite Eight, and he was on the court for just four minutes in the victory over Houston that preceded that game.
Calipari likely will have to give Richards more run — and more leeway to work through mistakes — this time around.
“If he doesn’t play, it’s his own fault,” Rivals.com national analyst Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader during the summer. “He’s going to have multiple opportunities. Now, granted, there’s going to be a lot more expected out of him … but Cal can’t send him to the bench for 10 minutes at a time, even when he makes bone-headed decisions. He’s going to have a longer leash.”
Most preseason outlooks project Montgomery and Richards as the Cats’ frontcourt starters, but Sestina brings the most experience to this season’s post corps. Though he’s yet to play a sustained schedule at a power-conference level, the 6-9 forward has a powerful and versatile game that should allow him to play the “4” or the “5” spot at Kentucky, depending on how Richards and Montgomery progress this season.
The loss of Dante might also force Calipari to go all-in on his “positionless” pitch and play a more modern style less dependent on traditional frontcourt players. UK will have the roster for it this season, with a group of seven highly talented guards and wings that can be mixed and matched at different positions depending on the scenario. Montgomery and Sestina are also comfortable facing the basket.
Following the commitment of Johnny Juzang — perhaps UK’s most versatile newcomer — in the late spring, Evans predicted that Calipari might actually make the move away from more traditional lineups.
“In the past, he’s said it, but he’s always reverted back to it,” Evans told the Herald-Leader then. “This year, he has to. He has to go that route. … There’s only so many guys that are legitimate ‘4’ and ‘5’ guys on their roster, to where he’s gotta play small ball. He’s gotta play that no-position game that so many other guys are relying on and succeeding with.”