By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
For Kentucky basketball not much has changed from the beginning of the 2017-2018 season to the opening of the 2018-2019 season. At least that’s what the SEC and select national media are saying about the Wildcats.
At SEC Media Days last year Kentucky was picked to win the league. They had two players picked for the All-SEC First and Second Team, Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox, respectively. This year Kentucky is picked once again to win the SEC Men’s Basketball title and they have two players selected to the All-SEC First and Second Team. Those players were Reid Travis and P.J. Washington, respectively.
In my opinion that’s where the similarity ends. This year’s team — unlike the 2017-2018 Wildcat team that finished fourth in the SEC — is loaded with talent AND has a good amount of experience to go with it. The last Calipari team to have this much talent and this much experience was the Karl Anthony-Towns led team of 2015. The one that finished the season at 38-1 in the Final Four.
Not to beat a dead horse but the 2018 version of Calipari’s Cats have a dominant senior in Reid Travis, former two-time All-Pac 12 player, along with returning sophomores and last year’s starters PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green plus redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker and a boatload of very talented freshmen.
Last year’s team returned two non-starters in Wenyan Gabriel and Sacha-Killeya Jones as sophomores and a different boatload of talented freshmen. That team finished fourth in the SEC regular season and lost in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 to an inferior Kansas State team. Two factors seemed to lead to that quick exit in the NCAA Tournament — lack of tournament experience and inconsistent outside shooting.
This year’s version of the Wildcats seems to have addressed both those issues in spades. With the addition of Reid Travis, a fifth year senior transfer from Stanford, and the return of PJ Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards UK has four players that have played significant minutes in big time games against big time opponents in either conference or NCAA Tournaments. That should help address the experience issue.
Players like Tyler Herro, 44% shooter from beyond the arc in the Bahamas; Immanuel Quickley, winner of the McDonald’s All-American 3-Point Shooting contest and the Powerade JamFest 3-Point Shooting Contest; Quade Green, a 38% 3-point shooter from last season and Jemarl Baker, known for his outside jump shot, seemed to have addressed the outside shooting issues.
Throw in the athleticism of Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans along with the smooth inside game of EJ Montgomery and you have a team that should on paper easily perform at a much higher level than last year’s Cats.
And that’s just the point. Generally at this time of year the media has nothing to go on besides what’s on paper — like last year voting the Tennessee Volunteers to finish 13th in the SEC only to have them win the league crown — but this year is different. This year Kentucky has played four games against very good competition and shown how well they stack up against SEC or better type competition.
So when you see a quote from Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland saying how he believes that Tennessee, his favorite to win the league, should be the favorite this year because they return everyone from a team that won it last year, don’t believe it. Because even though the media has picked UK to win the SEC — just like last year — that’s where the similarities end between last year’s UK team and the one that will take the floor on October 26th.
Returning five starters — as Tennessee does — off a championship team could make you the favorite on paper. But that’s the good thing about sports. They don’t play the games on paper. And even Ben Howland can see that.