Well folks, it seems impossible but it really is true: College basketball season is officially back!!
Ok, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. I guess by technicality, the season doesn’t actually begin for four more months.
Still, while tip-off of the first regular season game is still a ways away, we will still get a tiny taste of the season ahead when Kentucky travels to the Bahamas for a four-game foreign tour starting next Wednesday. Their long-awaited tour will give us the first glimpse of what I believe should be the No. 1 team in the country entering the preseason, a group that has as much depth, talent and versatility as anyone in the country.
Yet even with all that talent, the Wildcats still have plenty of questions and there are certainly plenty of things that fans and media members alike should be on the look out for next week.
What are they? Here are seven things to keep an eye out for:
What will the opening night starting lineup be?
Look, we can all be honest with each other: The first starting lineup in the Bahamas is no indication of what could come this season. Things will change between now and the opener with Duke in early November, and they will definitely change between now and next March.
Still, aren’t you a tiiiiiiiiiiiiny bit curious to see who John Calipari rolls out in his first starting lineup in the Bahamas? Remember, even if it isn’t a “be-all, end all” indicator of what will come in the season ahead, it does mean something. Calipari isn’t bringing his team a thousand miles from campus to lose a bunch of games after all.
Therefore it will be interesting to see what lineups he rolls out and how they all together. It’s especially interesting since it feels like nothing is definite. Sure, it feels like P.J. Washington will be a starter and it’s hard to imagine Reid Travis coming off the bench. But outside those two is anything set in stone? Heck, are those two even set in stone?
It doesn’t seem like it, and that is only the beginning of the questions about this team. The next biggest one seems to be…
Which point guards play where – and when?
Figuring out how the entire roster fits together is the biggest puzzle piece for the Wildcats entering the season. But isn’t the point guard position a smaller microcosm of the bigger team picture? I mean, how often does a team have the “problem” of trying to figure how to divvy up minutes among three McDonald’s All-American caliber point guards?
The answer is “never.” Which is what makes the point guard derby especially interesting.
And ultimately what might be even more interesting is not only who plays, but who plays when, where and with who? Quade Green proved that he was capable of playing both on and off the ball last season and – if I’m being completely honest – it feels like a lot of folks have forgotten about just how good he was to start the year. How good can he be at full-strength and with an extra off-season under his belt? And with that experience, how often will Green handle the ball and run the offense? How often will he play off the ball? And when Green isn’t in the game or handling the ball, how ready are Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley to step in run the offense and get others involved?
There are so many “position battles” with this particular Kentucky squad that they feel more like a football team than a basketball one. And the most interesting battle definitely comes at the point guard spot.
Do Reid Travis and P.J. Washington play together? And if they do, does the other team ever get another rebound?
Since the day Travis announced he’d spend his final season at Kentucky, I have compared the Travis/Washington to the “Bash Brothers” in “Mighty Ducks 2.” I can’t ever remember two bigger, tougher, more physical players teamed up together in the front-court on the same team in college basketball, and I’m fascinated to see them play off each other. I’m also fascinated to see if the other team is able to grab a single rebound when the pair is on the court together. Seriously, good luck with that.
Still, as physically dominating as that pairing can be, what will also be interesting to see is how much each player’s game has improved and expanded. Both were told throughout the NBA Draft process that they need to be more versatile to play at the next level and that their ball-handling and three-point shooting need to improve. The question now is, have either improved? And will they show that improvement within the framework of the team game?
Even as the team’s two most accomplished players entering the Bahamas, both Washington and Travis still have plenty to prove as well.
I need to know more about E.J. Montgomery!
Serious question: Can you remember the last time a consensus Top 10 high school prospect getting less pub coming into a season than Montgomery? Especially at a school like Kentucky? It’s hard for me to think of one.
If anything, isn’t it an indicator of just how good the talent is that Kentucky has accumulated this off-season? Think about it. We’ve spent so much time talking about Ashton Hagans re-classification, P.J. Washington’s return to school and the arrival of Reid Travis, that somehow we’ve just completely glossed over the No. 6 player in the national rankings arriving on campus.
My hunch however is that Montgomery will be heard from in a big way in the Bahamas. There is simply no one on the roster with his skill-set.
And I expect that skill-set to be on full display next week.
And Nick Richards too
Richards is another guy that just seems to be floating wildly under the radar heading into this trip. I mean seriously, I’ve heard more about Kentucky’s uniform combinations in the last three months than I have about a guy who started virtually every game last season.
And ultimately, we all know the answer why: As highly-rated a recruit as Richards was coming to Lexington, he is still very much a work in progress. Which, by the way, is perfectly fine. Most 20-year-old basketball players are a work in progress. And I’m curious to see how far Richards has come along since we saw him in March.
I’m not saying Richards will have a “breakout performance” in the Bahamas or anything like that. But my guess is that he looks better than most people expect.
How much will outside shooting help this team?
No, I haven’t talked much about Jemarl Baker and Tyler Herro to this point, but yes, I absolutely realize how important each is to this team.
Think about it: Kentucky managed to win 26 games and an SEC Tournament title last season, and that was without a true difference-maker from behind the arc. Can you imagine the impact these two can have? Even just the threat of three-point shooting should open passing and driving lanes for the team’s other guards and create more space for the big guys down low. And if Baker and Herro (and Keldon Johnson) can actually hit a few of those threes? The Wildcats are going to be darn near impossible do defend.
While neither Baker nor Herro is the most important “player” on this roster (I’m not sure anyone is), the skill that they bring might be the most important factor in Kentucky’s success this season.
What is this team’s ceiling?
It’s easy to compare this particular Kentucky team to the 2014-2015 squad that also made the voyage to the Bahamas. The 2015 and 2019 squads are the two deepest of John Calipari’s era and arguably the most talented. But to me, there are still some fundamental differences.
The biggest one is that even though this year’s team has plenty of returning talent, it still isn’t quite as much as 2015. Remember that the 2015 Wildcats returned both Harrison twins that season in the backcourt and Willie Cauley-Stein up front, a player who would have gone pro the year before had he not gotten injured in the NCAA Tournament. Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson also had major game experience.
This year’s team has returnees, but outside of Washington, all the experience comes with an asterisk. Green’s minutes and role fluctuated thanks to his mid-season injury and Richards started a bunch of games but rarely finished them. Reid Travis has been a bulldozer in the Pac-12 the last two years, but is still adjusting to a new role, coach and teammates in Lexington. The same with five new freshmen.
Ultimately I’m not sold that this team is as good across the board as the 2015 team, but to be blunt, they don’t have to be. All the pieces are there to win a national championship.
What will be most interesting is to see how far they have to go to get there. And we should start finding out those answers this week.