John Calipari has built the Kentucky program on rebuilding with a generally new core every season, and this season will be no different. The Wildcats lose 94% of their scoring, 98.8% of their assists and 84.4% of their rebounding, and yet it feels as if nothing is different. Calipari is bringing the top recruiting class in the country, as well as one of the best grad transfers on the market as the Kentucky train continues to chug along. The questions for the Wildcats come down to their ability to find quality depth outside of their starting five as they look to be gearing up for another strong conference campaign and a deep NCAA tournament run.
Who’s Back, Who’s Gone?
This section differs from most SEC teams because for Kentucky, the departures equate to the entire roster of scholarship players, outside of Keion Brooks Jr. Gone is SEC Player of the Year G Immanuel Quickley, as well as potential NBA Draft selections G Tyrese Maxey, F Nick Richards, G Ashton Hagans and F EJ Montgomery. Additionally, the Wildcats lose Bucknell grad transfer F Nate Sestina to graduation, as well as F Kahlil Whitney (NBA Draft/defection) and G Johnny Juzang (transfer to UCLA). However, the losses from last season’s team are hardly paralleled from Kentucky teams in the past due to the amount that is being lost. The 2020-21 Kentucky roster has suffered the most turnover from a percentage of minutes played and points scored since 2012-13, which was the only Kentucky team to not make the NCAA tournament under Calipari (outside of this past season).
The returning players list for Kentucky is very short: F Keion Brooks Jr. and F Dontaie Allen are the only scholarship players returning for the Wildcats. Allen didn’t play last season due to various injuries, but looks to factor into the rotation this upcoming season. Brooks, on the other hand, had a role off the bench last season, and while he didn’t have the most tangible production (4.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG), he is a prime candidate to garner a lot of playing time as an experienced player in Calipari’s system.
The Kentucky team under Calipari has always been built on freshmen talent, and this season is no different. The Wildcats bring in the top recruiting class in the country per 247 Sports, and that class is headlined by the two five-star players: G Terrence Clarke from Brewster Academy (NH) and G B.J. Boston from Sierra Canyon (CA). This recruiting class is as deep as it is quality, with four-stars F Isaiah Jackson from Waterford Mott (MI) (Alabama fans might remember his recruitment), G Devin Askew from Mater Dei (CA), F Lance Ware from Camden (NJ), and G/F Cam’ron Fletcher from Vashon (MO) rounding out the class. All six prep players are ranked in the top 64 of the 247 Composite Rankings, and the class ranks as Kentucky’s best class since the 2017 class that included six five-star players such as Kevin Knox and PJ Washington.
Kentucky also brings in three transfers that have all been deemed eligible by the NCAA in F Olivier Sarr (Wake Forest), G Davion Mintz (Creighton) and National Player of the Year Obi Toppin’s brother G Jacob Toppin (Rhode Island). Sarr averaged nearly a double-double last season (13.7 PPG, 9 RPG) for the Demon Deacons, but departed after the dismissal of head coach Danny Manning, and was regarded as one of the best big man transfers this offseason. Mintz didn’t play last season due to injury, but his 2018-19 season was his most productive season at 9.7 PPG for the Bluejays and 10.6 PPG in Big East play. Toppin didn’t fare as well during his first season at Rhode Island (5.1 PPG), but he provides depth at the forward spot if the Cats find themselves in a pinch.
G: Devin Askew
G: Terrence Clarke
G: B.J. Boston
F: Keion Brooks Jr.
F: Olivier Sarr
Bench: Davion Mintz
Bench: Isaiah Jackson
Bench: Cam’ron Fletcher
Bench: Lance Ware
Bench: Dontaie Allen
Bench: Jacob Toppin
Kentucky’s starting lineup is relatively straight-forward, with the two five-stars flanking Askew, who is the presumed starting point guard from day 1. The front court is a bit more up-in-the-air, with Sarr almost definitely being the starting five and Brooks and Jackson being the main contenders to start at the other forward spot. The rest of the roster is keen to have an impact, with Calipari having the option of utilizing a platoon system with eleven scholarship players at his disposal.
Looking to the Future
With at least part of their roster inevitably declaring for the NBA Draft after the season, the Wildcats are set to have another large class. They already have two commitments for the 2021 in four-stars G Nolan Hickman and F Bryce Hopkins, and the Wildcats are in good position for five-stars G Hunter Sallis and F Daimion Collins. The 2022 class has already bore fruit for the Wildcats, as they have secured the commitment of G Skyy Clark and are going to continue to add to those numbers.
For Kentucky, the theme is the same as previous years: entire roster leaves, rebuild with incredible recruiting class. The Wildcats will continue to be at the top of the SEC as long as Calipari continues to recruit at the level he has been, and this year will be no different. The difference is the quality of graduate transfers that Cal has brought in in Sarr and Mintz. Having these experienced players could make the difference of a good Kentucky team that challenges for the SEC title and a great Kentucky team that challenges for a Final Four.
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