Men’s basketball strives for nine ahead of 2020 – 2021 season

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

Barkley Truax

In the Big Blue Nation, three things are guaranteed: death, taxes and Kentucky basketball.

The 2019-20 season was halted abruptly due to the coronavirus pandemic. At long last, it’s once again basketball time in the Bluegrass.

Kentucky lost nearly everyone from last year’s squad to the NBA Draft: leading scorer Immanuel Quickley, rebounder Nick Richards and distributor Ashton Hagans. Top talent Tyrese Maxey is also headed to the league.

Keion Brooks Jr. and Dontaie Allen are the only returning Cats. Only Brooks, who averaged 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, saw the floor. As a result, he should take on a larger role to be-gins his sophomore campaign.

As is something of a tradition, Head coach John Calipari and staff secured another No. 1 recruiting class to replace the departed. It features five-star recruits Brandon Boston, Terrence Clarke and Devin Askew, along with four-stars Isaiah Jackson, Lance Ware and Cam’Ron Fletcher.

Kentucky was also active in the transfer portal for a third straight year, picking up Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz. In addition to them, Kentucky reeled in the portal’s biggest fish in forward Olivier Sarr, who many expect to post big numbers for Cal and crew.

The roster wasn’t the only aspect of the program to change up. Long-time assistant Kenny Payne left for the New York Knicks after a decade in Lexington, forcing the twelfth-year head coach to bring in some new blood.

He started by hiring former Massachusetts assistant, James “Bruiser” Flint, and Jai Lucas. Regard-ed as one of the best recruiters in the business today, he notably snubbed Kentucky during his own decision process in 2007-08. Originally hired as the special assistant to the head coach and recruit-ing coordinator, he was quickly promoted to an on-court position. Tony Barbee moved into the off-court role.

With Kentucky looking almost completely different this season, what should we expect?

The biggest question for this team is its defensive ability. Length and size – ten Wildcats stand 6-foot-5 or taller – should give it a chance to create turnovers, control the paint and hinder the opposi-tion’s ability to control the glass. They’re not yet where they need to be there according to Coach Cal, but in his own words, they’re getting better every day.

On the offensive end, those traits provide the ability to attack the rim, shoot over tight defense and out-rebound opponents. The Cats struggled on the offensive boards in 2019, but should stuff the stat sheet there this season.

Kentucky will lean heavily on the production of its three potential superstars: Sarr, Boston and Clarke.

Sarr’s presence elevates this team’s ceiling to another level. Before he became eligible, experts la-beled the Cats as a Sweet Sixteen; after, those same experts pegged them a Final Four contender.

Boston comes in with a prolific resume: McDonald’s All-American, 2020 California Mr. Basketball; you name it, he’s done it. He is likely to be Kentucky’s primary shooting option, as was known on the high school level and AAU circuit for scoring at will.

Clarke has similar accolades to Boston: five-star with several All-American honors. He ranked as high as No. 8 in Rivals’ rankings after opting of his senior year of high school to head to Lexington.

Something all three players have in common, though, is playing well in big-time games.

At Wake Forest, Sarr dropped 25 points in a double-overtime road win over Duke; Boston led Sierra Canyon to a 30-4 record, leading the team to a top-two national ranking; Clarke carried Brewster to the 2019 National Prep championship game.

Mintz and Askew, battling for the starting point guard spot, have reportedly had great one-on-one battles in practice. Isaiah Jackson has also drawn rave reviews and looked very smooth at Kentucky’s Pro Day.

Allen also showed out at the Pro Day, knocking down three-pointers with confidence. If he can shoot like that in game, expect to see him on the floor quite a bit.

Kentucky opens their season up on Nov. 25 in Rupp Arena against Morehead State in the first game played in their “bubble”. 

BBN wants to look at these as warmup games for Kansas on Dec. 1, but as Evansville showed, nothing is guaranteed. The rest of Kentucky’s non-conference schedule is as hard as anyone’s in the country.

The Cats face Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, UCLA and Louisville in that order in December, and host Texas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Jan. 30. The game against the Cardinals is the team’s only true road game out of conference. If you’re expecting Kentucky to enter SEC play unbeaten, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Just as any young players, these Cats will make mistakes; Kentucky teams are notorious for slower starts, so it might be frustrating to watch at first. But if this team is as talented as advertised and can put all its quality pieces together, optimism will be warranted come March.