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Kentucky becomes immediate title contenders with Olivier Sarr and Jacob Toppin declared eligible

Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Chet White | UK Athletics

With just over a month until the 2020-21 college basketball season tips off, the clock was ticking on Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr in his pursuit of immediate eligibility this year at Kentucky.

Without him, UK was seen as a consensus top-25 team and likely NCAA Tournament team, but that was nearly all you could say about a roster that lost 94 percent of its scoring, 98.6 percent of its assists, and 92.4 percent of its minutes from the year before, with Keion Brooks Jr. being the lone returning rotation player. Replacing that lost production? Six high school signees, one graduate transfer, and redshirt freshman Dontaie Allen, who missed all of last year with a torn ACL and broken collarbone.

BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are good, elite even. They were going to almost single-handedly win games no matter the situation. Brooks Jr. is expected to see a significant jump in production as a sophomore, as well.

But when you looked at the roster overall, the glaring hole in the frontcourt was impossible to ignore. Highly touted forwards Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware will contribute, but how much can you put on their shoulders this early? Where is the experience coming from? Where is the depth? Star power?

Those questions – all fair – were answered when Sarr received confirmation from the NCAA and SEC Wednesday evening that his waivers for immediate eligibility had been granted.

“I want to start by thanking the NCAA, the SEC and Kentucky for this opportunity,” Sarr said in the official press release. “I am excited to finish my college career in front of the Big Blue Nation and chase No. 9 with my team.”

We’ll start with Sarr as a player.

Averaging 13.7 points (52.7 percent shooting, 76 percent FT), 9.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game as a junior, the native of Toulouse, France is an elite all-around offensive threat with touch around the basket, growing range as a shooter, and solid vision as a passer. At 7-feet, 243 pounds, Sarr is an anchor down low, capable of throwing his weight around and creating space in the post.

Albeit slightly different players, compare Sarr’s situation to that of Nick Richards last year at Kentucky. While Richards – 6-11, 247 pounds – has the slight upper hand on the defensive end of the floor, Sarr is considered a bit more skilled and versatile offensively, but the consistent production on both ends is the ultimate takeaway.

On the surface, Richards was good to give you 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks every time he set foot on the court for Kentucky last year, right on par with the 14-9-1 stat line Sarr averaged in three fewer minutes per game in 2019-20. Taking a closer look, Sarr boasts a per-40 stat line of 20.6 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks, while Richards put up 18.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks in the same span last season. Overall, Sarr had an offensive rating – points scored or produced per 100 possessions – of 120.4 and a defensive rating – points allowed per 100 possessions – of 100.8 in 2019-20 compared to Richards’ offensive rating of 127.8 and defensive rating of 95.8.

Pick your poison between the two, that part is irrelevant. What matters is Kentucky found a way to replace Richards’ nightly production and veteran leadership with one signing. Game-changer.

And then came Rhode Island transfer Jacob Toppin, who originally signed with Kentucky this summer with the idea of sitting out the 2020-21 season to develop his body and game before returning next year. The plan was to sit one and play two, but the NCAA’s decision to grant Division I student-athletes competing in winter sports an additional year of eligibility threw a wrench into things. If Toppin can help out the team this year – even slightly – why not take a shot at a waiver when he can still stick with his original timeline if one is granted?

That sequence of events came to fruition, as Toppin’s immediate eligibility was announced alongside Sarr’s Wednesday evening.

“This is a big day for me and I want to thank the NCAA and my Kentucky family for their help in this process,” said Toppin. “I can’t wait to get on the court with this group of guys and play in front of our fans.”

Toppin, listed at 6-foot-9, 187 pounds, averaged 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds in 30 games played as a freshman, including three starts. More specifically, he finished in double figures against Saint Joseph’s (12), LIU (11), LSU (10), Alabama (11), and Richmond (12), shooting 42.6 percent from the floor overall.

On the surface, it’s a depth addition for the upcoming season, but could prove to be necessary down the road. While the college basketball schedule is being finalized and decision makers are full steam ahead on the season, it’s still important to keep in mind that uncertainty remains on what this season will actually look like. In non-bubble sports – NFL, MLB, and college football, just to name a few – players missing games and postponements have become a common theme. Should UK need emergency help at times, they now have a strong role player with double-digit scoring experience against DI talent at their disposal. There’s immense value in that, especially when you consider Kentucky needed to bring in a 6-foot-9 pitcher from the school’s baseball team for depth reasons last year.

But what if he’s not just a depth piece? What if he’s further along than anticipated and could carve out a role in the rotation? There’s talk behind the scenes that he’s been impressing in early practices.

“Jacob is active, man,” one source close to the program told KSR. “He’s got a good read for the ball, great teammate, plays with a lot of energy. I love his energy. I think he’s going to shock some people.”

Kentucky’s got their two wait-and-see players locked in for the season. Now, it’s time to look at the unit as a whole, 11 scholarship pieces in all.

PG: Devin Askew/Davion Mintz

SG: Terrence Clarke/Dontaie Allen

SF: BJ Boston/Cam’Ron Fletcher/Jacob Toppin

PF: Keion Brooks Jr./Lance Ware

C: Olivier Sarr/Isaiah Jackson

Looking at each player individually, Askew, Boston, Clarke and Jackson were listed as five-stars by at least one recruiting service, with Ware and Fletcher coming in as four-stars. All high school signees are seen as consensus top-80 prospects, with Boston being rated as high as No. 5, Clarke as high as No. 8, Askew as high as No. 26, Jackson as high as No. 28, Ware as high as No. 36, and Fletcher as high as No. 49.

As for the incoming transfers, Mintz started 79 total games for Creighton, playing in two NCAA Tournaments, one NIT and three Big East Tournaments. Sarr played 85 games with 31 starts, earning All-ACC Third Team and ACC Most Improved Player runner-up honors in 2020. Toppin played 30 games and started three in his first season at Rhode Island.

To continue the trend of experience, Brooks Jr. appeared in all 31 games for the Wildcats during his freshman campaign, including six starts. Dontaie Allen sat out the entire 2019-20 season due to injury, but he learned the system while watching from the bench to start the year and ramping up his efforts in practice to close things out.

Looking at the roster from top to bottom, it’s tough to find any major weakness or area of concern. Star talent? Check. Experience? Got it. Shooting? Mhm. Length? Absolutely. Depth? Arguably the best in college basketball.

With specific lineups and rotations, John Calipari can get absolutely nutty with this roster if he wants to, and he will.

Here are just a few examples beyond the aforementioned potential day-one depth chart:

Size lineup

  • PG: Terrence Clarke (6’7”)
  • SG: BJ Boston (6’7”)
  • SF: Keion Brooks Jr. (6’7”)
  • PF: Isaiah Jackson (6’10”)
  • C: Olivier Sarr (7’0”)

Small-ball lineup

  • Davion Mintz
  • Devin Askew
  • Terrence Clarke
  • BJ Boston
  • Keion Brooks Jr.

Athletic lineup

  • PG: Terrence Clarke
  • SG: BJ Boston
  • SF: Cam’Ron Fletcher
  • PF: Jacob Toppin
  • C: Isaiah Jackson

Shooting lineup

  • PG: Davion Mintz
  • SG: Devin Askew
  • SF: Dontaie Allen
  • PF: BJ Boston
  • C: Olivier Sarr

However wacky you want to get with it, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Calipari and the UK coaching staff have been preaching “positionless” basketball for years now, and this roster is lined with pieces to truly make it happen.

Since Calipari has been in Lexington, the teams that finished in the Elite Eight or further – 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2019 – have had star talent, experience and depth.

Prior to the approved waivers for Sarr and Toppin, the 2020-21 roster had two star pieces in Boston and Clarke, but could have used a third. They had two experienced pieces in Brooks Jr. and Mintz, but could have used a third. They had depth at the guard and wing positions, but needed more in the frontcourt.

With Sarr and Toppin both eligible, all the unchecked boxes are filled and the holes are gone. Kentucky has assembled one of the most complete rosters in the nation, and it’s one that can, without question, compete for a national championship.

Article written by Jack Pilgrim

Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR

12 Comments for Kentucky becomes immediate title contenders with Olivier Sarr and Jacob Toppin declared eligible

  1. mashman 93
    6:16 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    This is gonna be fun. GO CATS!!!

  2. JT55
    6:19 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    Gonna be fun, even with the growing pains.

  3. CahillsCrossingNT
    6:43 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    They’ll prove overhyped once again.

    • runningunnin.454
      8:43 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

      You mean like Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish? They were the most overrated group in the history of the world. I predict this UK team will get better over the season; rather than worse like the Dookie novas.

  4. BigBluSoTru
    7:33 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    What year are we not title contenders every year we have the top or 2nd ranked class off talent. So this hype is just that .

  5. DoubleB65
    8:04 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    The national media isn’t quite as high as KSR. I think the ceiling is pretty high. The question will be chemistry. That’s the one thing no one can predict.

  6. Miller45
    8:48 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    I wonder what effect social distancing will have on home court advantage?

  7. CJKAssassin123
    10:12 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    Guys Jacob Toppin is going to be a really good player for us the kid has the ability and potential to be as good as his brother Obi Toppin(yes the Obi Toppin that is now rumored to going #1 to the Timberwolves.) If we becomes even close to being as good as his brother than UK is going to be going to have a star for the next few years. Olivier Sarr has being compared to Davis from a defensive standpoint. Plus he’s a great 3 point shooter and even better from the perimeter. Trust me this group is built differently most of Cal’s teams. Why you may ask? Well it’s because a lot of these guys are all coming in knowing 100% of the fundamentals of basketball which means Coach Cal doesn’t have to waste majority of his time teaching these guys the fundamentals of basketball,or teaching these guys what they can and cannot do. All he has to do is get them to play together and for each other just like in 2012 and 2015. We all know how much fun those seasons were despite to sad ending to the 2015 season (Stupid freaking Wisconsin).

    • Corder
      11:33 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

      Olivia is not a great 3 point shooter at all. He may be very good down low but he is not a 3 shooter. The man shot 14.3% from 3 last year and only 25% the two prior years. Also don’t think he will ever be as good as Davis on D. He will be solid down low for us but is no where near a game changer like Davis. He doesn’t have to be either on this team we just need him to play solid D and get buckets and put backs down low.

  8. Aar
    10:29 pm October 22, 2020 Permalink

    I’m really excited about this team. Both the presumed starting five and the depth appear high level and to fit. No overload at one position with a gap in another position like recent seasons. At the beginning of the season I’m looking forward to seeing who will be in Cal’s end of game lineup. For now, I suspect it will be Mintz, Clark, Boston, Brooks and Sarr but it will be different by February.

  9. BigBluSoTru
    12:09 am October 23, 2020 Permalink

    Sarr is not a good defensive player and nowhere near Davis and stop with the KSR hyperbole on Toppin being better than his brother KSR has put that crap out reaching.

  10. sharpshooter81
    12:57 am October 23, 2020 Permalink

    Sarr was always the X factor to how good this UK can be. He put them over the hump and makes them Final Four legit. UK will move up at least 8-10 spots in the polls now.