Unique mix of incoming freshman, talented veterans, and “one grown man” have Kentucky thinking national championship
College basketball fans never have to ask if the Kentucky Wildcats will compete for a national championship each season. It’s Kentucky, so it’s a given. If the balls are bouncing and the gym floors are squeaking, then the Big Blue is a national title contender.
Once again in 2018-19, college basketball’s all-time winningest program (2,263 wins over 115 seasons) is poised to embellish its incredible resume’ which includes eight NCAA championships, four runner-up finishes, 17 Final Four appearances and 126 tourney wins in 57 total appearances. In fact, many college hoops insiders such as NCAA.com correspondent Andy Katz are already predicting the Cats will hang another title banner in the Rupp Arena rafters after this season..
Why is that? Well, it’s because John Calipari has as good a mix of returning veterans and incoming freshman as he’s had in his near decade at the Big Blue helm.
For years the master of recruiting one crop of one-and-dones after another, Calipari actually has three returning sophomores — guard Quade Green and forwards Nick Richards and PJ Washington — he is counting on heavily this season to blend with a recruiting class ranked No. 2 nationally by ESPN. And then there is Reid Travis, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound graduate transfer from Stanford, a first-team All-PAC 12 choice last season and one of just three players in Cardinal history with at least 1,400 points and 700 rebounds in fewer than 100 games played.
Even Calipari has to be downright giddy at the impact a few experienced players can have on his always-talented squad of basketball babes.
“We finally have a couple of returning players, and it’s been awhile,” Calipari said at the recent Southeastern Conference Media Days. “And I have a player who is a grown man,” which translated from coachspeak means “it could be a long season for the rest of the SEC.”
Travis is the kind of stabilizing force very few, if any, Calipari teams have had in his tenure and many, including Coach Cal, were surprised when he wanted to bypass the NBA for bluer pastures in the Bluegrass State. Travis said his decision was based solely on a belief that he needed to get better before heading to the next level, which means he was probably well aware of the 31 former Kentucky players dotting NBA opening-day rosters this year.
“I just wanted to be pushed in a way I had never been pushed before,” said Travis, who was named to the preseason All-SEC first team. “When I talked to Coach Cal, right away he jumped to a lot of things I could change in my game and ways I could get better, and I respected that a lot. He didn’t need to tell me the things I have done in college the last couple of years and all the accolades I had. What I needed to hear was how can I get better, how can I help a team win at the highest level and how can I get myself in the best position to play at the next level.”
If Travis, the 6-0, 170-pound Green, 6-8, 228-pound Washington and 6-11, 244-pound Richards — think Anthony Davis without the unibrow — can smooth out some of the peaks and valleys Calipari teams sometimes experience, this could indeed be his most dangerous Kentucky team yet. With 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, Washington was the most significant contributor to last year’s squad that went 26-11 and lost to Kansas State in the NCAA regional semifinals, and those numbers are best among all the returning players.
As usual, the Cats also expect immediate production from a strong class of incoming freshmen, which includes forward EJ Montgomery (6-10, 225) and guards Ashton Hagans (6-3, 192), Keldon Johnson (6-6, 211), Immanuel Quickley (6-3, 185) and Tyler Herro (6-5, 185), who is already drawing comparisons to two-time All-SEC first-teamer Rex Chapman. In only two seasons in Lexington, Chapman poured in 1,073 points, and while Herro may not have quite the hops “King Rex” did, he appears to have the same touch after netting a game-high 32 in this year’s Blue-White Game.
While it’s doubtful Herro, or any other Wildcat for that matter, is ever going to stick around long enough to challenge Dan Issel’s all-time Kentucky scoring mark of 2,138 points (amassed in just 83 games over three seasons from 1967 to 1969), he could have a significant enough impact this season to help Kentucky to its first national title since the 2011-12 squad beat Kansas 67-59 in New Orleans and second under Calipari.
And while there’s little doubt no Kentucky coach will surpass the 870-190 mark Adolph Rupp posted in more than 42 seasons in Lexington, it seems likely Calipari (275-64) will surpass Joe B. Hall (297-100) to become the second-winningest coach in Wildcat history this season.
Kentucky was also tabbed by the media as the favorite to win its 49th SEC regular-season title and sixth under Calipari. So the signs are there, even to Calipari, that this team can be something extraordinary.
“We have some really good incoming freshman, and we have some terrific veterans who have had an impact in the league, a big impact,” Calipari said. “I like the fact that we are physical. I like the fact that we are long. And I’ve always had a lot of shooters, but I haven’t had many makers. Now it appears I’ve got some makers.”
All together it means there’s a great chance the Cats could cut some Final Four nets in Minneapolis in early April. H&A
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