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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

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

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KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.