Head Coach: John Calipari
2018-19 Record: 30-7
Odds to win Title: +750
Odds c/o Bovada
The M.O. at Kentucky is clear enough by now, and remains in operation: Haul in the top “one and done recruits,” make a deep run, watch them leave for the NBA Draft, and repeat. There is a slight change to that finally with a few returning faces for the Wildcats, as the team hopes to build on last season for once instead of just starting from scratch again. Kentucky surely did lose three first-round picks, but it does return four key players from last year’s rotation, three of which started more than 10 games last season. For a rarity, the Wildcats can add “experience” to its team strengths in 2019-20.
Two of these returning talents headline the frontcourt, in Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery. Both flirted with the NBA but ultimately returned for one more season. Richards started his freshman season, but he saw his role decline as a sophomore and junior. He was a top-10 recruit, but he has not fully panned out, largely due to a lack of strength in the post, which affects him most on the defensive end. Even so, Coach Calipari sees Richards making some key improvements, and Kentucky brought in no major headliners in the 2019 recruiting class in the frontcourt. Montgomery offers some court-stretching and shooting, and both he and Richards are good on the glass.
The Wildcats also brought in Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina. He will come off the bench and he hits the triple at a 38 percent clip while taking over 80 percent of his shots from behind the arc. He is also a good rebounder having averaged 8.5 last season at Bucknell. Joining him in the 2nd unit rotation will be five-star freshman forwards Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks. Both are really better suited for the 3-spot, but each will see time in Duke’s smaller lineups. Whitney is probably another one-and-done, while Brooks is a versatile “tweeter” at forward who will help the team in various ways, even if not ultimately possessing the same elusive “upside” as Whitney.
Coach Cal returns his starting point guard from last year’s team, that being Ashton Hagans. He could be an elite point guard this year in the NCAA, but he has to clean up his three-point stroke and make wiser decisions with the basketball. Five-star guard Tyrese Maxey will complement him well as a good combo guard and outstanding scorer. He has a lot of “fan appeal,” too, as a great personality who plays with plenty of excitement. Johnny Juzang is a 6’7” swingman who brings an elite three-point shot to the rotation. That will get him some time for sure. Sophomore Immanuel Quickly will add more three-point shooting and speed off the bench, after being something of a disappointment last year. He averaged just five points per game after coming in highly touted in that 2018 class.
Kentucky is hoping that a slight move away from its one-and-done rosters does it good. Having key rotation players back will certainly help this team start better. But regular-season winning has not been the problem, as Kentucky won 30 games last year just to fritter out in the tournament for the second consecutive year. Kentucky will need its outside shooting to click this year at the right times, given the nature of the tournament. The holistic view of Kentucky basketball remains high, but forming some chemistry and trust among its team is probably the real focus initially in 2019-20. With Hagans, Montgomery, Richards, and Quickley, there is plenty of continuity. It is just that every player on Kentucky’s bench is a freshman with the exception of Sestina, the grad transfer.