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No. 2 Kentucky: Are the Wildcats too deep and too talented for their own good?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 2 Kentucky.


Think about where we are with this Kentucky program for a second.

Coming off of an OK season that saw Kentucky struggle early, win 26 games, find a rhythm and, just when you thought the field had opened up for them to make a run to the Final Four, get dropped by No. 9-seed Kansas State in the Sweet 16.

They lost four members of last year’s freshman class in the offseason — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt. They lost Sacha Killeya-Jones to a transfer. Tai Wynyard turned pro. All told, two-thirds of the players in Kentucky’s rotation last season left, and the only three returnees will all be entering their sophomore season.

As always, Kentucky head coach John Calipari landed an absolutely loaded recruiting class, landing five five-star prospects as well as Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, the latter of whom is viewed as the difference-maker with this group.

And not just because he averaged more than 19 points in the Pac-12 last season.

It’s because Kentucky is now looked at as an experienced group, at least by their standards.

Think about that for a second.

This Kentucky team has a nine-man rotation. Five of the nine are freshmen, and one of those freshmen was originally a member of the Class of 2019 and enrolled in school early. Three of the remaining four are sophomores, and the fifth — a redshirt senior — only arrived in Lexington after the 2018 NBA Draft had taken place. He’s been there for all of four months.

That’s where we are with this Kentucky team.

They are looked at as experienced.

Will that experience be enough to get them John Calipari’s second national title?

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KENTUCKY WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The Wildcats pretty much have the perfect roster build for a college basketball team.

There are nine guys on the roster that are going to be in the rotation — ten if you want to throw in Jemarl Baker — which is more or less the perfect number. There is enough depth that an injury or two won’t be crippling and they can survive foul trouble, but there are enough minutes in a basketball game to ensure that all nine are going to see consistent playing time; one of the tenants of Jay Wright’s Villanova program in recent years is to limit the number of players he has available to him to keep everyone happy with their playing time. That’s worked out pretty well.

And of those nine rotation players, four are bigs and five are guards. Three of their five guards — Quade Green, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley — are point guards by trade, but all three of them are capable of playing off the ball if they want to use a two-point guard look. They have shooters on the wing — Tyler Herro, Green — as well as a physical athlete in Keldon Johnson that can guard up and let Kentucky play small if they have to.

In the front court, they have a seven-footer that can block shots and catch lobs — the new and improved Nick Richards, who looked terrific in the Bahamas — as well as a trio of power forwards that all have differing skill-sets. Travis is a bruiser on the block that can score in the post and will compete on the glass. P.J. Washington is the best defender and, potentially, the best player on the roster. E.J. Montgomery is probably the most skilled of the group, a smooth face-up four with the most ability on the perimeter.

The team is as balanced as they are versatile. They have guys that can be lockdown defenders and guys that are going to end up being all-conference scorers. They can play big and they can play small.

And perhaps the best part of all of this is that all of these kids can play. Of the nine, I’m not really sure there is a weak link. Richards really struggled as a freshman, but he looked like a different player during Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas. Montgomery is probably the biggest unknown of the freshman class, but he was a top ten prospect for a reason.

Put another way, you can tell me that just about any combination of these nine kids is going to be Kentucky’s best five this season, and I’d probably believe it. That kind of depth and balance is valuable.

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Keldon Johnson (Chet White | UK Athletics)

BUT KENTUCKY IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The Wildcats are one of four teams in college basketball this season that I think are in a tier of their own: Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga and Kentucky.

Ranking those four teams in any order in the top four of your top 25 can be justified, although for my money Kansas and Kentucky, in that order, are the two best teams in college basketball.

There are a couple reasons that I would take the Jayhawks over the Wildcats.

First of all, I’m worried about just how different Kentucky’s best offensive lineup looks from their best defensive lineup. Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson are, without a doubt, the two-best perimeter defenders on this roster. I’d hesitate to call either a liability on the offensive end, but it’s pretty clear they have their limitations at this point in their development, Hagans more than Johnson.

Quade Green and Tyler Herro, on the other hand, are without a doubt the best perimeter scorers on this roster, but they are a liability on the defensive end of the floor.

There are some similar distinctions that we can make in the frontcourt. As good as Reid Travis and P.J. Washington are, I have some concerns that the two of them operate in the same space on the floor. Neither are known for their ability to make perimeter shots — in fact, that’s probably the very reason both are still in school at this point — and that could clog up the lane on a team that will have some shooting concerns again this season.

And yes, those shooting concerns are valid. Kentucky’s best shooters are not good defenders, and vice versa. If you don’t understand why this is a concern, think about the reason ‘3-and-D’ has become entrenched in basketball lexicon in the last decade.

Richards is not the player that either Travis or Washington is at this point in his development, but he’s probably the best fit stylistically to the way Cal wants his five-men to play. He’s a seven-footer than can block shots and spaces the floor vertically in the halfcourt. His guards can throw the ball to the top of the square when they drive and draw help knowing that Richards will be able to finish the lob off with a dunk. I’m not sure the same can be said for the other two bigs.

Then there is Montgomery, who is the most skilled of the four bigs and probably the best NBA prospect even if the impact he has on this Kentucky team this season will probably be the most muted.

But all of that brings me to the biggest issue …

Tyler Herro; Chet White/UK Athletics

THE X-FACTOR

… which is that I have no idea who is going to be Kentucky’s go-to guy this season.

Who is their star? Who is the guy that is going to get the rock at the end of a clock? Who is Coach Cal going to call a play for when he needs a bucket to slow down an opponent’s run? Who is going to have the ball in his hands when a game is on the line?

If I had to hazard a guess today, I think it would be Tyler Herro.

The 6-foot-6 sharpshooter and former Wisconsin commit was the program’s leading scorer during their trip to the Bahamas, and while he’s not the best NBA prospect or the most talented player on the roster, I do think that he is the most polished.

He’s also the guy that can fit perfectly into the role played by Kentucky’s leading scorer in each of the last three seasons: Jamal Murray, Malik Monk and Kevin Knox. Those three guys are all different players, but they were used essentially the same way by Coach Cal. They were run off of screens on the baseline and put into pindown actions in an effort to get them catch-and-shoot opportunities. For Murray and Monk, those shots came from beyond the three-point line. For Knox, they were 12-to-15-foot jumpers. The shots came from different spots on the floor, but the sets they ran weren’t all that much different.

Herro may not be the guy that gets all the hype this season, but I would not be shocked in the slightest if he is the player that gets trusted to take the biggest shots of the season for Coach Cal.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I’m really excited to see how this Kentucky team unfolds this season.

The one thing that Coach Cal does better than just about any other coach in the sport is convince players — talented, NBA-caliber players destined for the NBA draft lottery — to buy into the collective and thrive in the role that will be best for his team.

This season, he has nine guys on his roster that are all more or less at the same level; nine guys that are going to be able to contribute important minutes to a team with national title aspirations; nine guys that, in theory, all have a case to be the starter at their position.

How is he going to make all these pieces fit? How is he going to utilize the skill-set of each of these guys? Will he find a way to unleash the athleticism of Hagans and Johnson while simultaneously allowing us to watch Herro run off screens like his Rip Hamilton? Will Travis be able to bully opponents in the paint without hindering the chances Montgomery has to flash his perimeter skill?

I fully expect Cal to find a way to make it work.

How, exactly, that happens?

I can’t wait to find out.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 3 Gonzaga
No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.