Previewing SEC basketball: Kentucky
South Carolina beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other basketball team in the SEC as the season approaches.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): John Calipari (249-53 ninth year; 652-191 26th year)
2016-17 record (SEC finish): 32-6 (16-2)
2016-17 postseason: Elite Eight
2017-18 media predicted finish: 1
DC’s predicted finish: 1
He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Dominique Hawkins (4.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg), G Mychal Mulder (4.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg), F Derek Willis (7.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg), G De’Aaron Fox (pro, 16.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg), G Malik Monk (pro, 19.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Isaiah Briscoe (pro, 12.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Isaac Humphries (pro, 2.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg), C Bam Adebayo (pro, 13.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-6 G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-0 G Quade Green, 6-11 F Nick Richards, 6-7 F P.J. Washington, 6-9 F Kevin Knox, 6-9 F Jarred Vanderbilt, 6-4 G Jemarl Baker
Top returners: 6-9 F Wenyen Gabriel (4.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg), 6-10 F Sacha Killeya-Jones (2.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg), 6-10 F Tai Wynyard (0.7 ppg, 0.9 rpg)
Kentucky’s going to win the league, win at least two games in the NCAA tournament and lose most of the team to the NBA.
See you next year.
This will be John Calipari’s greatest challenge, since he does have seven freshmen and another (Hamidou Diallo) who enrolled last year but didn’t play. His leading returning scorer, Wenyen Gabriel, scored 4.6 points per game last year but not having experience never limited the Wildcats before.
Calipari, because he made the one-and-done rule his own, never gets credit for how good a basketball coach he is. He’s one of the best, and while the stain on his past college coaching career will never go away, he’s actually teaching Irony 101 these days – a coach with two vacated Final Fours, in charge of one of the most penalized programs in NCAA history, is the cleanest coach in the game.
Calipari doesn’t have to cheat. His system is simple – “Want to be in the NBA next year? Sign.”
It will be a team that may have to depend on five freshmen (or four and a redshirt freshman) at once. It will have to figure out its leadership on the run. Two of the newbies, Jemarl Baker and Jarred Vanderbilt, may be unavailable until at least December with injuries which whittles the bench, but Kentucky is so big, long and athletic with future NBA multi-millionaires that it’s a minor bump in the road.
Some losses may happen early. But as long as the ’Cats win in March, does that matter?
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Matthew Mitchell (241-100 11th year; 271-129 14th year)
2016-17 record (SEC finish): 22-11 (11-5)
2016-17 postseason: Second round, NCAA tournament
2017-18 media predicted finish: 6
DC’s predicted finish: 4
She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Makayla Epps (17.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), F Evelyn Akhator (15.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg), G Rachel Potter (walk-on last year, 0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-3 C Dorie Harrison, 6-1 F Keke McKinney, 5-7 G Amanda Paschal (Jr., transferred from Gulf Coast State (Fla. College, immediately eligible), 5-6 G Kameron Roach, 6-2 F Tatyana Wyatt
Top returners: 5-6 G Taylor Murray (12.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg), 6-0 G Maci Morris (11.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg), 6-1 G Makenzie Cann (5.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
Give the guy credit. After the hullabaloo that engulfed his program before last season, Matthew Mitchell still guided Kentucky to a tied-for-third finish.
After the massive defections (including Alexis Jennings, who transferred to South Carolina) and wonders of just what was going on over there, Mitchell had little depth and little else to depend on. But he did have star guard Makayla Epps, and she led the Wildcats to another NCAA tournament.
Epps is gone, but Mitchell added five players around a solid base (Lower Richland High’s Kameron Roach, a longtime camper during Kentucky summers, signed). There’s no replacing Epps, but it’s not like Kentucky hasn’t faced that before.
“I don’t know that one person’s going to replace Makayla. Makayla’s a real unique person,” Mitchell said. “You lose players every year. We’re just going to put a team together in a manner where we meet our needs.”
The Wildcats have some more height than perhaps they usually do, but Mitchell’s style is to press on defense and disrupt with team speed. That’s coming along in the early days of the season.
This is the last year of a unique setup. The NCAA awarded Rupp Arena a regional (third and fourth rounds) in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The Wildcats had a huge opportunity – if they could keep winning, they had the possibility of playing the first two rounds of the tournament at home (Kentucky’s women play in Memorial Coliseum) and the next two rounds at Rupp, less than two miles away. That’s a path to the Final Four without ever leaving town.
But the Wildcats haven’t been able to fully take advantage of it. In 2016, they advanced to the regional but lost to Washington at Rupp. Last year, Kentucky didn’t make it out of the second round, losing to Ohio State at Memorial.
This is the last season of the arrangement. Mitchell and the Wildcats will try to take advantage with a new-look, but still dangerous, team.