Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Kentucky basketball: Five takeaways from the Wildcats’ preseason exhibition games in the Bahamas

Kentucky’s men’s basketball team spent the last week in the Bahamas for four tuneup summer games and dominated its competition in paradise, scoring at least 98 points against each of its opponents and winning (albeit over inferior competition — but still!) on average by 50 (!!!) points per game.

The blowouts and the competition level weren’t exactly what the ‘Cats will face in the SEC, or even in their nonconference schedule —  especially with Michigan State, UCLA, Michigan and Gonzaga looming as big ticket out-of-league showdowns — but it was the first and most thorough look at this iteration of the roster. And five months removed from a soul-crushing loss to NCAA Tournament darling Saint Peter’s, this team appears more balanced, and by extension potentially more lethal, as it prepares for the upcoming season.

Here are the results of the four games in the Bahamas:

Game 1: Kentucky 108, Dominican Republic Select Team 56 (Stats)

Game 2: Kentucky 102, Tec de Monterrey 40 (Stats)

Game 3: Kentucky 118, Carleton University 56 (Stats)

Game 4: Kentucky 98, Bahamas National Select Team 74  (Stats)

It’s not just reigning Naismith National Player of the Year winner Oscar Tshiebwe who is fueling optimism around Lexington, either. This bunch — a strong mix of young and old — appears to be a more cohesive unit on the whole with shooters to surround Sahvir Wheeler, multiple freshmen with lottery talent and seasoned vets — both by UK standards and by traditional college standards — whose games appear on the rise at just the right time.

Below are five key takeaways from what I saw from their overseas trip. 

1. This team will shoot better

 It’s pretty wild to think that Kentucky, the team that can basically hand-pick its roster every season because of its prowess on the recruiting trail and via the transfer portal, ranked 101st in 3-point shooting percentage last season, 172nd the season before and 115th the season before that. (The last time UK ranked in the top 100 in team 3-point shooting percentage was the 2015-16 season.) After falling to Saint Peter’s as a huge favorite in March Madness earlier this year while shooting 4-of-15 from deep, highlighting on-and-off struggles in that department all season, that was clearly a priority to upgrade on as a team via the portal, recruiting and development.

Thus far that appears to be an area of noticeable improvement. The Wildcats went 11-of-26 from 3-point range vs. the Dominican Republic in their first game; 7-of-26 in their second game; 15-of-30 in their third game; and 7-of-23 in their final game. That 38.1%, if expanded across the season, would be the best 3-point shooting team at Kentucky under John Calipari since 2010-11 — and would have ranked top-10 in that category last season in college hoops.

The addition of transfer Antonio Reeves was among the more impactful on that front. The former Illinois State product went 14-of-27 (52%) from beyond the arc across four games, most among all UK players on the trip. After making 39% of his 195 attempts from deep last season for the Redbirds he looks like a day-one catch-and-shoot threat in this system.

2. UK’s five-star freshmen will be stars

Cason Wallace, the five-star incoming freshman from Texas, was always seen as a can’t-miss, no-doubt-about-it one-and-done talent whose game would immediately thrust him into a starring role. It wasn’t a slam dunk that the same would go for Chris Livingston, the other five-star signee of the class. Yet it seems increasingly likely that Livingston is a bit further along than maybe UK fans had hoped. He really dazzled off the dribble and showed good touch on floaters. When he had open looks from 3-point range he dropped them in the middle of the cup. He and Wallace look like an incredible duo and together, along with the veteran returning players, they raise the already-high ceiling of what this team can be next season.

cason-wallace.jpg

Cason Wallace did not look like a freshman in Kentucky’s win over the Dominican Republic Select Team. Chet White, UK Athletics

“I love what Chris Livingston did,” John Calipari told the media after the first day of play. “He came in, everything he did was one hand. . . Couldn’t be more proud of him.”

3. Daimion Collins is a second-year breakout candidate

Despite a five-star pedigree and projections this time a year ago that Collins would be next in a long line of one-and-dones, Collins struggled at times as a rookie, playing only 7.4 minutes per contest. In the Bahamas, though, his leaping ability and willingness to try and put anyone in front of him on a poster was, uh, jarring. He played with zero fear and a ton of confidence like I didn’t see much last season. 

4. Jacob Toppin looks completely different

A 6-foot-9 forward who, to this point, has mostly been just another guy at Kentucky in two seasons after transferring in from Rhode Island, Toppin looked completely different in the Bahamas. Retooled physique. More confidence in his jumper. A few pull-up knockdown shots. Flying around the rim. He looks — dare I say it — a bit like someone with lottery talent would look on the court.

His final two games in the Bahamas was a dazzling display of his potential. Against Carleton he dropped 27 points on 11 of 14 shooting — including 5 of 6 from deep. Against the Bahamas in the trip’s finale, he dropped 20 points on 8 of 15 shooting. 

There’s the obvious caveat that the level of competition he dominated won’t be the same level he will face this season, but it’s clear Toppin’s matured physically and has taken his game to another level. There’s been a steady drumbeat since he decided to return to school next season that he has fully committed himself to transforming his body and his game, and that seems to be culminating with a potential star turn in his final season with the Wildcats.

5. Oscar Tshiebwe can go back-to-back

No player since Ralph Sampson in the 1980s has won consecutive Naismith National Player of the Year honors, but boy does it look like Tshiebwe, Kentucky’s big, dominant center, has a good shot to join the legend. Tshiebwe wasn’t even the story coming out of the Bahamas in part because there was so much interest around the newbies, but he still racked up production as he does, recording 45 rebounds across four games and completely owning the paint. The UK system may more prominently feature its guards this season than it did last — it’s clear Cason Wallace, Antonio Reeves, Chris Livingston and Sahvir Wheeler will need to be heavily involved — but Tshiebwe is on track to again run the show in Lexington and will have a realistic chance of going back to back as the best player in the sport. Given the talent pool around him on this roster, that should be a scary proposition for the rest of the SEC and the rest of college basketball.

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