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Fall Hoops Check In: Kentucky

Basketball season’s not too far away. To get ready for the upcoming season, we’re reaching out to every SEC school. Next up, the Kentucky Wildcats

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, LSU beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena. LSU also finished ahead of Kentucky in the SEC. Reread that sentence as many times as you like because it’s not a feat LSU has pulled off often and it should be celebrated.

Will LSU finish ahead of Kentucky for a second season in a row? Hard to say right now because, once again, Kentucky will be very, very extremely good.

The Wildcats made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend for the third consecutive season. Kentucky’s been to the Elite Eight two of the past three seasons; this 2019-20 group is expected to match last season’s results at minimum and snap the Wildcat’s Final Four “drought” that has reached....four years.

Will they do it? That’s what A Sea of Blue editor Jason Marcum and I discussed.

1. It wasn’t that long ago that you could make Kentucky a lock to win the league’s regular season crown and then roll in the SEC Tournament. But the league has improved and, while still the most talented team in the SEC, the Wildcats definitely get tested in conference play. How has the improved SEC helped Kentucky?

I definitely think the SEC being so vastly improved has helped prepare UK more for the NCAA Tournament. It’s making them far more battle-tested than in year’s past, but it’s also helped keep them from getting a 1 seed since the 2014-15 season. It’s probably hurt UK more than it’s helped, especially now that they’re losing recruits/grad transfer targets to other SEC teams.

Still, it’s good to be battle-tested going into the Big Dance, and UK is certainly getting that with teams like LSU, Tennessee and Auburn taking their programs to new heights.

2. Like clockwork, Kentucky brings in talented freshmen class after talented freshmen class. Who should we be looking for?

Tyrese Maxey is the biggest name UK brought in this year, and many think he’ll be the Wildcats’ leading scorer this season. He has the potential to become the latest superstar guard John Calipari has coached in Lexington. He’s a dynamic scorer and a bulldog on defense. While there will probably be better overall guards, Maxey has the potential to be the best two-way guard in America.

Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks are two versatile wings who will probably play the 4 a lot this season due to UK’s lack of true frontcourt depth. Both are tremendous athletes who can impact the game in a lot of ways but aren’t particularly great at any one thing.

The sleeper (for now at least) is Jonny Juzang, a four-star recruit who wasn’t even a top-30 recruit in the Class of 2019, but he’s been a revelation in summer workouts as arguably the team’s best shooter. He’s primed to be the latest one-and-done four-star recruit UK has a nice streak with in recent years with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tyler Herro being the others.

3. PJ Washington is gone but point guard Ashton Hagans is back for his sophomore year. The old adage is guard play wins you games in March, is Hagans’ experienced hand the key for Kentucky?

Hagans can be one of, if not the best defender in college basketball this season if he puts his mind to it. But defense only gets you so far, especially in the NBA, if you can’t score. Hagans’ jumper needs a lot of work, and even his finishing around the rim left a lot to be desired as a freshman. If he can find his offense, he’ll make a PJ-like freshman-to-sophomore jump.

And unlike Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley, Hagans can’t really play off the ball. If he’s not running the offense, it’s hard to keep him on the floor, so it’s not out of the question that Maxey or Quickley takes over the lead guard role eventually if Hagans doesn’t make big strides with his offense.

4. Kentucky loves the marquee non-conference games and this year is no different. The Wildcats play Michigan State in MSG, Ohio State in Vegas, welcome Louisville to Lexington and go to Lubbock for the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Which game provides the most intrigue for Big Blue Nation?

It’s a tough call this year since Michigan State and Louisville are both trendy Final Four picks. But I have to give the edge to the Spartans since they’re the consensus No. 1 team. Anytime you get a shot at the top dogs, it’s a great chance to see where your team stands in its drive for a national title. And while college basketball can be very fickle and teams fail to live up to their preseason hype, I feel very confident that the Spartans are the best team right now and will be for much, if not all of this season so long as they stay healthy.

5. What’s the ceiling for this Kentucky team? Or rather, what’s a realistic expectation for this team? Is it Final Four good?

From an overall talent standpoint, this team can definitely contend for a title. The problem is there’s a talent imbalance with so many talented guards and wings vs. just three true big men, one of which is a grad transfer from Bucknell, and the other is Nick Richards, one of the biggest enigmas in college basketball. And while EJ Montgomery has a world of potential, it’s untapped potential until he proves otherwise in an actual game setting.

The key to the season is how well UK can play with small-ball lineups that consist of guys like Whitney, Brooks and possibly even Juzang at the 4. Between foul trouble and UK’s recent string of bad luck with frontcourt injuries, it’s imperative one or more of those guys steps up when one or more of their bigs are unable to be on the court.

The good news is small ball has become a trend recently in college and in the NBA. Auburn has won an SEC regular-season title, an SEC Tournament title, and made the Final Four all in the last two years while playing a lot of small ball, so you can win big without being big.

Ultimately, I think this UK team will win 28+ games and make it back to the Elite Eight. But until we get to see how the frontcourt shakes out, I’ll hold off on predicting this team to the Final Four.