Updated: May 26
The offseason: the opportunity for every team, with the exception of the defending national champs, to go back to the drawing board and try to fix what ultimately went wrong for them the year before. Being the avid Twitter user that I am, I have seen more than a fair share of takes from the Big Blue Nation on what Kentucky needs to improve on this summer and have been able to formulate a consensus. Unless we have a surprise late withdrawal from the NBA draft, or an entry to the transfer portal, Kentucky's roster appears to be final, meaning we can finally officially judge whether Kentucky did improve in these areas or not.
Before we get to the needed areas of improvement, let's look at where Kentucky is solid.
For the second year in a row, Kentucky gets to say they have the best center in college basketball, with Oscar Tshiebwe officially returning for his senior season. Oscar played 31.9 minutes per game last season and rarely got in foul trouble, so Daimion Collins and Lance Ware should more than suffice as back up centers again.
Keion Brooks Jr is currently both in the NBA draft process and the transfer portal, so regardless of what he decides, Kentucky will be down their starting power forward from last season who accounted for 24.5 minutes, 10.8 points, and 4.5 rebounds per game. However, Kentucky has a pair of high potential guys in Jacob Toppin and Daimion Collins who can easily match, or exceed, last year's production at the "four". Couple that with Chris Livingston, who will probably play a majority of his minutes at the "three", but can also play the "stretch four" in spurts. Kentucky's frontcourt is the perfect blend between high floors and high ceilings and should once again be in contention for the best in the country.
Veteranship and Continuity
Kentucky's roster at the moment stands at:
RS Senior - CJ Fredrick
Senior - Oscar Tshiebwe
Senior - Sahvir Wheeler
Senior - Jacob Toppin
Junior - Antonio Reeves
Junior - Lance Ware
Sophomore - Daimion Collins
Freshman - Cason Wallace
Freshman - Chris Livingston
Freshman - Adou Thiero
The coach notoriously known for recruiting one-and-done freshmen will likely start three seniors in our opening game. Pending an official announcement from Lance Ware, Kentucky could be returning SIX scholarship players from the year before.
There are only two Bob Cousy Award finalists returning from the previous year: Sahvir Wheeler and Tyger Campbell. And there are only two Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award finalists returning from the previous year: Oscar Tshiebwe and Adama Sanogo. Kentucky is the only school to return one of each.
The basic and fundamental level teaching that John Calipari has to do from year to year to get his team acclimated to college basketball can be skipped this season, allowing for the Hall of Fame coach to go straight into more advanced concepts.
Kentucky not only had the individual SEC leader in assists per game with Sahvir Wheeler last season, but they also lead the SEC in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio as a team. Sahvir Wheeler was the integral piece to the assist numbers and is of course returning, but TyTy Washington was also a top 10 finisher in the SEC in assists per game. With TyTy gone, that is 3.9 assists that need to be replaced, but Cason Wallace should fit in perfectly in that combo guard and secondary ball-handler role. Similar to the frontcourt, our point guard position should be just as good, if not better, than last season.
So now, where does Kentucky need to improve? To answer such a question, we must look at why we lost in the SEC and NCAA tournaments to begin with. Most notably, I look at CJ Fredrick missing the entire season due to injury, as well as TyTy Washington and Kellan Grady being forced to play through their own injuries at the end of the season, causing their play to be severely hindered.
Also, Kentucky shot a combined 6/35 (17.1%) from behind the arc in their postseason losses to Tennessee and St. Peter's. Outside of throwing the ball in the post to Oscar, Kentucky didn't have a go to scorer in late game situations, primarily from the perimeter.
Finally, let's look to see whether Kentucky had addressed these key areas or not.
Assuming Chris Livingston is going to play more of the "three" than the "four", the backcourt will consist of six names: Sahvir Wheeler, Cason Wallace, Antonio Reeves, CJ Fredrick, Adou Thiero, and the aforementioned Chris Livingston. Last year, following the season-ending injury to CJ Fredrick and the underwhelming performance of Dontaie Allen, Kentucky was left with five names: Sahvir Wheeler, TyTy Washington, Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz, and Bryce Hopkins.
While six is an upgrade from five, we are still left with a few question marks: Is CJ Fredrick going to return to full health? Is Adou Thiero, a three to four-star recruit, going to be able to be an immediate impact player? Is Chris Livingston truly a wing? I personally feel confident that we will be able to answer "yes" to these questions, but if we cannot, or if we experience any other injuries throughout the season, Kentucky might be wishing once again that they had one more body.
Last year, there were four rotation players on Kentucky that attempted at least one three pointer per game: Sahvir Wheeler, TyTy Washington, Kellan Grady, and Davion Mintz. Sahvir Wheeler is obviously returning, and saw great improvements in his three point shot towards the end of conference play. It is so hard to predict how an incoming freshman will perform, but I firmly believe that Cason Wallace can replicate a lot of TyTy Washington's offensive production, including his three point shot. So that leaves two names: Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz, who I anticipate will be "replaced" by returning guard CJ Fredrick and incoming transfer Antonio Reeves.
Coming into the 2021-22 season, Grady and Mintz had career 3 point percentages of 36.6% and 36.2%, respectively. Going into this upcoming season, Fredrick and Reeves have career 3 point percentages of 46.6% and 34.8%, respectively, a clear upgrade.
Chris Livingston has shown great improvement with his jump shot over his senior season. Jacob Toppin also spent lots of time testing the NBA draft waters, where he learned that a developed three point shot is the next step in his progression to becoming a professional talent. Between the two, Kentucky should also see greatly improved spacing from the "stretch four" position as well.
In terms of shooting, Kentucky should be just as good or improved in every single position.
Late Game Scorer
It is almost impossible to predict whether a player will be a clutch scorer or not, but having a handful of guys that can create their own shot is a great indicator. Cason Wallace, Antonio Reeves, and Chris Livingston are all great candidates as they all possess good size and athleticism, and have the ability to handle the ball and score on all three levels.
The probability that one of them is capable of being a late game go-to scorer is more likely than the probability that none of them are.
Is Kentucky better?
Kentucky's roster, top to bottom, is at least just as good, if not much improved, in almost all aspects. I would still like Calipari to add one more player, even if they don't move the needle, because we once again lack depth and cannot afford any serious injuries. If new Strength and Conditioning Coach Brady Welsh can keep this team healthy and John Calipari can do what he does best and get his team playing to their maximum potential, Kentucky should once again be a national championship contender.