We are now less than a month from the start of college basketball and…
Wait, a second now.
Let me repeat that again for emphasis.
We are now… less… than… a month… from… COLLEGE BASKETBALL SEASON!
That’s right, with games tipping off November 6th (including a pretty important double-header at Madison Square Garden that night) it means that we are officially under the one-month watch for the start of the best sport in the world.
And if there was any doubt at just how close we’re getting, it came on Sunday, when Kentucky hosted its annual “Pro Day.” While Pro Day has no real significance to the college hoops season, it is the unofficial marker that the season is right around the corner. It’s kind of like when the groundhog peeks its head out every February 2nd to let you know that spring is coming. Only is this case, replace the groundhog’s head, with the flowing silver hair atop John Calipari’s head and that what you’ve got.
Still, make no mistake: While Pro Day has no major, tangible, significance, it also does hold value, as an important first look at the Kentucky Wildcats every season. Meaning there are still some things to take out of Sunday’s event.
So, after watching Sunday night’s telecast, what did we learn?
Here are 10 things:
This Might Be John Calipari’s Best Defensive Team Ever
We’re now a decade into the John Calipari experience at Kentucky, and because of it, I always hesitate to say things like “This has the potential to be Calipari’s best fill-in-the-blank” ever. After all, he’s had a lot of “bests” over the last 10 years, no matter what the category is.
But when I saw this team on the court Sunday, I really did think “Man, this team has a chance to be special defensively.”
Now obviously, this team won’t have the look of other elite defensive teams under Calipari – there is no Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel or Willie Cauley-Stein down low to protect the rim and block shots. But the one thing that Kentucky does have is a group of mean, nasty defensive-minded guards at the top of the key, and wings with the length and versatility to give opponents nightmares everywhere else.
By the way, if you watched Sunday night, did you see how much trouble Kentucky’s players had getting into offense against that team? And those are guys who go against each other every day in practice. Can you imagine how hard it will be for opponents, who don’t see that size, length and athleticism every day?
(On the flip side, can you imagine how much easier it will be for Kentucky to run its own offense when it isn’t going against a crew of 7-foot wingspan monsters?)
One other note here: Over the course of the off-season, the narrative with this team has been that they are “one big man short” and needed additional size and rim protection.
Well, you know what’s the best way to negate a lack of size and rim protection down low? Don’t let the opposing team’s guards get to the rim – something Kentucky will be extremely good at this season.
This Also Might Be John Calipari’s Best Three-Point Shooting Team in a Long Time
For years Coach Cal has openly spoken about how he was changing the make-up of his team to add more shooting. How in modern basketball, you truly need to be position-less, and need a roster full of guys who can dribble, pass and shoot to be successful.
Well, after years of talking about it, Calipari finally has the roster to match that sentiment. And because of it, this Kentucky team has the chance to be the best three-point shooting team of the Calipari era as well. Johnny Juzang is lights out. Nate Sestina has a quicker trigger and smoother stroke than I expected. Immanuel Quickley proved last year he can knock down threes, and Tyrese Maxey was one of the best three-point shooters in high school basketball last year.
There are other guys who will need to be more consistent (both Ashton Hagans and Kahlil Whitney seemed to be hit-or-miss Sunday night) but the sheer number of quality shooters might be the best Calipari has had in Lexington.
Calipari Had an Incredible Line About Shooting During the Broadcast
Maybe my favorite moment during the broadcast was when Jimmy Dykes and Seth Greenberg were speaking to Coach Cal on the sideline. At one point they asked him about this team’s ability to shoot, and Calipari dropped an ALL-TIME line.
He said: “I’ve had guys who’ve been shooters in the past. The problem is, they just haven’t always been makers.”
I mean, I nearly spit out my water when I heard that.
Thankfully as I said, I don’t expect shooting to be an issue in Lexington this season.
I May Have Been Wrong About Nate Sestina
Since the day Nate Sestina committed to Kentucky, I’ve warned Kentucky fans to temper their expectations. That this was different than Reid Travis – who had played Power 5 basketball for four years – coming in as a grad transfer, and that there would be a big step up in speed, skill and style of play in the SEC from where Sestina was coming from. That fans shouldn’t expect the same kind of production they got from Travis last season.
Again, I literally wrote it the day Sestina committed – and have stood by it all summer.
And I’ve got a confession to make: I think I may have been wrong on this one. Like flat-out wrong.
Sometimes in life you’ve just got to take the “L” and this might be one of those times for me.
When I watched Sestina play on Sunday, I was blown away by how much Sestina looked like… well, a guy that totally, 100 percent belonged at a program like Kentucky. I saw nothing that made me think “This guy doesn’t belong at this level” or heck, even anything that made me say “Well it’s obvious this guy was playing mid-major hoops last year.” Instead, I saw a guy whose body has clearly changed in the last six months (Instagram has proven that) and was effective both defensively and shooting the ball.
Sometimes it’s good to have a truly bad opinion. And my original Nate Sestina take my go down as one of those.
Johnny Juzang Might be the Surprise of the Season for Kentucky
Because Johnny Juzang committed so late in the process, and because – at least on the surface – he wasn’t on Kentucky’s recruiting radar for long (something that absolutely wasn’t true by the way) it doesn’t seem like he got the buzz of some other big-time freshmen in the past.
But as someone who watched Juzang throughout his high school career in California, I knew he would be a breakout player this season at Kentucky. And on Sunday he made me look smart.
During the five-on-five portion of the scrimmage Juzang showed an ability to consistently knock down three-pointer and do it from behind the new college three-point line. Still, as I’ve emphasized all summer, this guy isn’t just a “shooter.” He’s a true hooper, a guy who can beat you in so many ways, whether it’s from behind the arc or off the dribble.
Also, another thing I can tell you is this: Juzang is competitive as hell and unafraid of the spotlight. As I’ve written before, he played for one of the most prominent AAU programs in the country, the Compton Magic, and has played in so many big games and with so many elite players (just on his last AAU team there were three other Top 30 recruits) that nothing will phase him.
Look, I’m not going to make any bold predictions about Juzang. I’m not going to promise a certain number of points or a certain three-point percentage or that he will be in the NBA a year from now.
But the one thing I do believe is that he’ll be ready to step, contribute and be a difference-maker from the day the season starts.
Keion Brooks is the Kind of Guy Every Team Needs
All off-season long, Brooks – the 6-7 freshman from Indiana – had garnered rave reviews as one of the pleasant surprises of early practices. And on Sunday you could see why, as he showed off a versatile game offensively and an ability to guard anyone on defense. And when I say “anyone” I mean anyone. He literally was defending Ashton Hagans at certain points in the scrimmage.
Yes, a 6-7 wing was guarding one of the quickest point guards in all of college basketball. and more than held his own.
In the end, I don’t know exactly what Brooks’ role this season will be. But what became abundantly clear after watching practice is that he’s a guy that can do a little bit of everything, and has versatility on both ends of the floor.
And those are the exact kind of guys that every team needs.
Tyrese Maxey is Just… The Best
Listen, we’ll have plenty of time to break down Tyrese Maxey’s game over the course of the season, to break down who he is and what he brings to the table for this team. But watching him on Sunday night, I couldn’t help but think one thing: Man, that kid is just the best. He’s always got a smile on his face, always encouraging, always getting the best out of everyone around him.
I remember last year when I had Maxey on my podcast, and being blown away by his poise, maturity, confidence and just upbeat-ness (yes, I know that’s not a word).
It’s good to see that nothing has changed since then.
(And yes, that was a totally shameless plug of my podcast. But at least for that episode, you should listen anyway)
I expect Immanuel Quickley to be More Confident This Season
During the broadcast, Jimmy Dykes (who is just awesome at his job, by the way) said something that really caught my attention about Immanuel Quickley. Dykes said, “I think he played a little tight last year.”
I completely agree, and it reminds me of something that someone close to Quickley told me this off-season. I don’t have the exact quote, but it was something to the effect of “Immanuel was so in awe of being at Kentucky last year and playing for Coach Cal that he tried to be perfect. That he tried to do too much. Now he’s playing much more confidently and not letting the small stuff get to him.”
One, I can see how that could happen (all freshmen handle the spotlight differently) but also it shouldn’t come as a surprise since the buzz out of Lexington all off-season was that Quickley was much improved.
Without putting too much expectation on him, I expect Quickely to thrive this off-season.
Speaking of Kentucky’s Vets, They Now Look Like… Well, Vets
Nothing much stood out to me about the vets last night that hasn’t already been written up top. Quickley, Hagans, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards have all been there before and carried themselves that way on Sunday night.
But there was one thing that did stand out. They look like vets now. Like legit, grown men with SEC-level strength to compete with anyone.
Now obviously that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise after they all spent another off-season in an elite strength and conditioning program, but it is still worth noting. It’s obviously important for Hagans, who admitted he wore down a bit last season, and for EJ Montgomery, who will be expected to handle a big load down low this season.
As a matter of fact, another thing that one of the announcers said which caught my attention was when either Dykes or Greenberg (I can’t remember which) said, “Last year, EJ Montgomery just looked like a really tall high school basketball player. This year, he looks like a college basketball player.”
With his improved size and explosiveness, I expect this to be a breakout year for Montgomery.
And Finally, Sunday Showed Us A Team Capable of Getting Back to a Final Four – and Maybe More
College hoops is a fickle sport by nature, something that makes it hard to project who are the real “preseason favorites.” After all, one bad night in March can cost you, even when you have the best team. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Kentucky was a play or two away from going to the Final Four in both 2017 and 2019 and could have won it once they got there – but things didn’t go their way. In 2014, it was the opposite. The team struggled all year, but got hot when it mattered and made it to the national title game.
I bring this up for this reason: While it’s tough to predict who will make it to the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the one thing I can definitively say about these Wildcats is they have ever piece needed to get there: Veteran guards, shooting, a tough-minded defensive personality, the talent and coaching. Yes, they lack a little bit of size, but how much size did Auburn have last year? Or Loyola (IL) the year before? Size is overrated. Especially when you have shooting and defensive toughness from your backcourt.
Point being that there are no certainties in college hoops, but on Sunday night I saw a team that has the talent to literally matchup with anyone in college hoops.
Will they? We’ll find out in a month when they take on Michigan State, and in the 30+ games that will come after that.
But as John Calipari is famous for saying, “I like my team.”
And I suspect he, and all Kentucky fans will really like this group by the end of the season.