If you live outside of Lexington, there’s a good chance you can’t stand the Kentucky Wildcats.
The season will start out in familiar fashion: you’ll catch Kentucky on ESPN2 on Nov. 13 and root for Canisius to pull off the upset. Then you’ll root for Michigan State two days later in the Champions Classic.
But soon enough you’re going to accept it: not only are these Wildcats really good, but they’re also a ton of fun to watch.
As always with Kentucky, the freshmen are the story. The fun starts with Malik Monk. Fans got a preview of his freakish athleticism last week at the team’s Blue/White scrimmage. Monk, a 6’3 combo guard, is ranked as the No. 9 incoming recruit in the country by ESPN, but is still just the third-highest rated Kentucky recruit this year. Because, well, Kentucky.
The two other top-10 guys? Power forward Bam Adebayo (fifth, according to ESPN) and point guard De’Aaron Fox (sixth). Sasha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel are also five-star freshmen and they will likely come off the bench, at least to start the season.
So in that sense, it’s more of the same in Lexington: Kentucky is loaded with talented freshmen and a few holdovers from last year’s crop.
Fox will join Monk in the starting backcourt and brings his own flare to the Wildcats’ lineup. Known for his speed, Fox can run the break with ease and score in bunches. On the other end, he is a devastating defender. He and Monk will combine to make Kentucky must-see TV on a nightly basis.
Isaiah Briscoe, a five-star recruit from 2015, averaged 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game a year ago, but was inconsistent at times and pulled out of the NBA Draft in late May.
Up front, Kentucky is also loaded with talent, but the pecking order isn’t quite as clear. Adebayo, Gabriel, Derek Willis, and Isaac Humphries will all see minutes, giving John Calipari a variety of styles he can use throughout the season.
Willis is a senior who saw his minutes jump significantly from his sophomore to junior years. He’s a big man who can shoot the three and rebound, and will be one of just two upperclassmen to play significant minutes.
Adebayo, Killeya-Jones, and Gabriel should all get a shot to prove themselves in the early season. All three are top-25 recruits who are listed as power forwards and were named to either the Jordan Brand Classic or McDonald’s All-American teams. It seems that Adebayo is the most ready to shine immediately — he’s skilled and strong, and shot up the recruiting rankings last summer. Killeya-Jones and Gabriel were also quick risers on the high school and summer circuits, though it’s not clear just yet what their roles will be.
They, along with the rest of this young Kentucky team, will be thrown straight into the fire in true Wildcat fashion. Kentucky opens the year against last season’s Cinderella, Stephen F. Austin, and gets Michigan State in the Champions Classic just four days later. The non-conference schedule is also highlighted by games against Arizona State, UCLA, North Carolina, and Louisville, all before New Year’s. Even if the SEC isn’t at the level of the other power conferences, a mid-January matchup against Kansas looms as well.
G De’Aaron Fox, freshman
G Malik Monk, freshman
G Isaiah Briscoe, sophomore
F Derek Willis, senior
F Bam Adebayo, freshman
Key reserves: F Isaac Humphries (sophomore), F Sacha Killeya-Jones (freshman), G Dillon Pulliam (RS-sophomore), F Wenyen Gabriel (freshman), G Dominique Hawkins (senior)
How Kentucky can succeed: The backcourt simply out-classes the competition
As usual, Kentucky is the team to beat in the SEC. Looking up and down the rosters in the league, nobody has near the talent the Wildcats have. Fox and Monk together should have a field day in a weaker power conference and are at least as athletic as any backcourt they’ll face all year.
Fox is an elite on-ball defender who can shut down opposing guards, while Monk will grace the SportsCenter highlight reels all season. If Fox or Monk could develop a jump shot, Kentucky goes from having a great backcourt to having the best in the nation.
Up front, the Wildcats are something of an unknown. Gabriel enjoyed a meteoric rise on the summer circuit, but it’s still not clear exactly how good he could be — he’s still adding strength and developing into his role as a 4. The same could be said of Killeya-Jones, who has a solid jumper but needs to add strength. If those two continue on the track they’ve been on, Kentucky will be able to compete at an elite level from any position.
And that’s because they’ll be playing alongside or behind Adebayo. He has the reputation of an excellent finisher offensively who runs the floor well. He knows how to use his strength, making up for a lack of height at just 6’9. If he lives up to his top-five billing, this becomes a national championship-caliber team.
How the Wildcats can go home early: Kentucky has the right talent but not the right fit
As always, Kentucky’s talent is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean the pieces are going to fit together perfectly.
As noted above, the team does not have a knockdown three-point shooter to play alongside Monk and Fox. Neither is known for their shooting touch and won’t be looked at to fill that role. Briscoe, who will get his share of starts, shot just 5-of-37 from three last season.
This creates a problem when and if the Wildcats come across a team that can keep up with them, or at least begin to neutralize their freak athletes. In the halfcourt, a perimeter game would be one vital weapon that could put Kentucky over the top. The team just doesn’t have a clear answer there. For now.
Inside, Kentucky needs to figure out clear roles. Calipari can go small and play Willis alongside Adebayo. If Calipari wants to go bigger, he can play the 7-foot Humphries, who came in last year as a top-50 recruit but saw limited minutes as a freshman.
In all, the frontcourt should be decided by matchups, and it will be up to the team to adjust to the opponent’s style of play. If the freshmen, Humphries, and Willis (if he’s not on the wing) can all step up, Kentucky will be OK. But that might be asking a lot.