Disappointment. Anger. Embarrassment. Sadness. From the players and coaches to the Big Blue Nation, these shared feelings following our early tournament exit looms across the entire Kentucky Basketball program.
The first round loss in overtime to St. Peter's marks Kentucky's earliest tournament exit under Head Coach John Calipari, inconveniently following the 9-16 nightmare of a season from the year before.
No one is happy or overly excited for what will be a long 6 month off-season before Coach Cal and the Cats will have a chance to redeem themselves again. But the show must go on. As we know, basketball is a business. Players have life and career changing decisions to make. Coaches have to fill out a roster capable of winning a National Championship. And none of these decisions will come easy, and many will not be liked, understood, or agreed with.
Going into this off-season, players can fall into one of three categories: staying, leaving, or on the fence. In this business, you can never be 100% certain about how an off-season can go. So much can change out of nowhere (see Nolan Hickman decommitting and leaving Kentucky without a point guard in May).
However, we can make logical predictions about which categories players fall under given historical trends, eligibility, performance from this past season, as well as rumors we have been hearing.
Let's start with the positives:
Most Likely Staying:
Daimion Collins, Forward
The former 5 star recruit wasted no time and announced he will be returning for his sophomore season at Kentucky just three days after their tournament loss. With the National Player of the Year starting over Collins, we did not get to see much of him in his freshman season, other than a few highlights including an insane poster against Robert Morris and a 10 point and 9 rebound performance in a tough road win over Alabama.
However, the potential for Collins is off the charts. For a five star freshman to get little to no playing time all season, have to play behind other talent, and NOT enter the transfer portal at the end of the season is unprecedented territory for Kentucky. Props to Daimion Collins for seeing it through, continuing to put in hard work, and trusting the process.
Jacob Toppin, Forward
In the 2020 offseason, the former Rhode Island freshman transferred to the University of Kentucky with the plans to redshirt that upcoming season. With the newly implemented "One Time Transfer" rule, Toppin was granted immediate eligibility to play for the Cats.
The thing with the "One Time Transfer" rule is that you can only transfer one time. (Crazy, right?) With the option to transfer without having to sit out a year off of the table, as well as Toppin being nowhere to be found on any mock drafts, it should be safe to say that he will be returning to Lexington for his Senior season.
As a 6'9" forward who can routinely pull off 360 dunks and has an improving jump shot, Toppin could have one of the highest ceilings of any player returning to college basketball next season. With lots of uncertainty, a Senior with Jacob Toppin's potential is not a bad piece to begin to construct a roster around. The frontcourt of Toppin and Collins has one of the highest ceilings in the country.
CJ Fredrick, Guard
In Kentucky's final two losses of the season (Tennessee in SEC Tournament, St. Peter's in NCAA tournament), the Cats shot a combined 6/35 from behind the three point arc. With the inability to knock down shots being the demise of this year's team, it is hard to think that CJ Fredrick, a career 47% three point shooter, will not be a instrumental piece in next year's rotation.
Fredrick, similarly to Toppin, has already used his one time transfer when he came to Lexington from Iowa this past offseason, meaning he will not be able to transfer without sitting out either. Following an injury riddled season where Fredrick did not log a single minute, I am fairly confident in saying that returning to the floor for Kentucky will be the next step in CJ Fredrick's basketball career.
Sahvir Wheeler, Guard
When Sahvir Wheeler first came to Kentucky, the plan was for him to be a one-and-done in Lexington. That was, of course, before the newly implemented Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rule passed, allowing for collegiate athletes to earn money.
With the ability to earn money while playing at Kentucky, paired with Wheeler's limited professional stock, the path for the two time SEC leader in assists to return for his senior season seems like an obvious one.
Wheeler faced a lot of criticism in the closing games of the season for his turnovers and inability to create a shot for himself. But his end of season struggles were not his fault. For one, he has been injured a lot of the season and was likely playing through a lot of pain. Also, the team as a whole failed to make threes and space the court for their drive-first playmaker.
When we have shooters on the perimeter that are confidently and efficiently shooting the ball, Wheeler is one of the most effective point guards in the country, and we should continue to see that next season.
Most Likely Leaving:
Davion Mintz, Guard
Kellan Grady, Guard
Let's start with two easy ones. Davion Mintz and Kellan Grady have both used all four years of their college eligibility, as well as the extra 5th year granted because of the COVID season. Unless there is some miraculous new rule change or exception created, Mintz and Grady have played their final game of collegiate basketball.
Neither of them ended their time in Lexington how they wanted to, but as the Big Blue Nation, let's not overlook what they meant for our program. They set the standard for graduate transfers to come into our program, be great role players on the court, and be leaders and role models for younger players off the court.
After losing two players with this much shooting and experience, as well as only having one guard in our current recruiting class, I expect Kentucky to get into the transfer portal to find the next version(s) of Mintz and Grady.
TyTy Washington, Guard
Washington's draft stock had taken quite the hit following his second injury of the season during the Florida game. He never seemed to get his legs back under him and, while he did do a lot of things well on the court, was never able to get back into a rhythm offensively, consistently struggling to shoot throughout the last set of games in the postseason.
However, his draft stock was not hit hard enough to take him out of the first round, and I still believe he has a chance to go to the lottery if he can prove that he has returned to full strength in pre-draft workouts.
I would not look too deeply into the rumors of a potential sophomore season from TyTy Washington. While I would gladly have him back, we have seen this movie before; a lock for a first round pick is just too hard to pass up, even in the NIL era. Cason Wallace will be the next man up in TyTy's place of being the next 5 star Calipari guard with lottery pick potential.
Bryce Hopkins, Forward
Daimion Collins was the rare exception to the "top ranked freshmen who did not get playing time will transfer the following season" rule. I do not think we will get that lucky twice. Hopkins, similar to Collins, did not get a lot of consistent time, but showed some flashes of potential, namely in our shorthanded wins over Ohio and LSU.
While the potential is there for a sophomore breakout season, I am not sure the playing time and opportunity is. With Daimion Collins already returning, Jacob Toppin likely to follow, and a 5 star freshman in Chris Livingston coming in, the 4 position is already a log jam and would be even worse if Hopkins were to return. Not getting much playing time your freshman year is one thing, but being a top recruit and struggling to find minutes for your sophomore season as well is not something a lot of kids want to sign up for.
A sophomore Bryce Hopkins would be a terrific piece to have for next year's roster, but I would not blame him in the slightest if he went to the transfer portal to find a place where he can get more playing time.
Keion Brooks Jr, Forward
As stated above, there is going to be a log jam at the 4 position next season. Last offseason, Brooks was already considering his professional options, and was one of the last players to decide to return to Kentucky, only behind Davion Mintz.
The playing time and guaranteed starting position at the 4 was enough to make him return for one more season and attempt to improve his professional stock. With a log jam in his position, I believe Brooks has maximized his potential at Kentucky and it will be time for him to pursue the next step of his journey as a basketball player.
Dontaie Allen, Guard
One of the biggest fanbase vs Coach Cal feuds of all time has been the debate over Dontaie Allen's playing time during the 2020-21 season. While Kentucky was picking up embarrassing loss after embarrassing loss, Calipari was persistent that Allen was not ready to play... until he dropped 23 points and single handedly carried the Cats to an overtime win over Mississippi State.
A pair of 23 point scoring performances over Mississippi State last season gave some fans hope that Allen would find consistent minutes as a spark plug shooter and scorer off of the bench. However, Allen shot just 18.9% from behind the arc this season, and we still haven't seen a real improvement from him on the defensive end.
A fresh start on a new team with less pressure from the fanbase and more opportunity to get playing time might be the best thing for Dontaie Allen's future. The NIL money at Kentucky will likely be higher than anywhere else he goes, but I still believe we will see a Dontaie Allen transfer this summer.
On The Fence:
Oscar Tshiebwe, Center
It saddens me that Oscar Tshiebwe may have played his last game with "KENTUCKY" across his chest. He owes nothing more to the Big Blue Nation or the Kentucky Basketball program, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't love 40 more games from the Big O.
I believe that Tshiebwe would also love to run it back in Lexington, hoping for better tournament results next season. And with Tshiebwe now able to potentially earn NIL money, a second season at Kentucky could be a serious option.
Of course, the ultimate dream for Tshiebwe is to play in the NBA and following his historical season, his draft stock is at an all time high.
This is a true "on the fence" decision ahead of us that I can see going either. We will likely learn new information in the coming weeks, maybe days. But for now, Tshiebwe's decision sits at an evenly split 50-50.
Shaedon Sharpe, Guard
Big Blue Nation may soon be facing their biggest fears: the most talented recruit to come through this program in years may never actually play in a game for Kentucky.
Shaedon Sharpe, formerly the #1 player in the 2022 recruiting class, enrolled early at Kentucky to practice with the team for a semester with the intent of returning with some experience for the 2022-23 season.
Of course, we have all heard the rumors that, despite not being a full year removed from high school, Sharpe could be eligible for the 2022 draft this summer and would certainly be a lock for a top 10, maybe top 5, pick.
Sharpe and his camp have constantly expressed that it is their full intent to not enter the draft and return to Kentucky for his true freshman season. But the idea of being a top pick and being in the NBA has never been passed up before.
Anyone who thinks they know what he is doing is lying at this point. We will simply have to wait, and stress, this situation out until Sharpe comes out and says what he is doing.
Lance Ware, Center
Ware has spent his second consecutive season in a low-minutes bench role playing the backup center. And unlike previously noted Toppin and Fredrick, Ware has never transferred, meaning he very well could enter the portal this offseason. A former top 50 prospect struggling to get playing time sounds like a recipe for a transfer, especially with the potential frontcourt log jam we will have next year.
However, Ware has been a hard working player who always understands his role, does what he is told, and doesn't complain about anything. He understands that he is a four year player at Kentucky who is going to have to wait his turn, and he doesn't appear to have any problem with that. So why is he "on the fence" rather than "most likely staying"?
One of the biggest reasons that Ware ended up at Kentucky was because of his close relationship with Kenny Payne, the new head coach of Louisville's basketball team. I still believe that Ware remaining in the blue and white is likely, but the information we are hearing at Cats Coverage is that a transfer to that school out west is a legitimate option.
Cason Wallace, Guard
Cason Wallace is the next great combo guard under John Calipari, following the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey, and TyTy Washington in recent years. He is as well rounded as prospects come, with the ability to score on all three levels, create shots for himself and others, as well as defend at a high level.
His intensity, physicality, and toughness on both ends of the floor is what sets him apart from many other top prospects his age. Many times we see freshmen struggle to adapt to the physicality and speed of college basketball after playing in high school and AAU. This will not be the case for Wallace.
His only potential limitation is it remains to be seen if he can be the #1 scoring option for a really good college basketball team. I see him easily eclipsing double digit scoring averages, but will he be able to average 15+? Or be able to score 25+ on a given night? With Wheeler being a pass first point guard, Kentucky will either need to return Shaedon Sharpe or look for a scoring wing in the portal to pair with Cason Wallace on the perimeter.
With that being said, while he may not be an elite scorer, Cason Wallace is the exact type of player you want our your team. A guard with his level of toughness is what some people might say our team was missing this year. I feel very comfortable right now saying that Wallace will win us some games in March.
Chris Livingston, Forward
Chris Livingston looks like he was made in a lab specifically for John Calipari: a 6'7" 220 lbs (via Rivals) wing who can jump out of the gym, play multiple positions, and rebounds very well for his size. Livingston is best known for his ability to drive to the rim and finish through, or over, traffic in the paint. He might be the most athletic player in his recruiting class. In his senior season, he has also developed a respectable three point shot with his feet set in catch-and-shoot situations.
If utilized correctly, Livingston could be one of the biggest mismatches in college basketball. Anyone strong enough to guard him in the paint will be nowhere near quick enough to stay in front of him out on the perimeter. And anyone quick enough to stick with him defensively will be far too small and weak to contest his shots in the interior. He is the ideal "stretch 4" for modern college basketball.
However, if we try to play him at the 3, like we have seen Calipari do in the past with players such as Cam'Ron Fletcher or Khalil Whitney, we will not have enough court spacing to be effective on offense. Our paint will be clogged for whoever is playing the 4 and 5, and there will not be driving lanes open for Livingston, as well as our guards like Sahvir Wheeler.
It will be a big step for Chris Livingston, who has expressed in the past that he is not a power forward. I would love to see Chris Livingston play the 4, but not play LIKE a 4. In order to keep up with the times, Kentucky should adopt a true four out lineup where we have four players, all with guard skills, out on the perimeter. Livingston could be the perfect guy to be that fourth.
If we return all of the players who are "on the fence" we won't have much need for the transfer portal, having a potential roster of:
G Sahvir Wheeler
G Cason Wallace
G Shaedon Sharpe
G CJ Fredrick
F Chris Livingston
F Jacob Toppin
F Daimion Collins
C Oscar Tshiebwe
C Lance Ware
I see us using the transfer portal to fill any of the "on the fence" players that wind up leaving. If Oscar Tshiebwe leaves, we will need to find the best available center in the portal for the tall task of replacing some of the production Oscar Tshiebwe gave us. If Shaedon Sharpe leaves, we will need to find a wing scorer who is capable of spacing the floor and creating his own shot. If Lance Ware leaves, we need to find a veteran who provide us depth and energy in the frontcourt.
The transfer portal is a great tool to help fill voids like those in the summer. However, the best option would be to not have to use it at all. The energy of our coaching staff should be dedicated to doing everything that they can to return all or as many as possible of the "on the fence" players.
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