The Kentucky Wildcats have been exceptional under coach John Calipari’s tutelage. They’ve won the SEC Conference Tournament six times since he got there in 2009 and have been regular season champs five times. They’re favored to win it almost every college basketball season thanks to their consistency in recruiting top-three freshman classes.
That holds true for this upcoming season, as the Wildcats were voted to win the conference by SEC and national media members.
While they have reloaded with the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, brought in grad transfer Nate Sestina and there’s a good mix of upperclassmen, they won’t win the conference. Here are the three reasons why:
1. This is the season Florida is all the way “back”
Florida Gators coach Mike White has had heavy expectations placed on his shoulders since taking over this program from Billy Donovan in 2015. He’s reached an Elite Eight and secured two other NCAA Tournament berths as well. This year is finally the one where his team breaks out though.
They landed the most coveted graduate transfer in former Virginia Tech big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. and raked in five-star studs like Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. They also added big men in Omar Payne and Jason Jitoboh while snagging a potential point guard steal in Ques Glover out of Tennessee.
The Gators made it to the round of 32 last season despite a couple seniors — KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson — struggling for much of the year and return everyone of significance outside of those seniors. Point guard Andrew Nembhard showed that he can run this team and will have major scoring help from Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Blackshear and Noah Locke. Key role players returning are Gorjak Gak and Dontay Bassett, who should both see good playing time.
This team is much more balanced than last season’s, has more athleticism in bigger players and will finally have a scoring presence in the post that Kevarrius Hayes just couldn’t provide last season. That recipe makes for a nightmare to guard no matter how athletic or fast this Kentucky team might look.
2. Kentucky’s frontcourt lacks production
The Wildcats have never had a shortage of good-to-great guards, but their big men this year leave some production to be desired. With P.J. Washington and Reid Travis gone, the load is left to Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery, who combined to average 7.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.
Kentucky added 6-foot-9 Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina; who should help in that area. He is coming from a much weaker Patriot League, but his experience will come in handy for these young ‘Cats who may need a leader on this team.
With Richards entering his junior season and Montgomery entering his sophomore, both need to finally become the scorers and paint monsters that everyone has been wanting them to be. Richards will absolutely have to score more both from his jumper and from his post-up game. He has to improve his left hand finishing and show he can stretch the floor a bit more to pair with his supreme athleticism and quickness.
Montgomery will have to show that he’s more than an incredible athlete. He has to prove that his shot selection and shot making abilities have improved. He’ll have to demonstrate that he’s become more disciplined on the defensive end and has gotten a better feel for the game in the offseason.
3. Who will score for this team?
Much like Kentucky teams in the past, this year’s squad is losing a ton of scoring from the guys who either graduated or went pro early. Tyler Herro, P.J. Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson accounted for just over 71 percent of the points scored throughout last season. Who will step up in their places this season?
It’s easy to say that Ashton Hagans, Nate Sestina, Immanuel Quickley or Tyrese Maxey could step in and handle larger scoring loads. However, we really don’t know how their games will translate to this level of play — with the exception of Hagans and Quickley who played for Kentucky last season.
Sestina had some nice years at Bucknell, but he was also playing against considerably inferior competition than what he will face in the SEC. Maxey has gotten a ton of hype coming into this year, but we have to see how he will respond to the expectations of being a major contributor on this team. Hagans showed some flashes last season, but he will have to greatly improve his three-point shooting if he wants to be a true scoring threat.
These Wildcats have a ton of promising pieces and this could look like shades of Florida circa 2006 when they lost a ton of scoring and had some guys step up. Who could be the Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer on this team?