We have now reached mid-September, which means that with every single day that passes, we get a day closer to the start of college basketball season. At this point the season is so close, you can practically hear Jay Bilas complaining about the referees already!
And if there was any sign that we are in fact getting close to tip-off, it came this weekend, when John Calipari had his state of the union address with the media. He hit on a number of different topics that KSR has covered over the last couple days, ranging from this year’s team, to recruiting and his golf trip with Barack Obama.
Now, with Calipari’s preseason availability done for a few weeks, it’s time to reflect.
Here are nine thoughts on what Coach Cal said, and what it means for this season and beyond:
Calipari on the Lack of Size on this Year’s Team
Quote: “I’m comfortable with it.”
If there was one big talking point this off-season it was the question of whether Kentucky needed another big man for their 2019-2020 roster. The Wildcats struck out with Kerry Blackshear and late with N’Faly Dante, meaning that they are going into the season with a pretty thin frontcourt of just EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards and Nate Sestina.
Not awful, but not ideal.
But if Calipari isn’t worried about the lack of big bodies, neither am I. if anything, I think this all could be a blessing in disguise. Now, this team can play the way they should – which is small, and fast.
Now look, obviously getting Blackshear would have been nice (you don’t turn down guys who averaged a near double-double in the ACC after all), but once he said no, I never believed Dante was going to be the missing piece. He is a traditional, old-school, back-to-the-basket, low-post center. When he was on the court, he certainly would have helped defensively, but also would have slowed down the offense, and taken away what everyone else does best. Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey play best as guards in the open court, and it’s the same with Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks on the wing. Johnny Juzang will hit open buckets if you get it to him in rhythm.
So was it really worth adding one guy, if it would potentially hinder everyone else? In my opinion, the answer is no.
It’s also why I expect Kentucky to play fast, loose and fun this year. Just the way they should.
Calipari on this Team’s Three-Point Shooting Ability
Quote: “Tyrese can really shoot the ball. Johnny can really shoot the ball. The other wings we have — Keion and Kahlil — can shoot it, not as good as those guys, but they shoot it. You’re not going to say, ‘let ’em shoot.’ And you still have Nate and the best thing Nate does is physical but he can shoot. Like he can shoot 3s. EJ’s better, Nick can shoot.”
Every year Calipari claims that this will go down as his best three-point shooting team at Kentucky. But in the case of the 2019-2020 roster, I actually believe it.
Just looking at the raw numbers, Immanuel Quickley shot close to 40 percent from beyond the arc in SEC play last season. Nate Sestina shot 38 percent at Bucknell. Johnny Juzang is lights out from beyond the arc. Tyrese Maxey was one of the best three-point shooters in the entire high school class of 2019. As Calipari said, Keion Brooks and Kahlil Whitney can both hit the deep ball as well.
This team will need work in plenty of areas (more on that coming). But in this particular season, three-point shooting shouldn’t be one of them.
Calipari on Tyrese Maxey
Quote: “I would compare him more to Jamal [Murray],” Calipari said. “He’s not 6-5, 6-6 — Jamal was a little bit bigger than him — but more like a Jamal who can play both positions. You can put him under the basket and let him play basketball [or] you can let him have the ball and make basketball plays. He can do both.”
Full-disclosure, I had seen some people compare Maxey to De’Aaron Fox this off-season, but I never understood it. Outside of the fact that they are both from Texas and have funky hair (that I’m totally jealous of) they really don’t play similarly at all. De’Aaron Fox has once-in-a-generation speed, and athleticism virtually unseen in point guards. Maxey is definitely talented and athletic. But he ain’t De’Aaron Fox.
That’s also why I loved this comparison from Calipari. While Murray is bigger, they play the same game. Neither is crazy athletic, but both can beat you by scoring in a variety of ways. Both are also capable of running the point when needed, but are comfortable playing off the ball as well.
As a matter of fact, after seeing Maxey at the Nike Hoops Summit in April, I actually thought he was most effective when he was playing off the ball. In that game, Cole Anthony (now at North Carolina) was the one handling the point guard spot, and Maxey was free to create off the ball. And it was where he played at his best, both attacking the rim and shooting off the catch. It led the Team USA coach to say after the game that Maxey was the best three-point shooter on the team.
Now this isn’t to say that Maxey can’t play point guard. But with Ashton Hagans handling the ball the majority of the time it puts Maxey in position to do what he does best – score and score often.
Speaking of Ashton Hagans…
Calipari on Ashton Hagans Freshman Season:
Quote: “It’s kind of like you’re running down a dark hallway and you know at some point there’s a wall; how fast do you run? Are you flying? Or are you kind of running and feeling? That’s what it is to play here. You think you know; you’re excited, this means I’m going to be a pro and all I gotta do — and then you start running down the hall and you’re like, ‘Oh geez, where is it?’ That’s this. After you realize that I can do this, this isn’t overwhelming… Some guys get it real fast. It takes other guys more time. I try to tell every kid, ‘You’re on your own path. Don’t worry about him. Just be on your path. Do what you do.’”
One, I love this analogy from John Calipari. As a recently married man I feel like I spend 80 percent of my life running down a dark hallway, hoping not to hit a wall. Usually I end up splattered on the wall like a bug on a windshield anyway. That’s life, I suppose.
But beyond my first few weeks of marital bliss, this also perfectly describes Hagans last year. As great as he was to start the season (who could forget that North Carolina game) he also seemed to hit a freshman wall and struggle down the stretch. Specifically, as his season wore on, his offensive production decreased, his turnovers increased and decision-making got worse. Again, it happens. He was a freshman after all.
With another year under his belt, I truly believe that Hagans can be one of the breakout players not just at Kentucky, but in all of college basketball next season. He’s already a monster defensively and was able to get to the hole against just about any point guard in college basketball last year. With added size, strength and confidence, I’d expect his numbers to go up across the board – not just scoring and assists, but his field goal percentage as well, and for his turnovers to dip.
They say that college basketball players make the biggest jump from their freshmen to sophomore season. And I believe Hagans will be that guy this winter.
Calipari on This Team’s Defense:
Quote: “The best thing I like is we know, on the ball, the defense starts on the ball. If you can’t guard the ball, you have no defense. If you can really guard the ball, you’re going to have a really good defense, especially if you have shot-blocking behind it. Now you can really guard the ball, we don’t have to help, now all the sudden they’re coming in and you’re occupying their eyes before they make a play and you become a pretty good defensive team.”
Honestly, I had never taken the time consider this until Calipari said it, but Kentucky has a chance to be a FEROCIOUS defense this season. Like Cal said, defense starts on the ball, and Kentucky not only has three tough-minded guards to spearhead it (Hagans, Quickley and Maxey) but two of them have college experience. For this year’s backcourt, there will be no learning on the fly on the perimeter. Hagans and Quickley will be ready to go from Day 1. Ideally, they’ll get Maxey up to speed too.
So that’s the good news, and the even better news is that the aggression on the ball could help make up for the Wildcats’ one weakness, which is down in the paint. If Hagans, Quickley and Maxey make life miserable on the perimeter for opposing point guards, it also means that Kentucky’s lack of rim protection (outside of Nick Richards) will be somewhat mitigated.
If the other team can’t get to the rim, having elite shot-blocking isn’t nearly as much of a necessity, right?
Calipari on EJ Montgomery:
Quote: “He is a genius in that his mind is sharp; it is quick; he’s bouncy, athletically — now he’s gotta get more consistent with his skills,” Calipari said of his returning five-star power forward. “He’s got to, basically, master his craft. Can I do that for him? That’s where he is. He has to physically mature. I can’t do that for him.”
This was arguably Calipari’s most interesting quote, if only because it confirms a lot of what we saw last year. There is no doubt that Montgomery is talented. You don’t get to be a McDonald’s All-American and consensus Top 10 recruit if you’re not.
At the same time, the one thing that seemed to lack with Montgomery last season was confidence. Too often it felt like he was thinking on the court, rather than just playing – and Calipari’s quote basically says exactly that.
The question now is can Montgomery do as Calipari says, and get his skill-work and basketball instincts, to move as quickly as his mind does?
If Montgomery just goes out there and starts playing the way EJ Montgomery is capable of playing, he has the size and talent to be one of the best big men in college basketball.
Calipari on Recruiting:
Quote: “Are we the hat? Are you serious?” he said. “By us recruiting, they think that verifies them as a professional player. We’re like Hawaii, everyone wants a visit, they’re just not coming here. I get it, I understand it. But it’s our job, my job, to figure out what it is. The kids that we’ve gotten are the kids that were supposed to be here, and the kids that went elsewhere, they shouldn’t have come here. My issue is, how much of my time and money recruiting kids that wanted to be told stuff that I was not willing to say? I’m not changing.”
This is just another fascinating quote to me for so many different reasons. The first, and less significant reason is that Calipari now believes that recruits are using interest from Kentucky to justify themselves. In other words, UK has become the “one and done” school. So, when a kid gets an offer from Kentucky, it kind of justifies them as a potential NBA prospect, whether they’re actually interested in Kentucky or not. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is still interesting to hear from Cal’s perspective.
On a deeper level though, the part about being the “hat” is what is most fascinating to me. It seems as though Calipari is no longer willing to go after a kid simply because he’s an elite prospect, or one of the best players in high school basketball. Calipari needs to know that there is real, genuine interest on both sides to seriously pursue them.
I think it’s a smart approach, and we are already seeing the dividends.
Remember last season, when Calipari chased around a bunch of elite big guys (specifically Vernon Carey and Isaiah Stewart – James Wiseman is another, but I do believe he would have ended up at Kentucky if Penny Hardaway wasn’t at Memphis) and ended up with none of them? While pursuing them, Kentucky may have missed out on other players who would have been interested in playing for the Wildcats, and it appears Calipari won’t make the same mistake twice. Just as an example, there is Lance Ware. With all due respect, Ware is a fast-rising prospect who had a monster summer. But would Calipari have recruited him so early on last season? I’m not sure. This year he did, and now the Wildcats have a big man verbally committed to join the program next season.
By the way, one more random thought: With Calipari basically admitting that he won’t go after kids unless he believes they have genuine interest in Kentucky, isn’t that a great sign for the recruitment of Cade Cunningham, the No. 2 prospect in America? For those who haven’t followed, Cunningham’s brother coaches at Oklahoma State, but he has been adamant that he is considering other programs besides the Cowboys.
So after what Calipari said about recruiting, do you really believe he would go after the kid if he didn’t think he would sign him? I don’t think so. And maybe it’s a sign that the Wildcats might just get him after all.
Calipari on This Year’s Schedule:
Quote: “We got some ridiculous games again early. We can get banged again early, first game like we did last year and ‘the season’s over.’”
Anyone else feel like Calipari is trying to warn the fans about the opener against Michigan State here? That he is basically saying, “Look, I like my team. But that team we open with can beat us. And by the way, if they do beat us, don’t freak out. We will be just fine going forward.”
It isn’t fun to talk about, but when you open the season with the Champions Classic – and either Michigan State, Kansas or Duke – the possibility is there that you will also open with a loss. Like what happened last year.
On the flip side, as bad as things started out last year, they ended up pretty well.
Which brings me to…
Calipari on Last Year’s Team:
Quote: “We won 30, should’ve been in the Final Four, should’ve won the national title, in my mind.”
We’re now six months removed from last season, so it’s easy to forget how things actually played out for the Wildcats. No, not the loss to Auburn, but instead the lead-up to it. It’s also easy to forget that Kentucky was playing as well as anyone in the country by the middle of February last season, and only slowed down when Reid Travis and PJ Washington both when down with injury. Many (including Calipari) believe that had both stayed healthy, the Wildcats could have played with anyone in the country. It’s something I discussed this with PJ Washington on my podcast a few months ago, but if he and Reid Travis had stayed healthy down the stretch, there is no telling what this team might have accomplished.
That obviously shows the fickle nature of the sport, but also how, even as bad as things started last season, Calipari once again had Kentucky in the mix by March.
There’s no telling what this season will bring, but if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around, Kentucky will be able to play with anybody.
Expect the same this year, as we’re now just weeks away from the start of the season.