The college basketball season is upon us and your University of Kentucky Wildcats enter the year with one of the youngest teams in all of the land. John Calipari returns only one player who saw more than seven minutes per game in 2016-17, therefore inexperience is the Cats’ obvious weakness.
But now that we’ve gotten a small glimpse of the team in three preseason exhibition games, new questions and concerns have been raised. Read those below as we get ready for Kentucky’s regular season opener Friday night.
Is shooting really an issue?
Just as inexperience is the obvious weakness, outside shooting has been the most assumed. However, Kentucky saw some potential from Quade Green (7-for-11), Wenyen Gabriel (4-for-9) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2-for-3) in the preseason. As a team, Kentucky went 19-for-46 (41 percent), although its two best scorers — Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox — made only five of their combined 18 attempts.
All of those numbers are from a very small sample size, but Green was a pleasant surprise as a three-point threat. If he can do anything close to that consistently, it will alleviate some of the concerns. But it will take more than the point guard scoring from outside, so Diallo and Knox, who will likely start on the wing, will have to do better or shooting will be an issue.
How good can Shai Gilgeous-Alexander be?
Quade Green’s steady hand put the starting point guard debate to rest, but that doesn’t mean Shai Gilgeous-Alexander won’t see the floor. With the threat he poses as a long, versatile guard, it will be impossible to keep him on the bench.
Gilgeous-Alexander was most impressive on defense, but he also looked nice off the ball offensively. He’s one of those energy guys that will fill up the box score, and he was arguably the biggest surprise of the entire preseason.
Hamidou Diallo, will he live up to the hype?
Diallo had an up-and-down preseason given the expectations placed upon him, highlighted by an 8-for-12 night from the field in the game against Morehead State. But his offense was inconsistent in the other two games as he often forced the action like the second coming of Archie Goodwin.
Diallo’s outside shooting could’ve also been better for a starting shooting guard, but a 2-for-4 game against Morehead leaves a little bit of hope for the future. There is no doubt he is a very good player, but is he the superstar we all expect to see?
Can Nick Richards rebound? Can he be the shot blocker Calipari has missed?
Since Willie Cauley-Stein’s All-American season in 2014-15, Calipari has been without the interior shot-blocking presence he’s had so often. Nick Richards has the potential to be that player, but will he?
In Kentucky’s first two exhibition games, Richards played soft against much smaller competition. Against Thomas More, he had only three rebounds (inexcusable) and one block; against Morehead State, he managed three blocks, but zero rebounds (INEXCUSABLE). He heard the whispers about his poor play before the third exhibition game, and responded with 17 points, six rebounds and a block against Centre.
But the doubt is still there, considering he grabbed only nine rebounds as the biggest player on the court in three straight games. What will happen when he meets someone his own size? Kansas, with Udoka Azubuike and Billy Preston, is less than a week away; if Richards couldn’t rebound against Thomas More, how will he do against them?
Sacha Killeya-Jones, buy or sell?
No one on the roster has a higher ceiling mixed with a lower floor than Sacha Killeya-Jones. He could literally be anything — from a player who steals the starting center role to a player who disappears down the bench for a second straight year.
In his year and a half in Lexington, we’ve seen the good in Killeya-Jones and we’ve also seen the bad, and nobody can seem to figure out what keeps him from being good more often. He’ll have his opportunities in his sophomore year, and anything can happen. I’m not sure anyone knows what to expect from him.
Will John Calipari play zone defense?
Calipari and a zone? Until this year, the answer was never. But this year, it’s undeniable: Calipari has to play some zone, even if it kills him.
He broke his own rule by trying it against Centre, and admitted he didn’t hate it.
“I tell you, we got our hands on a lot of balls, we, you’re really that long, it’s pretty good stuff,” he said in his postgame press conference.
Kentucky hadn’t really practiced a zone defense before that game, Cal said, so it’ll be interesting to see if they work on it moving forward. Someone close to the program told me Cal knows, and has said, he has to do it this year.
Will Quade Green play defense?
Quade Green was as good as anyone in Kentucky’s three exhibition games. He exceeded expectations in just about every aspect of the game, while proving he’s way ahead of schedule in excelling in the point guard role. As mentioned above, his outside shot was a pleasant surprised; he commanded the offense and set up scoring opportunities with few mistakes (17 assists, four turnovers); and he was a pest defensively with as many as four steals in a single game.
But since we’re going player by player here, I have to think of something to question, so… can he guard bigger guards? Tyler Ulis was amazing at that for his size, while Green’s overall defensive prowess remains to be seen. I’m reaching here, admittedly, but only because Green was so good in the preseason.
Is Kevin Knox a star in the making?
Knox led the team with 58 points in the three exhibition games, only to see his name left off ESPN’s 50 Best Players In College Basketball list. He’s obviously good, but is he ELITE good? After seeing his first three appearances in Rupp Arena, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Is Wenyen Gabriel poised for a breakout season?
Only one man on the roster knows what it’s like to play meaningful college basketball minutes. His name is Wenyen Gabriel, and he is ready to take his game to the next level in his second season.
“I committed myself to having a breakout year the moment last season ended,” Gabriel told KSR. “I’m standing by my word.”
Gabriel’s ‘breakout’ is off to a nice start. In the final exhibition game, he scored 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting from the field and was a rebound shy of a double-double. No worries about the double-double, though; he had one in UK’s first exhibition game.
Will Tai Wynyard contribute anything?
Unless Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones don’t pan out, I’m afraid we won’t see too much Tai Wynyard in redshirt sophomore campaign. After sitting out the first exhibition against Thomas More, Cal put him in for rebounding help against Morehead State, and he had a ball ripped from his hands as soon as he got in. He only saw three minutes that game, then five against Centre, with only rebound to show for it.
If Wynyard isn’t in there banging for rebounds, there is no reason to play him.
When Jarred Vanderbilt steps on the court, how far behind will he be?
The good news: Jarred Vanderbilt will be back much earlier than we expected.
The bad news: At best, Jarred Vanderbilt will have missed over a month of practice and three games, probably more.
What is P.J. Washington?
Preseason chatter said Charles Barkley. Preseason action showed flashes of that, but also showed a turnover-prone freshman who wasn’t always in the game. Athletically, he’s as good as it gets. He played physical, but not always. His dunks are nasty. His jumper, wet. So what is he? I don’t know the answer, but I think we’re going to love it more and more as time goes on.
How is Calipari going to play all of these guys?
The guard rotation appears to be Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo as the starting backcourt with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander coming off the bench to relieve either position. If things go as planned, Calipari will have two consistent rim protectors in Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones at center. That leaves Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel, P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt to share the forward spots, and the three who have been playing look pretty dang good. If Vanderbilt is as advertised, that makes four legitimate weapons.
Leave it to Cal to figure it out because that’s what he does. In the meantime it’ll make for great competition in practice and allow everyone to play free defensively without being overly concerned about fouling out. The bench will make for a nice teaching tool, too.
What a great problem to have.
How soon will they be tested?
Kentucky may be the fifth-ranked team in the preseason poll, but it will be challenged right out of the gate. Expect the Cats to get their first real test as early as the second game of the season when Vermont, the favorite in the American East, comes to town this Sunday. If not then, fourth-ranked Kansas is only two days later in the Champion Classic.
It’s finally upon us, BBN.