Mark Story

What savvy UK basketball fans will be watching when Cats hit the Bahamas

Whether sophomore Quade Green, above, or freshmen Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley gains the upper hand at point guard is one key area to watch this week when the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team plays four exhibition games in Nassau, Bahamas.
Whether sophomore Quade Green, above, or freshmen Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley gains the upper hand at point guard is one key area to watch this week when the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team plays four exhibition games in Nassau, Bahamas. cbertram@herald-leader.com

For Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball fans, this week is Christmas in August.

From Wednesday through Sunday, John Calipari and the Cats will be in Nassau, Bahamas, to play four exhibition contests versus professional teams.

UK will face the Bahamas National Team on Wednesday; Argentina’s San Lorenzo De Almagro (Thursday); Serbia’s Mega Bemax (Saturday); and Canada’s Team Toronto (Sunday). All four games will be televised by the SEC Network.

Even though the four games do not count in the record book, that does not mean savvy Kentucky fans cannot glean substantial insight into the 2018-19 Wildcats season if they watch the right things:

Witk many good players and the possibility of more coming, UK might consider reviving platoon system. But John Calipari does not want to.

1.) The “quarterback competition”

With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander having gone one-and-done to the NBA, the Kentucky point guard job is vacant.

UK has a trio of highly-credentialed candidates to succeed SGA as the Cats’ “starting quarterback.”

Sophomore-to-be Quade Green was a 2017 McDonald’s All-American. Freshman Immanuel Quickley is a 2018 McDonald’s All-American. Freshman Ashton Hagans likely would have been a 2019 McDonald’s All-American had he not re-classified.

This week, it will be fascinating to watch how much Calipari will utilize multiple point guards at the same time and whether one of the three emerges with a clear, albeit early, claim on being Kentucky’s primary lead guard.

Johnson and Quickley
Kentucky freshmen Keldon Johnson, left, and Immanuel Quickley were both McDonald’s All-Americans this season.

2.) Offensive fluidity

If you wonder why Kentucky’s offense so often bogged down a season ago, consider: Seven of UK’s top nine top players had more turnovers than assists last season.

Last year’s big man-heavy roster, though, was very different than the guard-oriented team Calipari has constructed for 2018-19.

It seems likely UK will have at least three true perimeter players on the court most of the time in the coming season. Even in mid-summer exhibitions, it will be intriguing to see how much better dexterity with the basketball is produced by the change in roster emphasis.

Tyler Herro
Kentucky will count on freshman Tyler Herro to help provide more efficient outside shooting than the Wildcats featured a season ago. Gregory Payan AP

3.) Outside shooting

When the NCAA Tournament South Region “broke wide open” for Kentucky last season with first weekend losses by the No. 1 (Virginia), No. 2 (Cincinnati) and No. 3 (Tennessee) seeds, a big reason the No. 5 Wildcats failed to take advantage was a lack of perimeter shooting.

In three NCAA Tournament games, UK made only 10 of 33 three-point shots.

The Cats were 0-for-6 in their round-of-64 victory over Davidson, snapping a 1,047-game UK streak of games with a made trey. In the surprising 61-58 loss to No. 9-seed Kansas State that ended Kentucky’s season in the round of 16, the Wildcats hit only three of 12 treys.

If the hype can be believed, what was a Kentucky weakness a year ago could be a strength in 2018-19. Incoming freshman guard Tyler Herro made 43.9 percent of his three-point shots last winter as a high school senior.

Redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker came to Lexington with the reputation as a marksman, too, having made 94 treys as a high school senior.

The 6-4 Baker sat out last season at Kentucky due to an October knee surgery. He has missed multiple practices in the run up to the Bahamas trip due to swelling in a knee.

Whether Baker gets to play or not, we will get a first look in the Bahamas at whether Kentucky now has enough outside shooting to effectively space the floor.

PJ Washington
Kentucky sophomore forward PJ Washington took his name out of the 2018 NBA draft and returned for his second season of college basketball hoping to improve his perimeter game. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

4.) The freshmen intrigue

In addition to Herro and Quickley, freshmen Keldon Johnson, a slashing swingman, and skilled big man EJ Montgomery will play their first games in a Kentucky uniform this week.

Coming out of summer pick-up games and practices, Johnson, a 6-6, 211-pound product of South Hill, Va., has had the best “buzz” of the current Kentucky freshmen.

Some feel the 6-10, 228-pound Mongtomery has the most NBA upside on the UK roster.

Reid Travis
The first chance Kentucky will have to integrate standout forward Reid Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford, into the Wildcats system comes this week with four exhibition games in Nassaua, Bahamas. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

5.) How do Travis and Washington fit?

A 6-8, 240-pound graduate transfer from Stanford, Reid Travis (19.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 52.7 percent field goals last year) would likely have been the preseason favorite to win the 2018-19 Pac-12 Player of the Year had he stayed with the Cardinal.

PJ Washington averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds while converting 51.9 percent of his shots last season as a Kentucky freshman. At 6-8, 234 pounds, Washington has a similar build to Travis and the pair seemingly have similar playing styles.

This week will be an early indicator of whether Calipari can play the duo together or will have them competing for/sharing the same spot.

For UK fans getting four televised Wildcats basketball games in August, this week will serve as an early visit from Santa.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

The University of Kentucky basketball team opened its practice to the media on Wednesday as the Wildcats prepared for their trip to the Bahamas next week.

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