After 263 long days, Kentucky basketball season is officially back, as the Wildcats are set to take the floor against Morehead State at 6 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
With nine brand new scholarship players and only two players returning from the 2019-20 roster, there’s a lot to learn about this team for all of us, especially this week. UK head coach John Calipari announced Monday that sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr. would miss the first week of the season as he works to return from a leg injury that has limited him to individual workouts since October, meaning Dontaie Allen – who missed the entirety of last season with a torn ACL – is the only familiar face available to open the season.
With zero percent of returning production from last year’s group set to take the floor this evening, what do we need to watch out for?
How many stars does UK have?
Calipari said last year that he likes to have at least five players on a roster who can put up 25 points on any given night.
“I like to have five and six guys have a game with 25,” the UK head coach said following Kentucky’s win in Baton Rouge last season. “And the reason is you get in the NCAA Tournament and you made need somebody to go crazy to win a game.”
Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey all reached that mark last year. Who will reach it this year?
Five-star freshmen BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are the immediate favorites and will likely reach that threshold early in the year. Olivier Sarr also has several 25-plus point performances under his belt against elite competition, so he’s another strong early candidate.
Can UK get breakout scoring performances from, say, Brooks and buzz-worthy freshman Isaiah Jackson? Can anyone else reach that mark?
Tonight, I’m looking for at least one player to explode for 25 points – preferably Boston and/or Clarke – to set the tone as a star to open the season.
Is the Isaiah Jackson buzz justified?
Speaking of Jackson, it’s time to get to the bottom of this never-ending buzz the incoming five-star freshman has received throughout the summer and leading up to the season.
With Brooks out this week, the 6-10 freshman is expected to start alongside Sarr in the frontcourt, giving him the perfect opportunity to prove the hype right or wrong from day one.
“The greatest thing about Isaiah is that he’s really smart, really sees the game,” Calipari said during Monday’s 2020 Tip-off Luncheon. “He’ll get a double double and you don’t run a play for him”
Does he contribute as an immediate double-double threat as a day-one starter? And more importantly, does he do enough this week to keep his starting job when Brooks returns from injury?
Jackson’s play tonight will add some clarity to the situation one way or another. If things go well, don’t expect the hype train to slow down anytime soon.
Who takes over the point guard position?
Kentucky’s complete starting lineup is penciled in at four of five positions at this point. We know Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston are starting at the two and three, we know Jackson is starting tonight at the four with Brooks out, and we know Sarr is starting at the five.
But what about the point guard position?
Sarr told reporters earlier this week that Devin Askew has been running with the starters in recent scrimmages, including the official pre-Morehead State walkthrough on Sunday. At the same time, Davion Mintz impressed at UK Pro Day and has earned rave reviews from his teammates and coaches throughout the preseason. Either could play winning basketball as the team’s starter, but someone has to earn the nod this evening and beyond.
We’ll likely get a better feel for the position when Kentucky takes on Richmond and Kansas in games two and three on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively, but tonight will still provide a solid preview for what to expect out of both players. Can one player separate himself over the other from day one?
How deep will Calipari’s rotation be?
Kentucky will ‘only’ have ten scholarship players to work with this evening with Brooks out, but we’ll still get our first look at Calipari’s rotation and the minute distribution he has planned for the entire roster.
The UK head coach said before that his rotation will depend entirely on who plays well and deserves to be on the floor, going back to his go-to “this is not communism” catchphrase we hear each year.
“This is America, this is not communism. If you deserve to play, you’re going to play. I’ll figure it out. If someone else deserves it more than you, and there’s no question, he’s playing,” Calipari said. “They’ll trust me, but you know what? They’ll know before I know who those seven, eight, nine are. If it’s nine, we play nine. If it’s ten, I platoon. I don’t see it, but if it was that, and there were ten guys that were all playing well? Then we’ll figure it out as a team.”
Sarr said on Monday that the backups punched the starting unit in the mouth during Sunday’s scrimmage, causing Calipari to put “both feet and hands on the panic button” just days before Kentucky’s season-opening game against Morehead State.
Was the second unit that impressive, giving reason to believe more backups deserve to play? Or was it simply an underwhelming performance for the starters?
We’ll learn a lot about what Calipari thinks of this roster by watching the rotation this evening, especially early in the matchup before things (hopefully) get out of hand.
Can Kentucky keep its foot on the gas?
Opening as 22-point favorites, the expectation is that Kentucky rolls through Morehead State for a relatively easy season-opening victory. On paper, they should.
But as we saw far too many times in 2019-20, will this young, talented roster look down on the competition and keep the game close? Will they find themselves in a scare or even lose like we saw against Evansville last year? Calipari did say earlier this week that UK could start the season 0-6 if they’re not careful.
If Kentucky finds itself up early, it’ll be interesting to see how this group responds. The players have hyped themselves up as “dogs” with killer mindsets, but will they prove that by keeping their feet on the gas and securing the blowout victory? That’s the hope.