John Clay

Lose those old rosters, Kentucky basketball hits the refresh button again

Keion Brooks says Calipari has big plans for him

Five-star basketball recruit Keion Brooks says UK Coach John Calipari is telling him he could play just like Kevin Knox did for the Wildcats.
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Five-star basketball recruit Keion Brooks says UK Coach John Calipari is telling him he could play just like Kevin Knox did for the Wildcats.

That revolving door at Wildcat Coal Lodge just keeps on turning.

Reid Travis? Graduating. PJ Washington? Declared for the NBA Draft and signed with Jay-Z’s representation company, Roc Nation. Tyler Herro? Declared for the NBA Draft, not coming back. Keldon Johnson? Declared for the NBA Draft, not coming back. Jemarl Baker? His name is now in the transfer portal.

To be a Kentucky basketball fan in the John Calipari era is to toss the roster sheet at season’s end. You won’t be needing that again. Even when there is anticipation this might be the off-season UK did not recruit a group of early exits, they turn out to be one-year wonders. It comes with the territory.

True, guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley have announced their returns as sophomores for the 2019-20 season. And holdover big men (junior-to-be) Nick Richards and (sophomore-to-be) EJ Montgomery are expected back. But if Baker does indeed end up elsewhere, Kentucky will again be dominated by new faces in a sport that has trended back to rewarding teams that stick together.

Since a one-and-done heavy Duke won in 2015, the last four NCAA champs have boasted experience. In 2016, Villanova was led by senior Ryan Arcidiacono and junior Kris Jenkins. In 2017, North Carolina was led by juniors Justin Jackson and Joel Berry. In 2018, Villanova was led by junior Jalen Brunson. This year, Virginia was led by juniors Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.

Still, by all accounts, UK’s new faces can play. The recruiting website 247Sports ranks commit Kahlil Whitney as the best player in the class of 2019. Signee Tyrese Maxey is ranked ninth. Commit Keion Brooks is ranked 23rd. In-state signee Dontaie Allen may have been ranked had he not suffered a torn ACL around New Year’s.

Then there’s Nate Sestina, the 6-foot-9 forward from Bucknell who has committed to UK as a grad transfer, filling the Reid Travis role. Sestina averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds a game last year. He also shot 38 percent from three-point range. Jeff Borzello of ESPN rated Sestina the third-best transfer eligible for next season.

Now comes word Virginia Tech center Kerry Blackshear Jr. has entered both the NBA Draft and the NCAA transfer portal. Should Blackshear withdraw from the draft, he would be eligible next season as a graduate transfer. And the 6-10 Blackshear, who was Second Team All-ACC last year as a fourth-year junior, is reportedly interested in Kentucky.

Were Blackshear to jump on board the bandwagon, that would give Calipari 10 scholarship players, just inside the Calipari comfort zone. He’d have four front-court players in Richards, Montgomery, Sestina and Blackshear. He’d have three wings/small forwards in Brooks, Whitney and Allen. And he’d have three guards in Hagans, Quickley and Maxey.

On paper, that’s a promising lineup, even with all the usual questions. How will they play together? What will the team chemistry be like? Which ones will make an immediate impact, and which ones need more time to develop? Can they reach their team potential within the usual one-year window? In other words, to use a Caliparism, can they get the plane landed by March?

Somehow, of course, the head coach cracks his knuckles and finds ways to make it work. On the one hand, Calipari hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2015. On the other hand, he’s a last-second Elite Eight loss to North Carolina (2017) and an overtime Elite Eight loss to Auburn (2019) from making six Final Fours in his UK decade. All that with a new roster year after year after year.

Looks like we’re going to see another one next year. When it comes to UK basketball, the more names change, the more things stay the same.

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