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:
- 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”)
- Davion Mintz
- Devin Askew
- Terrence Clarke
- BJ Boston
- Keion Brooks Jr.
- PG: Terrence Clarke
- SG: BJ Boston
- SF: Cam’Ron Fletcher
- PF: Jacob Toppin
- C: Isaiah Jackson
- 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.