During a Monday teleconference with the media, John Calipari was described as expressing “guarded optimism” about next season’s Kentucky basketball team.
With good reason, it says here. Reasons, in fact. Here are three reasons why the 2018-19 Kentucky basketball team should be better than the 2017-18 Kentucky basketball team:
1. Experience: You can’t often say that about a Kentucky basketball team in the age of Calipari. You certainly couldn’t say that last season. Wenyen Gabriel was the lone returnee with any significant previously playing time, the lone returnee who had started a game. He started 23. That was it for the '17-18 returnees. Little wonder Calipari often started five freshmen.
Next season, Calipari will have three returnees with starting experience. Nick Richards started 37 games. PJ Washington started 30 and Quade Green 13. That’s a combined 80 starts, compared to 23 a year ago.
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Washington averaged 27.4 minutes per game. He’s the key piece. It’s one thing to possess institutional knowledge and potential leadership. It’s another to possess institutional knowledge and potential leadership with someone who figures to be one of if not your most prominent players.
2. Three-point shooting: Kentucky shot just 35.7 percent from beyond the arc in 2017-18, which ranked 124th nationally. More telling, the Cats got just 20.6 percent of their points from beyond the three-point line, which ranked 344th nationally last season. UK’s 1,047-game streak of making a three came to an end.
Compare that to national champion Villanova, which ranked 11th in three-point field goal percentage (40.1 percent) and 15th in percentage of points scored via the three (40.2 percent). You don’t have to shoot the three-ball as well as Jay Wright’s team did last season, but in today’s game you have to at least be a threat from three-point land. Last year, the Cats were not.
They should be next year. Incoming freshman Tyler Herro, the 6-foot-5 guard from Wisconsin, is described as a knock-down shooter. “His jumper is his most notable weapon,” reads the ESPN scouting report. Having missed last season after a pair of knee surgeries, redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker is now healthy. He was signed as a shooter.
And don’t forget Quade. As a freshman, Green shot 37.6 percent from three, a number somewhat skewed by a 3-for-15 slump during the postseason. His numbers should rise with experience. Consider that Gabriel went from a 31.7 percent three-point shooter as a freshman to a 39.6 percent three-point shooter as a sophomore. Green is capable of making a similar leap.
Asked last week who’s the best shooter on this team, Green smiled and said: “We’re gonna see.”
3. Options: Truth be told, Calipari lacked options last year. There were times you knew he wanted nothing more than give his infamous “you’re out thumb” after an irritating mistake, only to remember the dearth of trusted replacements on the bench.
Even before freshman Ashton Hagans’ expected announcement he will reclassify and play right away, Calipari had better guard depth. Hagans will compete with Green and freshman Immanuel Quickley at point guard. All three are capable of playing off the ball, as well. Green showed that last year when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took over at the point.
Herro and freshman Keldon Johnson can play off guard or small forward. And we might even see Washington play some small forward, a la Patrick Patterson during Calipari’s first year, now that E.J. Montgomery, a 6-10 freshman power forward from Georgia, is on board to both push Richards in practice and possibly twin with Richards on the floor.
Then there’s the wild card. Kentucky is the heavy favorite to land Reid Travis, the 6-8, 245-pound grad transfer from Stanford. He’s a special case. For one, Travis is a banger who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds last season for The Cardinal. Plus, unlike most grad transfers that are mid-major stars moving up the competitive ladder, Travis is an accomplished Power 5 conference player already.
Even without Travis, those are three reasons to believe UK will be better in 2018-19. Travis would add a definite and even definitive fourth.
John Calipari coaching record