If Louisville-born novelist Sue Grafton were writing the preview of college basketball in Kentucky in 2017-18, the title would be “M is for Mystery.”
In the 21st-century history of college hoops in the commonwealth, there probably has never been a season start with so many major uncertainties.
Only two years ago, the state of Kentucky seemed in the midst of a modern golden era in its college basketball history. Now, with turmoil and coaching uncertainty at Louisville and a completely unproven roster at Kentucky, major questions hang over even the marquee programs in college hoops in our state.
Here are 10 story lines that will define college basketball in Kentucky in 2017-18.
10. Riding the storm out. When the mass defection of players (seven) and recruits (four) beset the Kentucky women’s basketball program in 2016, the consensus was that Matthew Mitchell’s program wouldn’t feel the full effects of the departures until this season, the year after stars Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator graduated.
Now that the time has come, Mitchell’s roster is buoyed by six new players — four high school recruits, a junior-college transfer and a Division I transfer. The UK coach seems optimistic that the Wildcats can fight through what many people expected to be a rebuilding year and instead extend Kentucky’s string of eight straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Pressure from the past. Before Matt McMahon, the previous two Murray State men’s hoops coaches rode their success with the Racers to power-five conference positions. Billy Kennedy parlayed his 107-53 mark at Murray into the Texas A&M job, and Steve Prohm’s 104-28 mark at MSU landed him the Iowa State job. After two years, McMahon is only 33-31 at Murray State. At a program accustomed to better, that makes the coming season a crucial one for the MSU head coach.
8. The expectations game. A season ago, the Northern Kentucky men were the feel-good story of college hoops in the commonwealth. Coached by Kentucky native John Brannen and with a roster built on homegrown high school talent, NKU (24-11) won the Horizon League Tournament to earn its first trip to the Division I NCAA Tournament. In the Big Dance, the No. 15 seed Norse put up a good fight against No. 2 Kentucky before falling, 79-70.
7. Moving into the big chair. A season ago, Morehead State’s Preston Spradlin inherited the Eagles’ head coaching position for a 2-7 MSU team after the early-season ouster of Sean Woods. Spradlin, 30, made the most of the opportunity, leading Morehead to a 12-9 mark the rest of the way.
That was enough to get Spradlin the full-time Morehead State head coaching job in what figures to be a testing scenario. For the coming season, MSU’s leading returning scorer, Lamontray Harris, averaged 9.4 points.
6. Searching for a giant among the smalls. Part of what has made the second decade of the 21st century such a glorious era in Kentucky college basketball is the success of our state’s “small colleges.” Since 2011, men’s teams from the commonwealth have won two NAIA Division I national championships (Pikeville in 2011, Georgetown in 2013), one NAIA Division II national title (Union last season) and one NCAA Division II national crown (Bellarmine 2011).
With so much uncertainty at the highest level of Kentucky college hoops in 2017-18, can the small colleges step forward again to bring championship glory back to the commonwealth?
5. Recruiting toward a championship? After losing to Connecticut twice in NCAA title games (2009 and 2013), Louisville women’s coach Jeff Walz vowed to up his recruiting and land the type of players UConn gets. U of L now has a roster stocked with touted prospects Myisha Hines-Allen (2014 McDonald’s All-American), Asia Durr (2015 McDonald’s All-American, No. 1 player in class of 2015 by ProspectsNation.com) and Dana Evans (2017 McDonald’s All-American).
Is this the year Walz’s recruiting success propels the Cardinals to the ultimate net cutting?
4. A breakthrough year? In his first two seasons as Eastern Kentucky men’s coach, Dan McHale, the former UK basketball student manager, has yet to guide the Colonels to a winning record. However, McHale might have Eastern positioned for a breakout season in 2017-18. To returning standouts Nick Mayo and Asante Gist, McHale is adding former Lafayette High School star and Butler forward Jackson Davis.
Mayo, Gist and Davis could give EKU the kind of “big three” that propels a team to success.
3. The Stansbury effect. The buzz around the Western Kentucky men’s season was substantially diminished when 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, the first men’s McDonald’s All-American ever signed by WKU, bailed on the Hilltoppers before preseason practice even began. Even without Robinson, however, WKU head man Rick Stansbury has brought an infusion of talent to Bowling Green.
One of the most fascinating stories to follow in Kentucky college hoops in 2017-18 will be whether Stansbury can mesh a 10-man roster that consists of four freshmen, two graduate transfers, two returning players (one a walk-on), one conventional transfer and one junior-college transfer into a cohesive unit.
2. UK’s brand-new team. With all the emphasis on one-and-done talent in the John Calipari era at Kentucky, the Wildcats’ best teams under Cal have all had productive veterans returning from the season before. That isn’t the case in 2017-18, as UK’s leading returning scorer, Wenyen Gabriel, averaged 4.6 points last season.
As Calipari all but works with a blank slate, it will be fascinating to see whether UK will produce a season more like A.) 2012-13, when the Cats ended up in the NIT with a similar lack of experience; or B.) 2013-14, when a young team that struggled almost all season put it together in March and reached the NCAA Tournament finals.
1. Can Louisville surmount chaos? Amidst yet another U of L men’s basketball scandal, Rick Pitino has been ousted. Instead of a Hall of Fame head coach, the Cardinals will be led in 2017-18 by a 32-year-old interim head coach in former Louisville center David Padgett.
Don’t lose sight, however, that U of L has a talented, veteran team led by Deng Adel and Quentin Snider. Whether Padgett can coax the best out of Louisville’s roster amid adversity and uncertainty figures to be the most compelling story in Kentucky college basketball this season.
Mark Story’s preseason ‘All-State’ Teams
F Deng Adel, 6-7, Jr., Louisville. The swing man from Melbourne, Australia, seemed to “figure it out” late last season (16.3 ppg over final six contests) and has a chance to emerge as an All-America candidate in 2017-18.
F Kevin Knox, 6-9, Fr., Kentucky. On a UK roster packed with uncertainty, the Tampa product seems likely to emerge as the Wildcats’ go-to scorer.
C Nick Mayo, 6-9, Jr., Eastern Kentucky. The offensively skilled EKU big man was fifth in the OVC in scoring (18.5 ppg), 12th in rebounding (6.5), 15th in assists (2.8) and third in blocked shots (1.4) last season.
G Quentin Snider, 6-2, Sr., Louisville. How valuable will a proven veteran at point guard (12.4 ppg, 4.1 assists last season) be to a Louisville program with an inexperienced, emergency head coach?
G Jonathan Stark, 6-0, Sr., Murray State. In a stellar junior season last year (21.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.2 assists, 42.5 percent three-point shooting), the transfer from Tulane proved a worthy successor of recent Racers point guard stars Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne.
Coach of the Year: Dan McHale, Eastern Kentucky
Player of the Year: Jonathan Stark, Murray State
F Myisha Hines-Allen, 6-2, Sr., Louisville. The older sister of Kentucky football’s Josh Allen just missed averaging a double-double (13.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg) last year for a second straight season.
F Tashia Brown, 6-1, Sr., Western Kentucky. The Georgia native (13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg in 2016-17) enters her senior season with the Lady Toppers, having already scored 1,331 career points.
C Dorie Harrison, 6-3, Fr., Kentucky. The fleet UK newcomer can have a huge impact in her first season merely by beating opponents’ post players down the court and finishing plays at the rim.
G Asia Durr, 5-10, Jr., Louisville. The most highly ranked recruit (No. 1 player in the nation in 2015 according to Prospects Nation) ever to sign with Louisville, the Georgia product became a college star (19.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.8 assists, 1.3 steals) last year and should contend for All-America recognition this season.
G Taylor Murray, 5-6, Jr., Kentucky. UK’s leading returning scorer (12.2 ppg), rebounder (4.9 rpg) and distributor (3.9 assists) is the focal point of Matthew Mitchell’s plan to return to a frenetic, full-court style of play.
Coach of the Year: Greg Todd, Morehead State
Player of the Year: Asia Durr, Louisville