Sitting at 7-13 on the year with just four confirmed games on the schedule to close out the regular season, opportunities for Kentucky to turn things around are slim, to say the least. Even considering John Calipari’s push to add “a couple games” to the schedule during the last week of the regular season, we’re talking six more games heading into SEC Tournament play, meaning the absolute best winning percentage UK can have is .500 at 13-13 overall.
Sure, the Wildcats could end the regular season on a magical eight-game winning streak, make a run in Nashville and claim the SEC title to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, creating a season restart of sorts. Coach Cal and the players are certainly dreaming big, using every media opportunity to talk about how they still have plenty to play for.
But what if UK runs out of runway and they’re unable to win it all in Nashville, essentially ending the team’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament? What if they never get the storybook finish Calipari is hoping for?
With that possibility very much on the table, along with the never-ending COVID-19 hurdles, inconsistent play, injuries, lack of fans, and, to put it bluntly, an underwhelming college experience this season, would a two-year plan make fans feel better about the complete product? Instead of looking at it as one horrible season, what if UK avoided a mass exodus and returned the majority of its roster, creating a two-year project for Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff?
Think back to the 2019-20 roster that saw Nick Richards (junior), Immanuel Quickley (sophomore) EJ Montgomery (sophomore) and Ashton Hagans (sophomore) all return from the year before, with Nate Sestina (graduate transfer) also seeing significant playing time. The team finished 25-6 on the year, but won nine of its last ten games down the stretch, with the lone loss coming in a game the Wildcats led by 17 points in the second half against Tennessee. We’ll never find out if that team was capable of winning a national championship, but they were playing as well as anyone down the stretch, and a big reason for that was the standout play of the team’s veteran leaders.
Looking back at the Calipari era in Lexington, that 2019-20 group was the most experienced in terms of returning pieces and incoming graduate transfers since the 2016-17 roster brought back five in Isaiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins, Isaac Humphries, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis. The historic 2014-15 roster returned the most during Calipari’s tenure, bringing back eight scholarship players in Willie Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Hawkins, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Willis.
Before we get any further, let me first state the obvious that it’s impossible to pencil in returnees this far in advance, no matter how the season is going or how individual players are performing. At Kentucky, players who should return are not always the ones that actually do, with last year being the prime example. In an ideal world, Hagans, Montgomery and Kahlil Whitney (who left the program in January 2020) don’t enter the NBA Draft – all three went undrafted – and Johnny Juzang returns for another season as opposed to transferring out of the program, giving Kentucky five returning pieces to work with this year as opposed to just one in Keion Brooks Jr. They didn’t, and UK was left scrambling to replace 94 percent of its scoring, 98.6 percent of its assists, and 92.4 percent of its minutes from the year before.
In past years, though, the team success has at least been there. They got the full Kentucky experience with fans, high-profile events and campus life, even if the 2019-20 group had its postseason dreams ripped away due to COVID-19. This year, the losses are piling up and the individual on-court performances have been inconsistent and largely underwhelming. As a result, draft stock has dipped across the board, with Isaiah Jackson being the lone exception.
Considering the context of the season as it stands now, it certainly feels likely that UK could see as many as eight returning players from the current roster (including West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe).
We’ll start with the likely departures in Brandon Boston Jr., Terrence Clarke and Jackson. Despite significant shooting struggles for Boston to start the year, along with an injury-plagued season for Clarke, both players came in on one-year-no-matter-what plans, and that hasn’t changed. It would be a major shock to see either return for sophomore seasons. And with Jackson blowing up as a surefire first round pick and inching closer toward the consensus lottery line with his elite shot-blocking and rebounding abilities, fans should prepare for his inevitable departure, as well.
Nearly pursuing his professional options last offseason, senior transfer Olivier Sarr also came in on a one-year plan, and it would be a surprise to see him return, as well.
From there, though, anything and everything is on the table.
In terms of importance, Keion Brooks Jr. is the key piece to keep an eye on, as the sophomore forward has shown significant growth from year one to year two, but he’s not currently listed on any of the major draft boards in 2021. Factor in the calf injury that kept him out of play till January, Brooks could look at this season as a bridge year before taking off in 2021-22 as one of the top returnees in college basketball.
The other big name to watch? Graduate transfer Davion Mintz, who has emerged as Kentucky’s go-to scorer in crunch time, drilling three go-ahead 3-point attempts and two game-winners in SEC play. Pursuing his Master’s degree, both Mintz and his father have acknowledged that a return for his second season at Kentucky and sixth as a college basketball player is on the table. That’d give UK two of its top five scorers back, with both Brooks and Mintz averaging at least 10 points per game.
Rounding out the fringe players, Oscar Tshiebwe could technically enter the NBA Draft and give fans a scare similar to that of Hamidou Diallo, who tested the draft waters after his mid-year addition in 2016-17. After leaving West Virginia mid-season and enrolling to open the spring semester, though, he’s already put in quite a bit of work to get to Lexington and start preparing for the 2021-22 season when he could have simply opted out and begun training for the draft. As we’ve seen before, you can never say never at Kentucky, but Tshiebwe is expected back next season as the team’s anchor in the frontcourt.
From there, you’re past the point of players even remotely ready to explore their professional options, with all expected back barring a transfer.
Averaging 30.3 minutes per game – tied for second on the team – Devin Askew has certainly had his fair share of struggles in terms of shooting and turnovers, but second-year guards have seen consistent growth at UK under Calipari, including the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Andrew Harrison. Despite Kentucky’s recent string of bad luck with West Coast talent transferring away from the program, sources close to Askew tell KSR that the Sacramento, CA native is happy with Calipari’s hard coaching and constructive criticism, his role on the team, and the program’s long-term plans for him in Lexington. As he promised before arriving on campus, a transfer is not expected this offseason.
As for the other likely returnees, Jacob Toppin came in as a long-term project piece for Calipari and wasn’t even expected to play this season prior to the NCAA’s decision to grant a free year of eligibility for student-athletes competing in winter sports. Establishing himself as one of Kentucky’s most consistent role players off the bench, there is strong optimism within the program regarding Toppin’s potential down the road. It would be a shock to see him leave, as well.
Like Toppin, Lance Ware came in as a multi-year project, looking for long-term development with his body and game as a whole. He knew from the beginning his path would likely be different than other high-profile prospects, so the fluctuating minutes and production shouldn’t have come as a shock. There are no transfer rumblings with him as of today, and unless he feels like the odd man out in the frontcourt or that he’s being recruited over, they’re not expected to transpire this offseason.
And then there were two, with Dontaie Allen and Cam’Ron Fletcher seen as the two biggest question marks going into next season.
Even following Allen’s zero-minute outing in Kentucky’s loss at Louisville earlier this season, those close to the redshirt freshman told KSR that a transfer was not on the table during winter break or during the upcoming offseason, regardless of circumstance. In recent weeks, though, that tune has shifted, with numerous individuals telling KSR the 6-foot-6 sharpshooter would take a wait-and-see approach to the offseason and his future as a whole. While it’s certainly no guarantee Allen leaves the program – the Falmouth, KY native grew up a diehard UK fan and understands he came in a few steps behind due to injury – there is an expectation that Calipari may have to do a bit of recruiting and get on the same page regarding fit and usage moving forward. Above all else, the optics of losing a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball standout to the transfer portal would be a poor look for the program.
As for Fletcher, the St. Louis, MO native’s frustrations were well documented and publicized early in the season, with Calipari going as far as sending him home back in December due to “actions detrimental to (the) team.” There are mixed opinions among those close to the freshman forward regarding his future, with a select few believing his departure is inevitable this offseason, and others who feel he will spend the summer working himself out of Calipari’s doghouse leading up to a turnaround sophomore campaign.
From a pure talent and development standpoint, both players should return. Will they? It will be interesting to see how things play out.
Say Kentucky pulls off the clean sweep with players that could (and should) return in 2021-22, eight in total. Without adding any new high school signees or transfers, this is a rough draft at the team’s depth chart going into next season, give or take a few position adjustments:
Devin Askew/Nolan Hickman
Davion Mintz/Dontaie Allen
Keion Brooks Jr./Cam’Ron Fletcher
Daimion Collins/Jacob Toppin/Bryce Hopkins
Oscar Tshiebwe/Lance Ware
The starters and positional fits are subject to change, but as things stand today, that’s 11 players on a deep and experienced roster that boasts three traditional sophomores, one redshirt sophomore, three juniors, and one sixth-year senior. It would be a roster that closely resembles that of a traditional, balanced, competitive college basketball team as opposed to a constant turnstile of players entering the professional ranks, something fans have been begging for throughout the Calipari era.
The season has been long and frustrating, but would avoiding a mass exodus make up for it in 2021-22? Would a multi-year roster reconstruction make missing the NCAA Tournament this season worthwhile?