2020-2021 Men’s basketball season predictions


Kentucky freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr. grabs a pass during the game against Florida on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 65-59. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Kernel Sports Editor Braden Ramsey, along with sports writers Eric Decker and Barkley Truax, offer up their thoughts on some important aspects of the Kentucky season. See what they predict for the 2020-2021 rendition of Coach Cal’s squad below:

Do you feel this late start to the season because of COVID helps or hurts the team? Why?

Braden – The season’s delay should benefit Kentucky greatly. We’ve become accustomed to slow starts and inconsistent play from the Cats over the season’s first month while John Calipari works through the kinks, but this break has provided an opportunity to get out in front of some potential issues. “Camp Cal” in December will still prove important in development terms, but the extra month of offseason work is effectively an early version of that process. The first few games will probably look similar to those of recent years, but this team will hit its stride much sooner than most Cal coached teams have.

Eric – I don’t feel it’s going to impact the Cats a whole lot. Cal has always emphasized a professional atmosphere within the program, this scenario is the closest it has been to having them act as a professional team. He has talked extensively about how his team is essentially in its own bubble to prepare for the season and stay healthy, which definitely means something. We’ll see how other schools deal with an outbreak within their program, As far as Kentucky, I think it’s prepared as well as anyone in the nation.

Barkley – I don’t think it will change much. The players have been in the gym working hard for weeks now, and it’s more or less the same for every team. Everyone’s on equal ground right now. If forced to choose, I say it’ll hurt. This team is inexperienced, and Cal’s teams are prone to starting the season slow. The first few games might be closer than Kentucky fans think.

The Cats have a sprint out of the gate, with four games in seven days. What is the key to getting through those contests unscathed?

Braden – I don’t expect them to make it through with an unblemished record; but more on that later. In terms of advancing without major injuries, it’s the recovery between games. The incoming freshmen will be amped up for their debuts, trying to make every single play a spectacular one and do it all again in roughly 48 hours off a palate of candy and soda. This isn’t high school anymore, so that won’t work. The offseason has theoretically helped them learn the importance of quality nutrition and rest, but at the end of the day, these are mostly teenagers we’re talking about. I don’t foresee anything serious occurring, but this opening stretch will show just how imperative the less-fun aspects of becoming great are. 

Barkley – Using their depth. The Cats are 11-deep, with players who can come in and out of the game at any time. As we saw in 2014-15, teams can’t keep up when fresh bodies are always on the floor. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not comparing the ceiling of this year’s team to that one. But the ability to switch tired players out for rested ones without a big drop off is not a luxury many basketball teams can claim.

Eric –  It’s an absolute grind to begin the season for Kentucky; we saw how that played out last year. I don’t think conditioning and actual skill level should impact the first three* games. Taking the floor every other day in their opening bubble before heading up to play Kansas on Dec. 1st should allow them a chance to get in rhythm. But if they are unable to, the experience of players like Davion Mintz and Oliver Sarr should make up for any cohesiveness issues that arise.

Coach Cal has a tendency to tinker with the starting lineup over the season’s opening stretch. Barring injury, who takes the floor for the opening tip of Kentucky’s first big matchup (Dec. 1st – Kansas)?

Barkley – I think we’re guaranteed Brandon Boston, Terrence Clarke and Olivier Sarr. They’re the three players Kentucky will likely lean on throughout the year. It’s a toss up for point guard between Davion Mintz and Devin Askew, but due to experience in big games, I’ll lean Mintz. Askew’s performance in the opening games could sway Cal’s decision. I think most assumed Keion Brooks Jr. would start at the four, but reports that Isaiah Jackson has looked phenomenal at practice could make for an interesting dynamic at the power forward position. My lineup: Mintz, Boston, Clarke, Brooks and Sarr.

Eric – “Barring injury” is huge here. If Keion Brooks’ is healthy, spot him at the four. His rebounding and effort was infectious last year and he should only improve. Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke are going to be there. Everything we’ve heard from inside the program indicates they’re going to be special. At point guard, I’ll keep it simple: Devin Askew is 17 years old and could be in a high school calculus class right now, while Davion Mintz is heading into his fifth year of college basketball. That should net him the start against Bill Self and the Jayhawks. Olivier Sarr has the chance to be an all NCAA big man, so I’m not second guessing that one: Mintz, Boston, Clarke, Brooks and Sarr.

Braden – For the sake of difference, I’ll say Askew-Boston-Clarke-Jackson-Sarr. Calipari decides to send the young guys out to get their feet wet in the first few minutes before substituting at the first media timeout. Mintz-Boston-Clarke-Brooks-Sarr will be the lineup with the most time on the court, just not the one out there for the opening tip.

Who emerges as the leader(s) of this team in the early going?

Eric – Much in the way of a lottery freshman, I think Olivier Sarr’s one year legacy at Kentucky is going to be a memorable one. Towards the end of last season he dropped 25 points and five rebounds against Duke, only to come back four days later and hang 30 and 17 on Notre Dame. Sarr has the talent and intelligence to make this team a championship contender. If they get to the promiseland, it’s going to be Sarr who carried them there for the large part.

Braden – Boston and Clarke will be the duo powering this team offensively. Sarr is incredibly important and will get his night after night, but the two top-ten recruits are the keys to this team meeting expectations because of the different dimension they provide. On defense, Isaiah Jackson could evolve into a great rim protector. The prospect of he and Sarr wreaking havoc on opposing frontcourts on is salivating.

Barkley – Keion Brooks Jr. is going to be the heart and soul of this team. Being the only returning Cat with significant minutes last season, Kentucky will rely heavily on him early. I can see him being an on-court coach; setting up plays, getting people where they need to be on the floor, etc. He’ll be the most experienced Kentucky basketball player on the court at any time, and I think he’ll play like it.

What will Kentucky’s record be? Where do they finish in the SEC?

Barkley – 23-4, with the losses against Kansas, Auburn, Florida and Tennessee. Kansas will be a reality check for this young team. I think they’ll win the SEC regular season with only three losses in conference, but come up short in the SEC tournament.

Braden – The Cats will go 22-5, with losses vs. Richmond, at Louisville (ugh), at Florida, at Auburn, and on the road against Alabama or Georgia. The Spiders will come to Rupp looking to make a statement to the nation, and the step-up in competition following the first two games will see the young guys bend under the pressure. The Cardinals haven’t defeated Kentucky recently, but after the hassle they’ve regarding play at a neutral site, they’ll sacrifice  the games on either side of the Wildcats to make sure they come away victorious there. The Cats always drop a handful of conference games; Florida and Auburn are tough to beat twice. Alabama and Georgia characteristically put up good fights in their home arenas. Kentucky sweeps its arch-rival Vols for the first time since 2015. If I had to name a sleeper game, that’d be vs. Arkansas. Even at 21-6, I think the Cats claim the SEC regular season title once again

Eric – It’s hard not to be optimistic about a Kentucky basketball season. Last year’s team was flawed – it lacked length on the wing. Kahlil Whitney was the closest thing to it and he left the program a month in – but still won the SEC and looked the part heading into March. Boston and Clarke both instantly fill the aforementioned void, and should do so resoundingly. The veteran presence at the point guard and center positions will stabilize the talented young core when times get tough. The blend of leadership and raw talent on this team is too perfect not to work, so I’m going 24-3. They’ll win their big four out-of-conference games (Kansas, Notre Dame, UCLA, Texas) but I think, as all do, they’ll trip up one night against a foe such as Auburn or Florida.

The season has yet to begin, but that doesn’t mean we can’t forecast into the games we don’t know yet. So, how far do the Cats go in March? Do they capture their elusive ninth championship?

Eric –  Predicting championships is a slippery slope; there’s no way to exceed that performance and it only gives people more of a reason to be upset if the team falls short. But like I said, last year’s team had a real chance to bring it home despite not being close to a complete team. Those issues should be a thing of the past. A big man with consistent production on the boards? Check. Length on the wing that can be productive on both the offensive and defensive ends? Check. An abundance of natural scorers that can get a bucket off the dribble? Check. This team has an absurd amount of talent on the bench too. If Kentucky can switch people in and out constantly and outrun teams while hardly breaking a sweat, they’ll be in a good position to do something really special.

Barkley – This team has everything needed to win a national championship. Young superstars, experienced veterans, length, depth, etc.; you name it, Kentucky has it. Cal always has his teams ready by March. I cautiously say that Kentucky is due for a first round upset – they’ve never lost in the Round of 64 under Calipari – but if they advance from there, this team is Final Four caliber, which means it has a chance to win it all.

Braden – The only thing I’m certain of is that this year’s team represents the best chance for the Cats to win it all since the historic 2015 squad. You never know how the regions will shape up. Duke and Michigan State were Final Four picks for many analysts two seasons ago, and ended up in the same bracket portion. Because of that, I’m hesitant to make any drastic prognostications. Anything less than the Elite Eight will probably be viewed as a disappointment.