Five big questions for Kentucky basketball (and John Calipari) as the offseason begins

Tribune Content Agency

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A pattern is developing for the Kentucky basketball program, and it’s not pretty.

For the third consecutive NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats were home for good before the first weekend of March Madness was finished. And for the third consecutive offseason, UK coach John Calipari will have a longer-than-usual wait between games, with plenty of questions over the direction of his program and the outlook for the team’s future.

Two seasons after a disastrous 9-16 record and one season removed from the stunning first-round loss to 15-seeded Saint Peter’s, the Cats started the 2022-23 campaign ranked No. 4 in the country with seemingly realistic goals of a national championship. And while UK finally won an NCAA Tournament game — the first such victory in four years — the Wildcats once again came up short in March, losing in the second round to Kansas State to cap a season that can only be described as disappointing.

What’s next?

Calipari once again has a longer-than-anticipated offseason to figure that out. UK does have the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class coming in, but recent years have shown that group won’t guarantee the kind of success that Kentucky fans demand.

The Wildcats will almost certainly be near the top of the national rankings yet again by the time the 2023-24 season rolls around, but will they truly be equipped to reverse the recent run of less-than-stellar results?

What happens over the next few weeks and months will go a long way toward answering that question.

Who stays, who goes?

As always, the biggest question at the onset of Kentucky’s offseason is who will still be with the program by the time the games begin again.

And this might be the toughest series of “stay-or-go” decisions to predict in quite some time.

Calipari said on the postgame podium after the Kansas State loss that he expected all of his seniors — a list that includes Oscar Tshiebwe, Jacob Toppin, Sahvir Wheeler, Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick — to be gone this offseason, but it might not be that simple. Toppin and Wheeler are definitely expected to exit. Tshiebwe is, too, though his NBA draft stock took a hit this past season, and it sounds probable that he won’t be drafted this year. (Still, all of the buzz toward the end of the season indicated a departure was more likely than a return.)

Reeves and Fredrick are interesting cases. Reeves would almost certainly not be picked in the 2023 NBA draft, but he’ll turn 23 years old at the beginning of next season, and — barring a major improvement on defense — he might not be able to do anything to raise that stock. He could probably earn more through NIL opportunities next season than in the pros. Fredrick turns 24 in July and has already been through five injury-plagued years of college. His words in the locker room after the K-State loss sure sounded like someone who’s more likely to move on from college basketball than stick around.

Since Calipari said he expects all of them to be gone, it’s probably best to assume that, until one of these players says otherwise. But neither Reeves nor Fredrick would shock anyone with a return.

Cason Wallace is gone. Projected NBA lottery picks don’t return to college.

That leaves — in order of minutes played — freshman wing Chris Livingston, junior forward Lance Ware, sophomore forward Daimion Collins, freshman wing Adou Thiero and freshman center Ugonna Onyenso.

Livingston is the biggest decision to watch there. He emerged as a 30-plus-minutes guy over the final third of the season and would be a major part of UK’s 2023-24 roster, though he’s expected to go through the NBA draft process (and it wouldn’t be a total shocker if he hit the transfer portal, though that can be said for basically everyone in this new era of college basketball).

Ware has earned the trust of Calipari and clearly enjoys UK basketball, but it’s difficult to see his role expanding much more in year four. Collins will also have a tough decision to make. His father died unexpectedly in Lexington just before the start of the season, and while Calipari has been a great comfort to his family off the court over the past few months — and wants him to come back for a third season — everyone around UK’s program would understand if he decided it was best to get a fresh start elsewhere, likely closer to his Texas home.

Thiero and Onyenso both came to Kentucky with little outside expectation to play much in year one. Thiero probably played more than most expected, and — barring a roster situation where he’d get little opportunity to break through next season — he’s likely to return. Onyenso told the Herald-Leader in a one-on-one interview the day before the Kansas State game that he will be back with the Wildcats next season. Both are seen as possible breakout players on future rosters.

Calipari is not planning to meet with his players individually until Wednesday, and a stream of official announcements should come shortly after that. Though several of these players could wait weeks (or even months) to make their plans final.

Who transfers in?

The likeliest outcome of UK’s stay-or-go decisions means that Calipari will almost certainly need to add somebody else before the start of next season.

Kentucky has five incoming recruits. The Kentucky coach probably wants at least 11 scholarship players. Expecting six to return from the current roster — while possible — seems unrealistic.

The problem Calipari will find this spring is similar to the one he faced last year, when Antonio Reeves, who wasn’t even considered a top-25 transfer nationally, was UK’s only addition out of the portal.

Kentucky will need bodies, and it’s likely the Cats will want a top-notch veteran player, but how eager will any such transfer be to join this roster?

There are questions about star recruit DJ Wagner’s ability to be a dynamic college point guard right off the bat, but his presence and potential is likely enough to scare off a veteran playmaker who could find a larger role elsewhere.

Star recruit Justin Edwards will surely start at the wing, and a Livingston return would probably shut down the possibility of adding a dynamic “3/4”-type transfer.

Kentucky’s potential frontcourt (specifically Onyenso and freshman center Aaron Bradshaw, plus a possible Collins return) is unproven, but there’s enough collective upside there that any big-name centers could find more guaranteed playing time at another school.

Perhaps if Fredrick and Reeves both depart, Kentucky could find a high-profile shooting guard in the portal. (And the Cats would definitely need more shooting in that scenario.) But UK would still have top-10 recruit Robert Dillingham and McDonald’s All-American guard Reed Sheppard — both combo guards likely to play off the ball — in the freshman class.

Trying to figure out how to get someone with more college experience to bolster this roster while also leaving enough opportunity for his star freshmen — and possible returnees — will be a major tightrope for Calipari and the coaching staff as they explore the transfer portal. And selling such a player on the idea that Kentucky is the right place for them — when other major programs will have clearer paths to larger roles — is likely to be quite the undertaking.

Will Kentucky’s defense be better?

It probably has to be, or these Cats will be going nowhere for a fourth straight postseason.

The last four Kentucky seasons — including the 2019-20 campaign that ended with a canceled NCAA Tournament — have been bad defensively, by Calipari era standards.

Gritty, in-your-face defense used to be the hallmark of Calipari’s best Kentucky teams, which often had stoppers on the perimeter and — if opponents got past that first line of defense — intimidating rim-protectors in the paint. Simply watching the Wildcats over the past few seasons revealed impossible-to-miss shortcomings on the defensive end. And the numbers backed it up.

UK’s final KenPom defensive efficiency ratings over the past four seasons: No. 66 nationally in 2022-23, No. 36 in 2021-22, No. 35 in 2020-21 and No. 52 in 2019-20.

In Calipari’s first 10 seasons with the Cats, they were in the top 25 in that stat seven times and the top 10 five times. The only outliers: 88th in 2012-13, when UK lost Nerlens Noel and ended up in the NIT; No. 32 in 2013-14, when they relied mostly on freshmen; and No. 39 in 2015-16, the team that featured Jamal Murray and a sophomore Tyler Ulis but had a thin frontcourt.

The three teams regarded as Calipari’s best at Kentucky were sixth (2009-10), seventh (2011-12) and first (2014-15) nationally in defensive efficiency.

The problem for Kentucky is that the answers to a turnaround on defense don’t appear to be on the current projected roster. Livingston, if he returns, has shown grit on that side of the ball, but he also made plenty of freshman mistakes. Onyenso and Collins have abundant potential as rim-protectors, but they haven’t proven it against top competition yet. And while Edwards, Wagner and Bradshaw could be top-notch defenders, they’ll have to show they can do it at the college level first.

On top of that, the transfer portal era and the “extra COVID year” granted to all players who were in college during the 2020-21 season has made possible March opponents older and more clever, so it’ll be a lot to ask of a mostly inexperienced bunch to thrive against those types of defenders during tournament time.

Kentucky could certainly identify one of those defensive stoppers — or a couple of them — in the transfer portal, but — as already mentioned — it might be a tough sell to get such a player to Lexington, especially one looking to display other parts of his game in an attempt to raise his professional profile.

A series of stats worth mentioning here: each of the nation’s top five teams in defensive efficiency, according to the KenPom ratings, were all still playing when the Sweet 16 tipped off Thursday night. And 10 of the 16 teams still in March Madness were ranked top 17 nationally in defense.

Only two of the top six offensive teams — and just six of the top 17 — were still in the NCAA Tournament at the start of the Sweet 16.

One more: the KenPom ratings have been around since 2002. Of the previous 20 tournaments in that span, every champion has been ranked in the top 25 in defensive efficiency, and 11 of those 20 champs have finished in the top 10.

Kentucky hasn’t come close to that amid this recent March funk.

Will Calipari shake up the staff?

The Kentucky basketball coaching staff will look different for the fourth consecutive season. That’s guaranteed, since first-year assistant K.T. Turner is leaving to become the head coach at UT-Arlington. That surely won’t be the only change.

Whatever happens, expect Calipari to make some noticeable changes within his staff.

That could mean more departures. Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman and Bruiser Flint — with the title of associate to the head coach — are still currently on staff, and Antigua (one more season) and Coleman (two more seasons) have years remaining on their contracts.

Even if all three stick around, there will be changes. Someone will replace Turner, though Calipari has said he’s going to wait until after the Final Four to seriously pursue candidates for that opening. An upcoming NCAA rule change that allows for two additional assistant coaches will also add opportunities for Calipari to add to UK’s staff. That change goes into effect before the beginning of the 2023-24 season, and while those new staff members won’t be permitted to recruit off campus, they will be allowed to take part in on-court instruction. Flint has basically already been operating in such a role, but Calipari will have the opportunity to hire another coach in that spot, plus a full assistant to replace Turner.

It’ll be interesting to see how far Calipari goes in restructuring the Kentucky program. Additional support staff positions have been all the rage in college basketball over the past few seasons — with Duke’s “general manager” spot getting the most attention — and UK was ousted from the NCAA Tournament by a Kansas State team that had a “chief of staff” and a “director of strategies” on its bench, in addition to other support staff positions like director of player development.

This offseason could be an opportunity for Calipari to completely transform his overall staff as college basketball continues to track toward an increase in more specialized on- and off-court positions. Or he could simply fill his coaching spots and stick with more of a status quo.

While UK has implemented some impressive changes — particularly as it relates to NIL and other player-focused measures — it’s not expected that Calipari will shake things up too much. The Hall of Fame coach has now been doing it for more than three decades, and he’ll continue to be the primary overseer of all aspects of his program. And, with the actual basketball end of things, it’s difficult to imagine him ceding much in-game — or even in-practice — responsibility to someone with a title of offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator or anything similar.

Maybe he’ll spring a surprise, but — even if there are new titles — don’t expect drastic changes to the way the basketball side of the operation is run.

Will Kentucky fans buy in?

How many March Madness letdowns can UK basketball fans take?

The Final Four drought — the Cats haven’t been to one since 2015 — was already getting bad enough, but many gave Calipari a pass on the 9-16 season with a young team under difficult circumstances beyond anyone’s control. For many of those fans, however, the wheels fell off with that Saint Peter’s loss last March.

Following that defeat — plus the Shaedon Sharpe debacle — Calipari really could have been on thin ice with a sizable portion of the fan base had Tshiebwe not chosen to return. That decision excited UK fans and reignited hopes for the 2022-23 season, but those dreams faded almost as soon as the Cats started playing.

The mood of Big Blue Nation — as it pertains to Calipari, at least — is not great heading into his 15th season (now the longest-tenured UK coach other than program architect Adolph Rupp), and the next year already has a make-or-break feel to it.

Can the Calipari era be saved? Will Kentucky fans meet the beginning of the 2023-24 season with the usual optimism and fervor?

There will be a summer exhibition trip to Canada — the final details of which have not yet been officially announced — to showcase the new roster and introduce the incoming freshmen to UK fans. That should be a good barometer to judge the overall feelings of the base, a few months after the latest March defeat has passed.

Eight complete seasons have now been played without a Final Four appearance, and Calipari has tried things a few different ways in that span, to no avail. If — after a couple of years of going nowhere with more veteran teams — Kentucky fails to make a run with a recruiting class that Calipari has said could be similar to the ones that brought so much success in his early tenure at Kentucky, what expectations should there be for the future of his tenure?

If it doesn’t work this time around, is there reason to truly believe it will again?

These are questions worth asking as the 2023-24 season gets closer. And, if that one ends without a new blue banner for the Rupp Arena rafters, Calipari will be faced with even more serious questions this time next year.