Why Kentucky Basketball is Primed for a Rebound Season
Kentucky basketball is one of the most illustrious programs in the history of college basketball, but the Wildcats had their first losing season in 2020-21 for the first time since 1989.
Now, Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari is tasked with putting all the pieces together for the 2021-22 season, one that features a roster with more transfers and a strong nucleus of sophomores returning.
With a more traditional offseason, Calipari will have the luxury of working with a new coaching staff, and a roster with lots of new flavor heading into this season. This is why the Wildcats are a team you should consider when making your preseason college basketball picks.
New coaching staff
Calipari also shook up his coaching staff this offseason with the additions of former Illinois assistants Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman set to replace Tony Barbee, who took the head coaching position at Central Michigan, and Joel Justus, who packed his bags to join Bobby Hurley at Arizona.
Antigua is now in his second stint on Calipari’s staff at Kentucky. During Antigua’s first ride with the Wildcats from 2009-14, he helped lead the Wildcats to a 152-37 record and national championship in 2012. He is known as one of the best recruiting assistant coaches in the entire country and is being paid like it too.
In Antigua’s four years at Illinois, he was the lead recruiter for second-team All-American Kofi Cockburn and last season’s Big Ten sixth man of the year, Andre Curbelo — a prolific point guard. More impressively, during his time at Kentucky, he was the primary recruiter for five players that eventually signed with Kentucky that were all ranked in the top-15 of the respective recruiting classes. Most notably, he was the lead recruiter for Nerlens Noel and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Antigua is also a proven developer of talent. He helped turn Noel and Towns into NBA lottery picks after just one season, and he turned Cockburn into a second-team All-American as a sophomore and potential NBA Draft selection in June.
Coleman brings an impressive resume to Lexington with recruiting connections across the connections, but he also is a proven developer of talent and a proven defensive mind at the best level in college basketball.
He was the lead recruiter for Ayo Dosunmu at Illinois, the reigning Bob Cousy Award winner and first-team All-American. Dosunmu and Coleman had daily private workouts together at Illinois in the 6-foot-5 guard’s three years at Illinois.
On the court, Coleman proved himself as a master defensive mind as the Illini’s primary defensive game planner last season — a team that finished seventh in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. Kentucky needs help slowing other teams down shooting-wise. Opponents shot 39.8 percent from the field last season, which ranked 305th in the country.
With two proven college coaches on staff with a new skill set, the Wildcats should make the needed adjustments in the SEC to potentially reclaim a conference title with a retooled roster.Kentucky basketball is one of the most illustrious programs in the history of college basketball, but the Wildcats had their first losing season in 2020-21 for the first time since 1989.
An influx of transfers
WIth the transfer portal exploding this offseason, there are currently more than 1,600 names in the portal. Kentucky was able to fill needed holes on the roster with more experienced players that the Wildcats usually don’t have the luxury of.
Kentucky added premier shooters in Iowa transfer CJ Fredrick and Davidson guard Kellan Grady. Frederick is a career 46 percent three-point shooter in his two seasons at Iowa, while Grady has made nearly 37 percent of his three-point shots in four seasons at Davidson.
The addition of Oscar Tshiebwe in the paint gives Calipari a trusted big man with a really good combination of athleticism and physicality in the paint. Tshiebwe experienced a sophomore slump at West Virginia last season, seeing his points average fall nearly three a game while grabbing close to two fewer rebounds a night. Working with Antigua should help him get back to his potentially dominant ways, given Antigua’s track record.
Sahvir Wheeler comes to Lexington after being named an All-SEC player last season. Wheeler is a good passer, represented by his 7.4 assists last season. Considering the shooters he is surrounded by, he could see that number increase this season at Kentucky.
A top-10 class joining a talented roster
Kentucky is one of the best at recruiting the best players on a yearly basis, and they did it again in 2021.
Kentucky landed both the No. 12 and No. 13 recruits in the country in TyTy Washington and Daimion Collins. Washington was one of the biggest risers in his class, but the 6-foot-3 point guard is an electric scorer and a likely one-and-done prospect.
Collins, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward with great length and really good athleticism. Despite being really skinny, Collins finishes well above the rim and is developing his game as a face-up shooter. With such long arms, he is one of the best shot-blockers in his class.
Those two, along with top-40 prospect Bryce Hopkins, join a roster that will return Keion Brooks and potentially Davion Mintz, should he decide to return from the NBA Draft. Mintz doesn’t appear on many NBA team’s big boards, so he could be another guard that sees significant minutes for Calipari.
With all these pieces potentially coming together for Kentucky, expect the Wildcats to be back in the Top-25 for much of the 2021-22 season and potentially make a run to the NCAA Final Four.