Ten important questions as Kentucky prepares to tip off the 2018-19 college basketball season:
1. What classic kids’ toy does this Kentucky team most resemble?
Mr. Potato Head? It’s so easy to change from one look to another.
Legos? So many pieces, so many ways to put them together.
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Easy-Bake Oven? Lots of recipes and good ingredients.
Any of the above might be the correct answer. But as Uncle Ben noted in the “Spider-Man” movie, with great power comes great responsibility. John Calipari must steer this team wisely. All eyes will be watching and waiting to second guess a decision that evokes memories of Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker on the bench down the stretch against Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four.
2. Is Reid Travis a stud or a dud?
In today’s world of instant, uh, analysis (conjecture? gibberish?), a question like this is raised. Of course, it’s too early to know. Interestingly, Travis seemed to struggle to finish plays around the basket in the Bahamas. The disappointment of fans was audible. A check of the four-game statistics stalled any rush to determination. The player supposedly struggling improved during the week and averaged a double-double (10.8 points, 10.3 rebounds). Conclusion: more stud than dud.
3. Can we believe in the transformation of Nick Richards?
Richards began last season as UK’s low-post strongman. This was never more in evidence than in a 25-point, 15-rebound domination of Fort Wayne in Game 6. Alas, he all but wore a cloak of invisibility in the season’s final 10 games. In that span, he scored a total of 11 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and played 10 or more minutes once. “It’s just a matter of how he views himself and how he feels when he’s playing,” associate coach Kenny Payne said. Richards must be feeling grand. He was a new man in the Bahamas, then followed that up with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks in the Blue-White Game. Perhaps most telling, he stood over Ashton Hagans after blocking his shot as if to mark his spot and proclaim his domain. “Just a little brotherly love,” he said with a smile that should reassure UK fans.
4. Does this team have an alpha dog?
Or, as John Calipari put it, a catalyst? It’s hard to win a championship without one.
Calipari defined the catalyst as a player who can change a game. In a span of three or four minutes, a competition becomes a demonstration of superiority. Until Kentucky plays Duke in the season’s opening game, it appears unlikely that the circumstances will arise that create the need for a catalyst. Many candidates seem plausible. Need a shooter? Tyler Herro, Quade Green, EJ Montgomery or Jemarl Baker might be your man. Need a defensive presence? Nick Richards could fill the bill. Need a physical rebounder? Reid Travis and PJ Washington can be on call. On-ball pressure? Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley or Keldon Johnson could be the answer.
5. Who will be the point guard?
Through the early going, no player made an instant impression as a point guard/floor general. There was no first impression like the one Tyler Ulis made during the 2014 trip to the Bahamas. (Those touch passes upon receiving an outlet were things of beauty.) Then again, at this time last year Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was not viewed as the indispensable player he became. Immanuel Quickley had almost a 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the Bahamas. As for on-ball pressure, Ashton Hagans averaged two steals per game.
6. Will there be enough perimeter shooting to spread opposing defenses?
The annual assumption that opponents will sag defenses into the lane to clog driving lanes and make Kentucky shoot jump shots applies. Tyler Herro can shoot, as evidenced in the Bahamas by 100 percent accuracy on free throws, 44 percent on three-pointers and surely some number north of 50 percent on pull-up jumpers. Quade Green shot well last season. Reid Travis and PJ Washington seem intent on proving their face-the-baskets skills. And don’t forget EJ Montgomery.
7. How will John Calipari divvy up playing time?
This might be the over-riding question for this Kentucky season. John Calipari’s pat answer is to say that Communism is not the philosophy that dictates his team’s playing time. UK tried that in 2014-15 with its platoons. Rival recruiters used that system against UK. So, no more platoons. “Don’t say that word,” Comrade, er, associate coach Kenny Payne said in the Bahamas in August. “We are not platooning.” UK’s homage to capitalism may mean productivity dictates playing time. Matchups figure to come into play. If a player needs convincing that playing time and glittering statistics do not dictate NBA Draft profile. UK can cite such first-round picks as Daniel Orton (who averaged 13.2 minutes and 3.4 points per game for Kentucky), Devin Booker (who did not start a game) and Skal Labissiere (15.8 minutes, 6.6 ppg).
8. What will be the team’s approach?
Effort. Attack the paint. Fewer displays of watch-this exhibitionism.
Here’s a reason for optimism: Remember that sequence a year ago when a UK player went in for a breakaway dunk, began a watch-this 360-degree spin as he started to jump, awkwardly rose off the floor and barely got the ball in the basket? (We won’t name the player.) There was precious little — to be polite — showmanship in the Bahamas even though Kentucky won by an average margin of 29 points per game. Ditto during the Blue-White Game. Emphatic dunks? Yes. But as the coaches like to say, bypassing the simple play and trying for theatrical degree of difficulty? Not so much. That’s another sign that this Kentucky team intends to stick to basketball business.
9. Will we see a repeat of last season when there were too many empty seats not to notice?
UK athletics officials seemed to wave the white flag on attendance this year when it was announced that chair-back seats will replace bleachers in several sections of Rupp Arena’s upper level. This will decrease Rupp’s capacity from 23,500 to 20,500 beginning with the 2019-20 season. So it would not be a surprise to see spaces of empty seats this coming season. The television masters that dictate starting times are not helping those who want to see capacity crowds. Five of UK’s 18 home games will have starting times of 8 p.m. ET or later. Three of those games fall on a mid-week night: North Dakota (9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 14), Monmouth (8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 28) and Arkansas (9 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26).
10. Will Kentucky win the championship? Of the SEC? Of the nation?
Here’s something you rarely hear television analysts say: I don’t know. Kentucky will be a contender, as made abundantly clear by preseason rankings as high as No. 1 (Blue Ribbon Yearbook) and No. 2 (The Associated Press). The Cats are equipped to win the program’s ninth national championship. But so was the UK team in 2015. And with a bit of luck, Kentucky could have won the NCAA Tournament in 2017, 2014, 2011, 2003, 1997, 1993, etc, etc. The message is this: There are always several teams capable of winning the national championship. Kentucky has a mix of veteran players and highly regarded freshmen, of talented “bigs” and good guards that make for a contender. The rest is up to the basketball gods to decide.