How did we get here? In the first two months of 2022, Kentucky was a top-three team in the country and was yet to lose a game, with their team fully healthy. They blew out their top SEC rival Tennessee, fellow blue-blood rival North Carolina, and future NCAA champion Kansas, all by over 20 points. They seemed to be getting healthy and heating up just at the right time. Now, just under a year later, as the calendar flips to 2023, Kentucky fans are debating whether this team is any good or not, whether keeping next year's #1 recruiting class intact is worth not firing Cal and if these games are even worth watching anymore. Once again, how did we get here?
The 2021-22 Kentucky team was a national championship contender when fully healthy. Cal returned a lot of the core of that team: the National Player of the Year in Oscar Tshiebwe, the SEC assist leader in Sahvir Wheeler, forwards with lottery potential in Jacob Toppin and Daimion Collins and the greatest source of energy on the team in Lance Ware. They lost a five-star combo-guard in TyTy Washington to the NBA Draft, but brought in another, and arguably a better one, in Cason Wallace. They lost forwards Keion Brooks Jr. and Bryce Hopkins to the portal, but had a five-star forward in Chris Livingston. Veteran wings Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz ran out of eligibility, but Cal picked up the top scorer in the portal in Antonio Reeves, in addition to CJ Fredrick returning from an injury that kept him out for the 2021-22 season. Adou Thiero replaces Dontaie Allen as a depth piece at guard and Ugonna Onyenso provides front court depth and a shot blocker to the roster. Kentucky returned, tweaked or improved in all areas on what was a national championship contender in 2022, yet on January 8, 2023, has 5 losses, are 11th in the SEC, unranked in the AP Poll and are on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.
One last time, how did we get here? First, I must still say that I am not giving up on this team. While it appears unlikely, I do believe this team has the pieces for a 2014-like turnaround. But as of now, here are the missteps of John Calipari that has the fanbase begging him to fill the head coach vacancy at Texas.
1. Freshman Recruiting Class
Some may blame Calipari for this and others may blame misfortune, but a pair of guards who were temporarily committed but never played a minute for Kentucky (Shaedon Sharpe and Skyy Clarke) kept other guards and wings from entertaining Kentucky as an option. If Cal had recognized that Clarke would not stay committed once his lead recruiter Joel Justus "left", or if Cal would have known like most of the fanbase that Sharpe would leave for the NBA this summer, once being ruled eligible, spots could have opened up sooner, which would have allowed Calipari to fill them earlier. The likes of Keyonte George, Brandon Miller and Nick Smith Jr., all of which had strong interest in Kentucky, could have very well ended up in Lexington, if Cal had moved off of Skyy Clarke and Shaedon Sharpe earlier. A second five-star freshman guard who can create their own shot on offense, in addition to Cason Wallace, would open things up for lead playmaker Sahvir Wheeler and the offense as a whole. Is it Cal's fault he took a chance on a generational talent in Sharpe? I am not convinced one way or another. However, in hindsight, is that a major contribution to our offensive and team struggles this year? Absolutely, yes.
2. The 4 Position
The transfer portal gives and the transfer portal takes. However, in the case of Kentucky, it has taken a lot more away than it has given back this past offseason. Keion Brooks Jr. is averaging 16 points and 7 rebounds per game for Washington, while Bryce Hopkins is having a breakout season of his own. Hopkins is averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds per game for a 14-3 Providence team that just took down #4 ranked UConn behind his 27 point outburst. Kentucky was expecting Jacob Toppin and Daimion Collins to take significant jumps at the four position this year and, outside of a pair of good games from Toppin, it appears that Brooks and especially Hopkins would be significant improvements at that position. Bryce Hopkins would be additionally beneficial as a true "stretch four", as he is shooting 37.5% from behind the arc this season.
3. The Wing
Calipari decided to go one deep in the transfer portal this year, with guard Antonio Reeves. If you are going to strike out in the recruiting class and only take one transfer, that transfer better be a homerun addition. While I think Reeves is a good player and still can have a valuable role on this team, he has been far from a homerun. He's averaging a solid 12 points per game on a 40.7% field goal percentage. However, another top portal option in Terrence Shannon Jr., who went to Illinois, is averaging 18 points per game on 46.2% field goal percentage. This is much closer to a homerun in terms of pickups from the offseason. This is not a reaction in hindsight, as I have been saying this since before the season started. If we do not get any of the remaining five-star freshmen guards and lose Shaedon Sharpe to the draft, you must get multiple wings from the portal. Cal only got one. Having good wing depth would not only improve the 2 and 3 positions, but the 1 and the 4 as well. An additional wing would allow us to more freely run lineups with Cason at the point, because he would not be needed at the 2. This would no longer force Sahvir Wheeler to have to play 35+ minutes. Having good wing depth would also force Livingston to the stretch 4, where I think he is much better suited, as there will be less available minutes for him at the 3.
You put 1, 2 and 3 together, and we are looking at a fantasy lineup of:
PG: Cason Wallace
SG: Terrence Shannon Jr.
SF: Brandon Miller
PF: Bryce Hopkins C: Oscar Tshiebwe
6th: Sahvir Wheeler
7th: Antonio Reeves
8th: Jacob Toppin
I am no psychic, but I am still quite confident that team would have no more than one or two losses, much less five of them. Even if this team did struggle earlier, the fanbase could more easily see Calipari's commitment to keeping up with modern basketball by having a lineup full of positionless basketball, spacing and multiple players than can create their own shots. At the very least, it would feel as if we have a roster that is capable of breaking out at any point, rather than one where the fanbase questions whether this roster could ever find success in a John Calipari coached team.
Having an unprecedented COVID season led to a 9-16 record, an unprecedented string of injuries led to an early tournament upset at the hands of Saint Peter's and an unprecedented "transcript" situation with a generational recruit in Shaedon Sharpe can all be seen as just unlucky missteps that Cal could not completely control. As a Kentucky sports optimist, I do think there is hope left for this season and that roster construction might not be a problem with this team. I do think next year's roster, which is loaded with freshmen talent, shot creators, and rim protectors at center is much better fit for success under Coach Cal. However, going on a third straight season of disappointing results so far, I am not sure how many more unlucky missteps John Calipari can be afforded. Go Cats.