EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — With the team’s first public appearance (Big Blue Madness on Oct. 13) still a month away, all outsiders know for sure about John Calipari’s 2017-18 Wildcats is that they’re younger than ever and as highly touted as ever.
The roster includes 11 scholarship players — eight freshmen, three sophomores — nine of whom were considered 5-star recruits by at least one major scouting service: guards Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; forwards Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones; and center Nick Richards.
There are plenty of pieces with which to build a championship contender, but how do all those pieces fit together for Kentucky? Unfortunately, we can’t tell you firsthand, as local reporters have not gotten a glimpse of summer practices. That doesn’t mean no one has seen these Cats, though.
Lucky for us, ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg happens to be a friend of both SEC Country and Calipari. While working the UK coach’s recent fantasy camp, Greenberg got to see the new team practice — and now he’s giving us the scoop on what he saw. Big picture first:
“Their overall length and athleticism is ridiculous,” Greenberg said. “This is the longest Cal team I’ve seen in a long time. They could legitimately start four 6-9 guys and a point guard — or Hami, a point guard and three 6-9 guys. Their versatility, their skill level, their athleticism, their length could be devastating defensively and at the rim.”
We wrote about this two months ago, noting that this season’s team will feature seven players who are at least 6-foot-8 with wingspans of 6-11 or greater — same as the freakishly long 2014-15 team that went 38-1. So that’s a good start.
What about individuals who caught Greenberg’s eye? The first name out of his mouth might surprise you — but it shouldn’t.
“I was really, really impressed with Vanderbilt,” he said of the 6-9 freshman forward whose hype would’ve been much bigger had he not struggled with injuries for more than a year. “He could be an elite defender. He’s long, good off the bounce, got quickness, carried himself the right way.”
Another 6-9 freshman forward, Kevin Knox, has gotten more local and national attention, in part because of his fairly shocking commitment to the Cats. But also because Knox can and will get buckets for Kentucky. He or Diallo are the top contenders to lead this team in scoring.
“Knox is the best shot-maker of that crew,” Greenberg said. “He’s going to have to stay engaged. He has versatility, because you could post him up — and I think John will sometimes — but I’m not sure he’s going to be able to guard the way Vanderbilt does.”
Engaged is a word that is equally important, if not more so, for Diallo. He’s a 6-5 shooting guard with a 6-11 wingspan and 44 ½-inch vertical. But he also has enough holes in his game that he pulled out of the 2017 NBA Draft and returned to school for a chance to prove he can play.
“I think Hami’s got to understand how hard he has to play,” Greenberg said. “He can’t get in the mindset of kind of being cool. He’s got to be the hardest-playing, most-electric guy on the court every possession. Shoot open shots, but you’re not a 3-point shooter, not a green-light shooter.
“Be who you are — be the hardest-playing guy. Be a guy who can guard anyone and everyone. Be a guy who can run the court and finish at the rim. Be a guy that’s hard to keep off the offensive glass. If he’s that guy, man, he’ll be really, really special.”
Energy will not be a problem for Washington, the 6-foot-8 freshman power forward whose game has a throwback feel to it. He’s a brawler.
“P.J. is the hardest-playing of the group. He just attacks in the open court and he’s got a strength and a toughness about him,” Greenberg said. “He reminds me a lot of Cal’s old players when he was at UMass and Memphis. He’s just got a hardness about him — a hard outer shell — that I really, really like.”
Sound familiar? Like former Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis, maybe? Green, the 6-foot McDonald’s All-American freshman stepping into that position this season, has drawn some Ulis comparisons.
“Natural leader,” Greenberg said. “He’ll get people to follow him. Now, he’s not Tyler Ulis, so people shouldn’t say he’s Tyler Ulis — Tyler had that hardness P.J. has — but Quade has a similar leadership skill set. He’s not as tenacious defensively, but he could be good enough defensively, and he’s got a really good feel, good on screens, shoots it well enough. I just like his presence. He’s a communicator, a connector, and guys are going to want to play with him.”
This all sounds pretty promising, right? Well, here is where we point out that deep into this conversation about practice impressions, Greenberg still hadn’t mentioned the two most important “veterans” on this team: sophomore forwards Gabriel and Killeya-Jones. Or McDonald’s All-American freshman center Nick Richards.
What those three are able to give Kentucky this season will have a significant impact on how deep these Cats go in March.
“Nick can’t score — he can block shots, he can rim run and play off penetration — which I think is going to be a concern,” Greenberg said. “And what is he going to get out of Wenyen, and what is he going to get out of Sacha? I think those guys have to play well.”
The good news is things are trending in the right direction for Gabriel, who spent the summer remaking his stick-thin body and is on a mission to redeem himself after a late-season disappearing act. Better news for UK: Greenberg joined a growing chorus of people who’ve seen Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-foot-6 freshman combo guard, and declared him a potential sleeper.
“I love him,” Greenberg said. “He has a chance to be really good. Terrific size, can play the point, willing passer, going to be an elite defender and plays without any kind of ego. That’s the one thing they have on this team: a lot of guys that are easy to play with.”
Well, that and a lot of length, athleticism and versatility. Those all sound like Final Four ingredients, right? But Greenberg offered a wise word of caution: This thing might take awhile to cook.
“They’re going to lose some games, because they’re really young, and they’ve got to figure it out, and because the league is good,” Greenberg said. “Alabama is going to be good, Auburn is better, Florida is very good and Texas A&M is really good.
“I think the SEC is a seven-bid league this year, maybe, and then they’ve got Kansas, Louisville, West Virginia, UCLA. They’ve got a killer schedule.”
Best we can tell, though, they’ve also got a killer team.