Previewing changes to the UK basketball team

Eli Dyer, Editor-in-Chief

This offseason for Kentucky basketball is unlike those of previous years because, simply, we were bad in the 2020-21 season. It was an odd year. Between the pandemic and the team’s poor performance, it was a year to forget.

Now, all attention is on Coach Calipari. How will he turn that 9-16 record around? He’s received a lot of criticism for exclusively recruiting one and done athletes, but that isn’t the reality this year. This upcoming year will likely be the most experienced team in my lifetime — definitely as long as I’ve been following the team.

First, I’ll discuss members of the team that will definitely be leaving or have already left. BJ Boston has already declared for the draft and hired an agent, meaning he won’t be returning. I hope he is able to reach his potential in the NBA, because he barely scratched the surface at UK. Even prior to his tragic accident, Terrence Clarke had declared and hired an agent. Point guard Devin Askew has entered the transfer portal, even after promises that he “wouldn’t be like the other California guards”. To me, that’s no big loss. Also leaving is Isaiah Jackson, by far the highest projected UK player in the draft. While he hasn’t hired an agent (leaving the possibility of him returning) his lottery pick status makes it a long shot. Cam’ron Fletcher has also entered the transfer portal, which no one was surprised about. After his stint away from the team and limited minutes, his transfer was an obvious conclusion. Olivier Sarr, the biggest disappointment on the team, has declared for the draft and hired an agent. It’s highly unlikely that an NBA team picks him up, considering his disappointing performance at Kentucky, but I’d guess he’ll end up returning to France to play basketball there.

Next, I’ll talk about players who are a lock on the roster next year. Jacob Toppin is returning for a second season, which was never really in doubt. His transfer was more of an investment in the future than anything, but he surprised everyone and managed to receive a significant amount of minutes. His high-flying highlights and extreme athleticism make him a fascinating player to watch, and I’m excited to watch him play next year. Also returning is Lance Ware, whom we didn’t see that much of after the return of Keion Brooks Jr. Lance Ware, like Jacob Toppin, was always an investment for the future. No one thought he would be a one and done player, so his return is also unsurprising. More surprisingly, Dontaie Allen has elected to return to the program. He’s a fan favorite: a 3 point shooter from Kentucky. He was the subject of much debate, with many wondering why Calipari didn’t play him more.

The first of Kentucky’s transfers this year was Oscar Tshiebwe, a 6’9’’ 260 pound forward/center from West Virginia. He’ll occupy a position on the team that was lacking last year: a heavy post player on defense. Kentucky’s low weight team-wide last year resulted in us getting bullied in the paint on numerous occasions. The second transfer acquired by Calipari was Kellan Grady, a grad transfer from Davidson. He’s a three point shooting guard, which is necessary in modern basketball. The third and final transfer (at least so far) was announced recently. CJ Fredrick played two seasons at Iowa, hitting 83 3 pointers on 178 attempts. Between him, Kellan Grady, and Dontaie Allen, Kentucky will have a much better 3 point shooting team. I hate to say that the incoming recruits will 100% be on the team after the recent decommitment by Nolan Hickman, but Damion Collins and Bryce Hopkins will almost certainly be on the roster next season. Both are power forwards, with Damion Collins seeming similar to Isaiah Jackson in his athleticism and shot-blocking ability.

The two players that are still deciding are Davion Mintz and Keion Brooks Jr. Davion Mintz declared for the draft, but has left the option open to return. He won’t get drafted by an NBA team, so his options are playing overseas or returning  to Kentucky, so nothing has really changed. If anything, I’d say he’s slightly more likely to come back than leave, but it’s up in the air. Keion Brooks Jr, on the other hand, has made no decision about what he’s doing. Although he may follow in the footsteps of Wenyen Gabriel or Skal Labissiere and leave before he’s ready, I hope he comes back. In any event, Kentucky has enough players at power forward that we don’t necessarily need him.

With this roster, Calipari has addressed several of the major gaps that were on display last year. He recruited several three point shooters and a muscular big man. Currently, the only thing the roster is lacking is a point guard, due to the decommitment of Nolan Hickman. That position will most likely be filled by TyTy Washington, a top 25 prospect and a top 5 point guard. His decision will be released in around a week and Kentucky is the frontrunner. If Calipari secures Washington’s commitment, the team will be complete. Otherwise, Calipari will likely pick up a point guard from the transfer portal. In any case, Kentucky won’t be without a point guard for long.