John Calipari returns for his 10th year at Kentucky and brings in another crop of talented freshmen for 2019. The Kentucky Wildcats’ second-ranked class in the nation features a lot of top talent, and with a few sophomores and a notable transfer to go along with that 2019 class, this could be one of the more special seasons in Lexington. Coming off a season that boasted three first-round NBA Draft picks – PJ Washington, Tyler Herro, and Keldon Johnson who helped lead the team to an Elite Eight, this year’s Kentucky squad has the potential to be the best team since the Fox/Monk/Bam team.
Preseason scrimmages have revealed a few things with the Kentucky Wildcats and a hierarchy is starting to shake out on the team. The Big Blue Madness scrimmage was fun to watch for a fan but was essentially playground basketball among friends. The Blue-White game showed us how these players would react in a competitive situation, but again at the end of the day, it was just an intrasquad practice game. However, after an 80-53 win over reigning NAIA champs Georgetown College, and an 83-51 win over D2 Kentucky State University, you saw which players are ready heading into the Champions Classic matchup against Michigan State. Let’s break this team down in a little more detail.
- Ashton Hagans (Soph.)
- EJ Montgomery (Soph.)
- Immanuel Quickley (Soph.)
- Nick Richards (Jr.)
Like I mentioned above, John Calipari is bringing back a crop of returners to mix in with his young newcomers. Three sophomores and a junior who all averaged substantial minutes last season return for the Cats and will be major players again this season. Ashton Hagans and EJ Montgomery are expected to take the next step into the NBA this season and with Hagans’ defense and Montgomery’s allegedly improved jump shot (looked good here and there in preseason) they should both find themselves in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft. With that said, we will have to wait and see what happens this season. Hagans looked like a beast on defense and his improved three-point shot is going to make teams hate him this season.
Ashton Hagans is going to be a problem at UK this season! @H23Ash pic.twitter.com/WcCFsXXJKV
— Courtside Films (@CourtsideFilms) October 2, 2019
The surprise this offseason has to be Immanuel Quickley and the level to which he has improved. There were a ton of rumors in the offseason that fans would be surprised at his game this season. More mature, more confident, and while Quickley is still long and slender he has added muscle and strength since March. The big key to the season happens to be Nick Richards and his development. As a third-year player, many are comparing Richards to Willie Cauley-Stein who left Kentucky for the NBA after his junior season in 2015. Richards’ game is not that relatable to WCS though. He is not as athletic and explosive as WCS, nor is he as fast as his predecessor, but he has the skills to be an NBA Draft pick as well as long as he plays to his potential. For Nick Richards, shot-blocking, rebounds, and putback layups and dunks (AKA effort plays) will be the key to Kentucky reaching the Final Four and Richards realizing his NBA Draft dreams.
- PJ Washington
- Tyler Herro
- Keldon Johnson
- Reid Travis
The Hornets scored a new franchise-record 23 3’s as they won their opener against the Bulls. ?
#12 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft PJ Washington put up a new rookie debut record with 7 3’s of his own. ?? pic.twitter.com/E0W8rlhOrD
— NBA UK (@NBAUK) October 24, 2019
The Wildcats lost three NBA Draft picks and a graduate transfer from Stanford, Reid Travis, that was undoubtedly the anchor of last season’s team. If you want to know what the Cats are missing out on from last season, look at what Washington is doing for the Charlotte Hornets, look at Tyler Herro balling out in Miami, and Keldon Johnson is going to have a quiet rookie season in San Antonio because of who is in front of him, but he showed flashes of his potential in Summer League this year and will for sure be developed under that organization over time.
Reid Travis is the piece that will be tough to replace, however, I will explain in a bit why I believe the Cats have found a potential replacement. Travis is not playing in the NBA this year but instead is over in Germany where he is grinding it out and improving his game for a chance to audition of the NBA at a later date. After graduating from Stanford and averaging 11.2 points to go along with 7.2 rebounds for Calipari and the Wildcats Travis has played a lot of games in a lot of different styles and environments. That’s why he was the anchor and the backbone of last season’s team. There were many games that Travis carried his brothers on the court for minutes at a time and he always made the effort plays that needed to be made. John Calipari recruited him for one reason and that was to be a physical equivalent to Grant Williams at Tennessee, and Travis answered the call and more. He shined in many games and was a crucial loss for this season’s Kentucky Wildcats team.
- Tyrese Maxey
- Khalil Whitney
- Keion Brooks
- Nate Sestina
Of course, The Kentucky Wildcats is going to have a great batch of newcomers every year, but this season they got a special group. Ranked as the second-best recruiting class in the country for 2019, there is serious talent coming to Lexington this season. Maxey is a pitbull on the court. He can score at all levels, elite defensively on the perimeter, and is athletic as hell. He may be Kentucky’s best player this season, and a potential top-10 NBA Draft pick. Alongside Hagans and Quickley, Kentucky has arguably the best backcourt in the country. On the wing for the Wildcats, Whitney and Brooks could be serious playmakers. Brooks looks further along than Whitney at this point, but that could easily change at some point this season. They will both be vying for the same draft position and there is a possibility that one or both players could come back for a sophomore season.
Nate Sestina is the answer to Reid Travis. After graduating from Bucknell, Sestina chose to spend his last season of eligibility at Kentucky. He has been the heart and soul early for this team in every scrimmage and exhibition game so far. He is showing a deadly three-point shot while also showing effort and energy on the boards. Those around the program have expressed just how important Sestina is for team chemistry and how important he will be playing in the frontcourt this season. Early in the season, Sestina could be Kentucky’s second or third best player and expect him to be one of the best six on the team.
Projected Starting Five
- Ashton Hagans
- Tyrese Maxey
- Keion Brooks
- Nate Sestina
- EJ Montgomery
Kentucky Wildcats Season Outlook
Once again the Wildcats are looking for a Final Four season. The fans expect nothing less and the players who come to Kentucky believe they have what it takes to do it every season. This is no different. The chemistry among the team is high due to not only Sestina but the familiarity the guys have with one another with returners and the large class of newcomers has been welcomed with open arms. There isn’t a guy who doesn’t believe he deserves to start, and while there is a lot of competition among these players they seem to have started to buy in at an early stage in the process.
Record Prediction 27-4 (16-2)
The Kentucky Wildcats are coming into the season with high aspirations. They also have a tough schedule ahead of them. With games against Michigan State, Louisville, Ohio State, Texas Tech, and Florida (twice), there are many chances to lose games this season. They will be challenged on the road in the SEC as usual, but I think this Kentucky team has the experience to push through close games and win games in situations that a younger team may lose. Kentucky is going to be a frontrunner all season and will be a favorite to reach a Final Four this season.