The state of Kentucky will be the epicenter of college basketball next season as Kentucky, Louisville, and yes, Western Kentucky University are all set for great seasons thanks to some talented players taking their names out of the NBA Draft. What follows is a breakdown for why each team will be successful, and the biggest roadblocks in their way for the 2019-2020 season.
As long as John Calipari is the head coach at Kentucky, the Wildcats will enter each season with a great deal of hype thanks to a great recruiting class. The 2019-2020 season will be no different. Even with losing its top four scorers from a year ago, Kentucky will enter next season as a consensus top-5 team.
This is in most part thanks to the fact that the Wildcats will return Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery. Both considered entering the NBA Draft, but they pulled their names out of the process earlier this week right before the deadline.
The biggest reason why Kentucky will be great once again is that the Wildcats will be two players deep at every position. Hagans and Quickly also return at the point guard spot, and they will be joined by five very talented freshman who help make up the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation. Add in experienced transfer Nate Sestina from Bucknell and you have one of the deepest teams in the nation. A more precise breakdown looks like this:
PG: Ashton Hagans/Immanuel Quickley
SG: Tyrese Maxey/Johnny Juzang
SF: Kahlil Whitney/Dontaie Allen
PF: EJ Montgomery/Keion Brooks
C: Nick Richards/Nate Sestina
Of course, Kentucky’s 2019-2020 roster is not set in stone just yet. Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. is still rumored to be considering a possible transfer to UK where he will be eligible to play immediately. If that happens, be prepared to see the Wildcats as a possible preseason No. 1 in some polls.
Also, Dontaie Allen is still a possibility to redshirt his freshman season. If Blackshear comes and Allen redshirts, I would expect Brooks to slide down as the backup small forward (yes, he is versatile enough to play there) and Blackshear to possibly start at either center or power forward.
As far as roadblocks, I see three possible ones for the Wildcats. First, they really need Blackshear to transfer. There is a lack of high-end talent in the frontcourt right now and he would fix that need. Secondly, can the trio of Maxey/Whitney/Juzang provide UK with at least two players who will be stars in March? Finally (and more importantly), can Hagans take that next step as the lead point guard? As we all know, he didn’t exactly end the season great back in March. If Hagans improves and the other potential problems are fixed, then this might be the team cutting down the nets in 2020.
Tyrese Maxey pull-game is certified pic.twitter.com/bhbbp3OYb5
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) September 26, 2018
Somebody pinch me. Its starting to feel like a whole lot like 2013 all over again as the Louisville Cardinals are set to have one of college basketball’s best teams this upcoming season. Yes, this is admittedly a team that just lost 14 games and fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to *checks notes* Minnesota.
However, never underestimate a team that returns the vast majority of its production from the previous season. The Cardinals are returning three starters, 76% of their scoring, and 80% of their rebounding. Add in the fact that they will also be adding Saint Joe’s transfer Fresh Kimble (15.6 ppg) and a top 10 recruiting class and you got a preseason top-10 (possibly top-5) squad.
Chris Mack has done a truly amazing job getting the Cardinals back on track so quickly after just one year at Louisville. I think he is a legitimate top-15 coach on the college level, and this program is back in business as long as he is there.
But what does all this mean for next season? Quite frankly, I still don’t think this roster is as talented as Kentucky’s, but that’s a pretty high bar to meet. On most nights this Louisville team will straight up have the more talented team than anyone else they play. After Virginia, the Cardinals are probably going to finish second in the ACC if they can overcome another talented Duke team.
However, I still have questions about how talented their frontcourt is. While Steven Enoch returning was huge, no other big man stood out last season. Plus, how good will Kimble be? Their depth at point guard seems a bit questionable so it will largely be on his shoulders to lead Louisville far into the postseason. Also, who will step up ad be that true No. 2 option after Jordan Nwora? Will it be Kimble or freshman Samuel Williamson? Who knows.
Louisville commit Samuel Williamson has shown flashes these last two days at 6-7 with polished footwork and soft touch. Strong skill foundation. pic.twitter.com/wJ3xmLR681
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 26, 2019
While a Championship or Final Four run still seems unlikely to me, I think this is absolutely a roster that can (and should) make the Elite Eight in 2020.
Surprised by this? You shouldn’t be. Believe it or not, the Hilltoppers will have a genuinely good roster next season that has borderline top-25 talent.
Like Louisville, WKU will be returning just about everything from last season. Not only do the Hilltoppers return four starters who all averaged figures in scoring, but overall WKU will be returning six of its top eight players.
Most importantly, rising sophomore big man Charles Bassey took his name out of the Draft just minutes before the deadline. Make no mistake about this: Bassey is a first round talent. The only reason he fell in the eyes of many scouts is because of his durability. Injuries throughout last season slowed down Bassey and made him look slower and less athletic then he really is. If he can stay healthy and improve upon averaging a double-double and 2.4 blocks per game, then he will be a lock for a top-20 pick.
Charles Bassey flexin’ pic.twitter.com/uUWWqeRQCo
— Mike Rutherford (@CardChronicle) November 17, 2018
The hype does not end there for the Hilltoppers. They will also be adding two transfers who both averaged double figures in scoring for their former Division I teams. First is Cameron Justice who last played for IUPUI where he averaged 18.6 ppg. He is considered the favorite to start at point guard. Carson Williams is also now eligible after sitting out last season. Williams last played for Northern Kentucky where he averaged 12 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. In case you didn’t notice, the addition of both of these players means that the Hilltoppers now have three former Kentucky Mr. Basketball winners on one team: Justice, Williams, and Taveion Hollingsworth.
Point Guard Kenny Cooper from Lipscomb also transferred to WKU in the spring. Cooper started the last two years for Lipscomb as he managed to average 9.8 points 4.5 assists, and 2 steals a game last season. As of now, Copper is still applying for a waiver to play this season as he currently has to sit out this season due to transfer rules.
Also, 4-star and top-100 recruit Jordan Rawls is still considering reclassifying to WKU’s 2019 class. The possibility of either Cooper or Rawls (or both) being able to play in the 2019-2020 season would be the cherry on top for the Hilltoppers.
Considering that WKU will have all of this talent in the relatively weak C-USA, this should be a team that wins around 25 games in the regular season. Can coach Rick Stansbury get this team to finally win the C-USA Tournament and win a game in the NCAA Tournament? Well, if its not this team then I don’t think any squad Stansbury puts together will do it. The pressure is on in Bowling Green to finally deliver.
Overall, the biggest reason why this article exists is to showcase the very real chance that all three of these teams could be ranked in the top-25 at some point during the regular season. Yes, this depends on WKU finally meeting expectations under Stansbury. But I think there is a very real chance that by mid-February the Hilltoppers will join both the Wildcats and Cardinals in the top-25.