Kentucky found itself having yet another banner year last season in the Southeastern Conference, being named the co-champion of the regular season with Texas A&M and then going on to beat the Aggies in the SEC Tournament championship. The Wildcats got into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed, ultimately losing to No. 5 seed Indiana in the Round of 32. As head coach John Calipari enters his eighth season at the helm of the Kentucky squad, he will be looking to yet another freshman-dominated team to get to the program’s 57th NCAA tournament appearance and 18th Final Four.
The Wildcats wrapped up the season at 27-9 (13-5 SEC). Despite losing three major players early to the NBA draft — Tyler Ulis, Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray — and saying farewell to the lone senior in Alex Poythress, some of the newest Wildcats are already making a splash in the conference before they even take the court. Kentucky had four players named to the preseason All-SEC teams — freshmen Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox picked for the first team and freshman Malik Monk selected to the second team alongside sophomore Isaiah Briscoe.
The Wildcats found themselves ranked No. 4 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll and were picked by the media to win the SEC yet again, which would be the fifth conference title in the Calipari era and the 48th for the program.
Kentucky’s roster this season is a tall order — the shortest player standing at six feet tall and the tallest measuring up to seven feet. This height will help the Wildcats on both sides of the ball, but especially in rim protection.
The defense, in general, is going to be a strong unit. The team is filled with quick players who can cut down ball movement by opponents, especially on the perimeter with Fox and Briscoe.
Inside scoring will also be a crucial facet of the Wildcats game plan this season. Briscoe was one of the better scorers in the paint for Kentucky last season, and is expected to do just the same in his sophomore year. As for the newcomers who can add to Kentucky’s success in the paint, look for guard Malik Monk to drive to the paint at will with the speed he adds to the court for the Wildcats.
As with most Kentucky squads, this team is primarily young with seven freshmen, four sophomores and just three seniors making up the roster. With so much new blood being added to the roster, it will be tough to find true leadership on this year’s squad despite the talent it possesses.
Ball movement will not be one of Kentucky’s strong suits this season. With the loss of Tyler Ulis to the NBA Draft, the Wildcats will be looking for someone to step up and lead the way in assists. It will be tough to match the work that was done by Ulis last season, averaging seven assists per game. The only Wildcat close to Ulis was Briscoe with 3.1 assists, so he will be expected to take charge in leading the offense, along with freshman De’Aaron Fox.
Players to watch
G Isaiah Briscoe, Soph. — The Wildcats came close to losing Briscoe to the NBA Draft along with the other stars from last season’s team, but he decided to stick around for his sophomore season. He returns to the team as the leading scorer from last season, averaging 9.6 points per game last season along with 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Out of the returning players, he is undoubtedly the leading force on this young Wildcats squad.
G Malik Monk, Fr. — One of the highly-touted freshmen on the team, Monk is coming in as a player who has all the potential to make a name for himself at Kentucky. He was the No. 10 overall recruit in the nation according to 247Sports. The Arkansas native was named the Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year in 2016, as well as receiving the Mr. Basketball award. He should be able to fill the hole left at the shooting guard position after Jamal Murray’s departure to the NBA Draft, since Monk averaged 28.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists in his senior year.
F Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, Fr. — Kentucky has plenty of towers on its team this season and Adebayo is one of them. The power forward from North Carolina was a five-star recruit (ranked No. 9 according to 247Sports) who has an impressive combination of athleticism and strength that will be beneficial to the Wildcats in the paint, exactly where they struggled the most last season. He will be crucial on the defense, shutting down offenses by blocking shots, but will turn around and play a major role on the offense, primarily in the high post.
Matchups to watch
Dec. 21 at Louisville — The Battle of the Bluegrass State is always one of the most exciting games of the season for both of these teams. While the Cardinals may be in hot water with the NCAA, this rivalry is sure to be as heated as ever. Kentucky won the matchup last season in Lexington 75-73 and the Wildcats look to get their fifth straight win over the Cardinals.
Tennessee (home and away) — This SEC rivalry has been mostly one-sided over its 106 year history with Kentucky leading it 150-68. The Wildcats will host the Vols on Feb. 14, but will face a road test before that when they travel to Knoxville on Jan. 21. In Calipari’s time with Kentucky, the Cats have recorded a 10-3 record overall against the Vols, but have found winning in Thompson Boling Arena to be a tough task at 3-3.
Jan. 28 vs Kansas — This SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchup is already expected to be a major showcase of talent from two of the NCAA’s biggest powerhouses. The Jayhawks have much more experience coming to the court in this game, with only three freshmen on the roster. It is no question that Kentucky will be thriving off its home-court advantage in this game.
Kentucky is expected to be an unstoppable force in the SEC this season. Look for the Wildcats to win a strong majority of their conference games this season, on the road to yet another SEC regular season championship. The Cats will then go on to have a strong showing in the SEC tournament, winning more hardware as they make their way to the NCAA tournament and a shot at the program’s 18th Final Four.
Edited by Dalton King
Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics