Look, I know that Kentucky is a football school, and that the sole focus this week is on a potential SEC-East clinching game against Georgia on Saturday. I get it. I totally do. But as some of you might have heard, the Wildcats have a pretty good hoops team entering the season too.
Crazy, I know. But yes, they’re really good. Coached by some guy named Calipari. No. 2 in the preseason polls or something. Nine deep with McDonald’s All-American caliber talent. Again, I just wish Kentucky wasn’t such a college football hot bed, and these guys might get a little more attention!
In all seriousness, I’ll leave the heavy-hitting analysis of the football team up to Nick Roush and the football guys, but if you’ll excuse me for a second, I would like to indulge in a little basketball talk. Kentucky is now just days away from that opener against Duke, and the start of what could be a very special season. As I’ve mentioned many times throughout the summer, I really do believe they’re the best team in college basketball and should be a favorite to cut down the nets next spring in Minneapolis.
Still, as good as the Wildcats are, they have questions like everyone else. So what questions do they need to answer this season to ultimately win the school’s ninth national championship come early April? Let’s take a look:
Are the veterans ready to lead?
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but history tells us that John Calipari’s most dangerous teams are the ones that have veterans sprinkled in on the roster with younger guys as well. I’m also not sure if you’ve heard, but Willie Cauley-Stein also once played football, Kevin Knox’s dad won a national championship at Florida State and Bam Adebayo got his nickname when he broke a table as a kid.
Again, I wish announcers really would talk about these storylines more.
Still, even though this will be a talking point that is beaten to death by the end of the season, it really is important here. The Wildcats have three sophomores with major experience and one fifth-year senior. The question for me is, are they ready to lead?
After all, it’s one thing to have older guys, but it’s another thing to have a Tyler Ulis/Darius Miller/Patrick Patterson type presence to grab guys when they’re in the huddle, push people when they’re down and to fight through adversity.
For all intents and purposes, it seems like some of those older guys (P.J. Washington, Reid Travis) and even a couple of the younger ones (cough, Keldon Johnson) are ready to take on those roles. But we won’t know for sure until we see it on the court.
What will Kentucky get from the point guard position?
This is kind of a trickle-down storyline from the one above. But we all know that the point guard is the leader on the court, and in the past, Kentucky has had wildly strong personalities in that spot, ranging from John Wall to Ulis to De’Aaron Fox.
But this year it’s more of a wild card. The talent is there. But all three players are being asked to take on roles they’ve never had before.
What makes things especially interesting – at least to me – is that all three of the point guards in question have slightly different skill-sets. Immanuel Quickley is probably the best at running an offense out of the group, but doesn’t necessarily look for his own shot a ton. Ashton Hagans is by far the best on-ball defender, but his offensive game still seems to be lacking at this point. And Quade Green seems best playing off the ball and getting buckets, which is fine. But with Johnson and Tyler Herro also on the wing, at some point will it make more sense to insert them into that spot?
Again, we’ll start to get answers here soon. But at the same time, it’s really hard to make a deep run into March if you don’t know what you’re getting from the point guard position. And right now, it’s hard to know exactly what UK will get from that spot.
Sophomore Nick Richards was real and spectacular in the Bahamas. But will it translate once the games start?
Credit to my buddy Drew Franklin, who sniffed out Nick Richards’ sophomore emergence months ago, like it was a half-priced happy hour special at KSBar or something. Richards – along with a few other guys – was one of the real revelations of the entire trip to the Bahamas, thanks in large part to that breakout, 19-point performance in the opener.
At the same time, what’s sort of gotten lost in the shuffle is that Richards has been relatively quiet since that opener. Despite putting up 19 points in the Bahamas, Richards finished the trip averaging just 12 points per game over the course of the four games in the Caribbean. He also had 13 points in Kentucky’s exhibition win over Transylvania last week.
Now on the one hand, it’s important to note that Kentucky will gladly take 12 or 13 points per night from Richards once the season begins. If they get that, they’d be through the roof. The more important question though is can he play with the intensity he showed early in that Bahamas trip on the defensive end?
Look, it’s no secret that Richards is just about the only shot-blocking, rim-protecting presence on the roster, and because of it, it’s important that he plays well enough on both ends to warrant playing time. It won’t be easy with a loaded front court of E.J. Montgomery, P.J. Washington and Reid Travis.
Point being, Kentucky needs to get some version of “Early Bahamas Nick Richards” all season long, if they truly want a chance to compete for a title.
What will Kentucky get out of E.J. Montgomery?
Montgomery was limited in the Bahamas, but once healthy he has already shown why some people believe that he’s the best NBA prospect on this roster. Montgomery absolutely balled out at Kentucky’s pro day and was maybe the best player on the floor in the Wildcats exhibition win over Transylvania, scoring 14 points on 7 of 10 shooting.
And really that game is what has me so darn intrigued about Montgomery. That’s because as good as the other bigs on this roster are, no one has a skill-set quite like Montgomery, who is as comfortable stepping out and hitting 15-foot jumpers as he is banging down low. And the former is important – if Montgomery can consistently hit that mid-range shot, it is one more threat from the outside, and will create more spacing and driving lanes for Kentucky’s guards.
If Montgomery can continue to play like he has since the team’s pro day, he adds a whole new dimension to this roster.
Will the three-pointers continue to fall?
Honestly, I’m not as worried about Kentucky’s three-point shooting as some of the national pundits. If you watch the Wildcats games you know that they can shoot the hell out the ball, with everyone from Tyler Herro to Keldon Johnson, Jemarl Baker, P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Immanuel Quickley capable of hitting from deep.
Still, even with all those shooters, there are questions: Will Baker be available at all? Will Washington (and to a smaller degree, Reid Travis) be able to show the consistency that they have early in the season. And what happens if Herro has an off-night, or Green falls down the depth chart?
Again, I’m not as worried about Kentucky’s shooting as most. But it is something to keep an eye on going forward.
Can Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington and Tyler Herro… umm… ahh…
On second thought, I really have no concerns about any of these guys.
Both will be awesome.
Let’s just move on.
Will the weight of the NBA get to any of these guys?
Again, this is something I’m not all too worried about, because at the end of the day, every Kentucky team is filled with a bunch of guys who want to get to the NBA and John Calipari always seems to figure out a way to make it work.
Yet this year it feels like, more than ever, the stakes may be higher in terms of guys going out of their way to impress NBA scouts.
Think about it. Reid Travis is a grad transfer, who specifically came to Kentucky for the exposure that playing at one of the most prominent programs could bring. And he needs that exposure to prove that he has evolved as a basketball player. Will that – at any point – impact how he plays.
P.J. Washington was thiiiiiis close to staying in the draft, and he too came back to show that his game has evolved into a more “NBA friendly” version.
Tyler Herro has been adamant that he came to Kentucky because he believes he is an NBA guy, not a four-year system guy at Wisconsin. What will that mean for him? Quade Green and Nick Richards both want to show they’ve improved, and Keldon Johnson and E.J. Montgomery are playing for lottery spots as well.
Again, impressing NBA teams has never held back Kentucky before. But it might be something worth watching here.
Finally, can they get the breaks and the bounces?
This one is obviously less quantifiable, but at the end of the day every national champion needs a few breaks and bounces along the way. Rarely does a team just blitz through the NCAA Tournament relatively untested. Even that 2012 Kentucky squad needed big plays down the stretch against Louisville and Kansas to seal the title.
So can Kentucky get all those breaks, avoid the key injuries or bad foul calls at the worse possible time?
We’ll start to find out soon – because folks, the season is finally here!