With Johnny Juzang officially joining the program, we are now starting to get a feel for what John Calipari’s 11th team at the University of Kentucky will look like. Seemingly every preseason ranking has UK in the top five and it’s clear that the Wildcats will again be a national title contender in 2019-2020. However, their playing style could be a bit different.
***Disclaimer: For this exercise, we’re going to assume that both EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards will be back on campus and that top-10 wing/small ball four Jaden McDaniels will be joining the top ranked recruiting class in the country.***
Throughout his coaching career, John Calipari has preferred to use a traditional two big lineup and it has been a big reason for his success. Yearly, Cal fields one of the sport’s best defensive teams but as the game evolves the lack of shooting hurts the Wildcats on the offensive end. We’ve seen Kentucky go small a couple times before and he’s going to have to do it again this upcoming winter on the hardwood.
Sitting here the weekend after Derby, the summer hasn’t even started but now is as good of a time as any to evaluate how UK will look next season. There’s no question that there is plenty of depth on the roster to go with length and interchangeable pieces on the perimeter. No matter what the look, John Calipari is going to have plenty of tools to tinker with.
To start off in the backcourt, it doesn’t feel like much of a discussion. Ashton Hagans returns for his sophomore season and he’ll run the point. Next to him will be five-star true freshman combo guard Tyrese Maxey. The top-1o recruit is a combo guard who will bounce back in forth between the one and the two. On paper, Kentucky will have on of the best backcourts in college basketball.
On the wing is where some major discussion will be. Keion Brooks Jr. is the lowest rated five-star recruit in the class, but he should be starting over at least one other. The 6-foot-7 wing picked Kentucky over Indiana and he brings some great versatility to the floor. Brooks plays within himself on the offensive end and has a polished game to this point in his development.
At the four will be another top-1o recruit. Jaden McDaniels, potentially, will be a huge recruiting win for Kentucky and if it happens he’ll likely lead the team in minutes. The long, lanky, athletic forward can put the ball on the deck and get wherever he wants on the floor. His length will make a significant impact on the glass and defensive end. Shooting will be a question, but there’s no doubt McDaniels will be an impact player for UK this season.
That’s four players that have been named and we haven’t even gotten into the paint yet. In 2016 and 2017, we saw Cal use a space floor on offense. When utilized, both Alex Poythress and Derek Willis were used in a stretch four role. That meant only one player in the post at one time. That’s what will happen for the majority of minutes this year.
Back for his sophomore year, potentially, EJ Montgomery will look to live up to that top-10, five-star ranking he was tagged with leaving high school. With a spaced floor, it will be easier for UK to take advantage of Montgomery’s unique skill set. The Georgia native is a rim running big who will be at his best catching lobs and occassionally shooting mid-range jumpers and baby hooks off quick post touches in the paint. On the glass, Kentucky will need the sophomore to really make an impact.
The first guy off the bench will likely be Immanuel Quickley and he’ll be the top backup at the one and two spots. However, don’t expect the sophomore to play much point. Right now it seems like that Hagans or Maxey will have the ball in their hands at all times so a spot shooter and energy player will need to play next to them. Getting shooting and solid defense from Quickley off the bench will be greatly needed.
On the wing, UK has all kinds of options off the bench. The first one people will want to talk about is top-12 composite recruit Khalil Whitney. It will come as a surprise to some to have him on the bench, but at this point Keion Brooks Jr. has the more developed game. Whitney, however, can play the three of four for Kentucky and will be a monster for teams to deal with in transition. Playing under control and with feel in the half-court will be Whitney’s biggest challenge at the college level.
Johnny Juzang is UK’s newest member to the 2019 recruiting class and the California native is bringing much needed shooting ability to the roster. Juzang can stroke it from deep, but that’s not all he brings to the table. The 6-foot-6 wing can play the two or the three in addition to being a solid rebounder and having a ton of defensive potential. Fellow freshman Dontaie Allen is built in the same mold and could be an answer if the Cats find themselves in foul trouble on the perimeter.
With the expectation for UK to be using a “4-out 1-in offense”, the perception will be that UK will not need a ton of big depth. However, that is not the case. In some specific matchups, UK will be forced to play a two-big lineup and right now they have two quality upperclassmen to bring off the pine. Nick Richards will be a junior who can bring size, length, athleticism, and rim protection to the lineup. Grad transfer Nate Sestina can space the floor with his three-shooting ability in addition to being a quality back to the basket block scorer. Cal will have options in the post.
There is still time for Kentucky to add more bodies to the roster and the coaching staff still needs to close the deal with Jaden McDaniels. That still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel very optimistic about the team. Kentucky has a loaded backcourt with plenty of quality options on the wing. Shooting and finding a reliable player that can go for 30 minutes per night in the paint still remain the biggest question marks. Sure this team will have some wrinkles to iron out, but they have the talent and the ability to be in the national mix.