Key Departures: Brandon Boston (NBA); Olivier Sarr (Grad); Isaiah Jackson (NBA); Devin Askew (–>Texas); Cam’Ron Fletcher (🡪Florida St);
New In Town: Oscar Tshiebwe (<–WVU); CJ Fredrick (<–Iowa); Sahvir Wheeler (<–Georgia); Kellan Grady (<–Davidson); TyTy Washington (#14); Daimion Collins (#15); Bryce Hopkins (#38)
State of the Program:
It’s business as usual for John Calipari as he enters another season where he will have to re-tool his roster after a swath of Freshman bolted from the program. Last season was historically bad both by Kentucky standards and Calipari standards, as both ironically hadn’t finished a season sub-.500 since the 1989 season, Calipari’s 1st as a HC at UMass. Cal has been the one-and-done czar since really anyone could even claim the title, and has used it to reach 6 Final Fours and 1 National Championship. This season he has gone away from it a little bit as he begins to feel the pressures of an irritable Kentucky fan base. He has brought in a big group of transfers, again taking advantage of a new rule change as he looks to inject some experience into the program. He will also welcome back a decent sized group by his standards that includes a starter from a season ago in G Davion Mintz (SR) as well as key reserves F Keion Brooks (JR), F Jacob Toppin (JR), G Dontaie Allen (SO) and F Lance Ware (SO). The combination of returners and the shift toward transfers leaves Calipari with only 3 freshmen incoming, the smallest class at Kentucky since the Calipari era began in 2010. I’m viewing this as a test in a change of philosophy for Cal going forward, as he shifts to use the new auto-transfer rules to his advantage.
Leading this new transfer group is for Mountaineer big man Oscar Tshiebwe (JR). Tshiebwe was a beast for WVU and was All-Big 12 his freshman season, but quit the team just 10 games into last season and announced his intent to transfer in the following days. He will undoubtedly come in and start at the 5 for Calipari and be an immediate impact in the paint on both ends of the floor. Kellan Grady (SR) also comes into the program looking to start, and will have the most hardware of anyone on the roster as a 3x All-Conference selection in the A-10 with Davidson. All Grady did at Davidson was fill it up, never averaging less than 17 ppg over his 113 starts all while shooting just shy of 37% from 3 at a high volume. He can score at all 3 levels and should be one of the go to playmakers for Calipari. A couple more guards were brought in and have a chance to steal the last backcourt spot next to Mintz and Grady, and the leader of that group is CJ Frederick (JR) from Iowa. Fredrick is an absolute sniper from deep and has shot nearly 47% from 3 over his 2 seasons with the Hawkeyes. His shooting ability will give him a role, how he elevates his defense to reach Cal’s standards will determine how large that role is. The other G coming in is Sahvir Wheeler (JR) out of Georgia who was an All-SEC selection last season after leading the offense and scoring 14 ppg along with 7 apg. Cal could use Wheeler as the primary PG and slide Mintz to the 2 and Grady to the 3, and that is the most likely scenario, but Mintz could lead the show with Grady and Fredrick flanking him. Either way there’s a good amount of talent here, not to mention the freshman G coming in TyTy Washington (#14). Washington is gifted at scoring the basketball as he can hit step back 3’s, attack and finish through contact, and pull up in the midrange. He will have to continue to develop as a passer but already shows ability to breakdown the defense and create. This gives Cal another option at the point, and this kid certainly has the potential to be significantly better than both Wheeler and Mintz. However it shakes out, those 5 will serve as one of the more talented backcourt groups in the country. 6’9” F Daimion Collins (#15) is the other 5-star coming to campus, and has a ton of potential due to his length and athleticism. At this stage he’s a wiry athlete that can handle it a bit, but is at his best in the paint finishing above the rim and blocking shots. His offensive game is raw and a work in progress, but if he can put some things together he could be a lottery pick. The last newcomer is 6’7” Bryce Hopkins (#38), who gives me Justise Winslow vibes, comes in as an undersized frontcourt guy who will need to improve his jumper to fit his ideal role as a stretch 4. He excels in the face-up game at this stage, where he can attack for himself or for others. He may emerge in a year or two playing sparingly this season.
There is a ton of talent here once again for Calipari, but it looks a little different than we’ve become accustomed to. He will likely only play 2 FR a lot of minutes, with veterans likely being the stars. If I had to project a starting lineup I think it’d look like Washington, Mintz, Grady, Brooks, and Tshiebwe with Wheeler, Frederick, Allen, Ware, Toppin and Collins competing to be a part of a very talented second unit. The Wheeler Washington battle will be interesting to watch, as Cal may need Wheeler’s experience running the ship The question mark in my mind is who’s the star? Washington is not quite developed enough to be a Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs and lead this team, and Grady is largely unproven at a high major level. Those are the two leading candidates, but that lack of a clear leader is problematic. I think the Wildcats get back on track and are dancing again with this group, but I don’t think they have the top end talent to get to another Final Four.