Size, depth for No. 2 Kentucky provide options
Three returning regulars from last season’s 26-11 squad that reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 round offer a good starting point for the No. 2 Wildcats. The coach also has landed a seasoned veteran in graduate transfer Reid Travis, who was a two-time All-Pac 12 Conference first team selection at Stanford.
There’s also the usual influx of top-shelf recruits, giving Calipari the layers of experience he considers necessary to make another run at its ninth national championship. Divvying up minutes and shuffling rotations will be challenging, but it’s not a bad problem to have.
“I may start one group of five and then maybe three different guys in the second half,” the 10th-year coach said. “May do that a couple times just to feel this out and see what it looks like.
“It appears as though we got 10 guys that can play, but they’re going to be guys that separate themselves into playing more.”
The Wildcats open the season with a 9:30 p.m. Tuesday game against No. 4 Duke in the State Farm Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Kentucky lost eight players from last season, including three starters who combined for 40 points per game. Forward Kevin Knox and guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the ninth and 11th overall selections in the NBA Draft, while guard Hamidou Diallo and reserve forward Jarred Vanderbilt went in the second round.
The Wildcats return three regulars including 6-foot-8 forward PJ Washington (10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds), whose withdrawal from the draft to come back for a second season provides a critical component.
Washington certainly seems ready to improve and take charge after getting scouts’ feedback from the draft combine.
“I can be a lot more vocal just because I’ve been through it,” he said. “I know what these guys haven’t seen; I know what it’s going to be like playing in the SEC, in the tournament. I’ve got a place to be a leader and show everybody by example.”
Also back are 6-11 Nick Richards and 6-foot guard Quade Green (9.3 points), both seeking to grow as well. They’ve had time to blend with Travis and another talented freshman class that includes 6-10 EJ Montgomery and a foursome of guards ranging from 6-3 to 6-6.
“Everybody is willing to work,” Green said. “Everybody is willing to be coached, put in work in the gym. If we all just put it together, it’s going to work on the court.”
NEW, IMPROVED NICK: Forward Nick Richards acknowledged that the learning curve of college, playing basketball and the post in particular was a steep one. A summer spent working with assistant coaches led to a promising performance in the Bahamas that the Jamaica native is eager to follow up on both ends this season. “I’m more comfortable, more relaxed,” said Richards, who averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds last season. “I just know how to put myself in better position to seem more like a basketball player.”
ELDER STATESMAN: Reid Travis might be Kentucky’s most cerebral graduate transfer after graduating from Stanford last spring with a degree in science, technology and society. His tastes also skew older than his teammates, especially clothing. “It’s Tim Duncan (daddy) jeans and some boots or something,” freshman guard Immanuel Quickley joked. “Just real mellow. But he’s mature, so he doesn’t care.”
SIZE MATTERS: Washington bulked up this summer, while Richards tried to improve his rebounding. Travis seeks more boards as well, but the trio’s spirited practices against each other has Calipari thinking of using them together for rim protection.
PERIMETER SHOOTING: Kentucky’s 36 percent shooting from behind the arc last season included its share of cold nights. The Wildcats hope four new guards help improve accuracy, and nobody would be shocked if Tyler Herro emerges as the main threat following impressive effort this summer. Jemarl Baker, 6-4, hopes to become involved after redshirting last season with a knee injury.