New season, new roster, new challenges. What does 2021 have in store for Kentucky Basketball?
Most features common to Kentucky Basketball are evident with this year’s team… A top recruiting class that has NBA scouts foaming at the mouth. A squad of cartoonish length and athleticism. Expectations to contend for championships.
Naturally, however, some challenges and uncertainties come with these features. Roster turnover requires us to memorize a new set of names. Sophomores are expected to lead like seniors. Coach John Calipari must start over figuring out the team’s identity, racing the calendar to have the team tournament-ready by March.
Put all of this together and you have plenty of compelling themes. These are the top 5 storylines for the 2020-21 edition of Kentucky Wildcats basketball.
1. Sophomore Keion Brooks
Kentucky is notorious for bringing kids to campus for 9 months and sending them to the NBA, but they deserve equal recognition for longer-term player development. Last year, Immanuel Quickley went from backup 2-guard to SEC Player of the Year in just one year. In 2018, P.J. Washington transformed from an undersized back-to-the-basket post player into a versatile lottery pick.
Keion Brooks Jr. has the physical gifts and work ethic to make a similar leap. He has already demonstrated a unique skillset – handling like a guard, defending every position, soft touch on his jumper, and a promising post-game. The 6’8” forward ended last season on a high note, leading Kentucky through a 17-point 2nd half comeback at Florida. This season, Brooks will see time at all three frontcourt positions.
2. Olivier Sarr’s eligibility
In a huge offseason victory for the Wildcats, All-ACC center Olivier Sarr transferred from Wake Forest. Entering October, we’re still waiting on the SEC to decide whether Sarr is immediately eligible. It’s this simple: If Sarr plays, Kentucky joins the likes of Baylor, Villanova, and Gonzaga in the top tier of contenders.
If not, Kentucky must play center-by-committee with a handful of slender forwards. I can’t overstate how important this SEC decision is. The guy is seven feet tall and can give you 20 & 10 on any night. If Sarr is unavailable, filling the depth chart hole becomes a tall task.
3. No More Kenny Payne
To add to its frontcourt concern, Kentucky recently lost associate head coach Kenny Payne to the New York Knicks. For a decade, Payne was crucial to big man development at Kentucky. Fans should pay close attention to how this plays out for Kentucky. Will the Wildcats play smaller lineups? Will the coaching staff find ways to develop its big men in Payne’s absence?
We may see freshman forwards Lance Ware and Isaiah Jackson play roles that we haven’t seen Kentucky bigs play in the past.
4. Led by Wings
Expect the bulk of Kentucky’s scoring to come from wings Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke. NBADraft.net analysis speaks favorably of this duo. In an obnoxiously early 2021 mock draft, Clarke and Boston are set up for 11th and 12th, respectively. Clarke’s NBA comparison is athletic wing Will Barton, while Boston draws comparison to sharpshooter Kevin Martin.
This dynamic will differ from most UK teams – Since 2010, just one Kentucky team has been led in scoring by a small forward (Kevin Knox, 2017). There’s a good chance it happens again this season.
5. The SEC is getting better
Kentucky is still at the peak of its power, contending for NCAA titles year-in and year-out. They’re still dominating conference play, entering this season as the reigning SEC champs. Kentucky has more SEC Tournament Championships than the rest of the league COMBINED. In recent years, however, the talent gap between Kentucky and the rest of the SEC has tightened.
This isn’t an indictment on Kentucky – it’s just the reality that other SEC teams are investing in basketball and recruiting better. 5 of the top 10 teams in 247Sports’ recruiting rankings are in the SEC: Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn.
In the last couple of years, schools like Tennessee and Auburn have had some of the best seasons in their respective histories. The quality of SEC basketball is improving, and college hoops fans should welcome this.
Kentucky sits at #10 in our preseason power rankings.