Even for a program accustomed to roster turnover, Kentucky’s latest personnel upheaval stands out.
The No. 10 Wildcats lost nine players from last season's 25-6 team, including their starting five. That list includes the coaches Southeastern Conference player of the year selection Immanuel Quickley and All-SEC first teamer Nick Richards. That left sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr. as the lone returning player from last year's rotation; he started six of 31 games.
Of course, the turnover hasn't derailed expectations of another national championship in Kentucky. And it helps that coach John Calipari has the consensus No. 1 recruiting class and three transfers, including 7-foot senior Olivier Sarr. He is coming off a breakout season at Wake Forest. So Calipari will once again try to mold this latest group into contenders, but with practice limitations and protocols resulting from the pandemic.
“We’re all together trying to figure everybody out,” said Calipari, entering his 12th year at the school. “But this is every year. It’s not just this year. We’ve had times where we’ve had two or three or four players return.
"This year’s not one of those years.”
And that’s where the transfers could have the biggest impact in bringing things together.
At the very least, the additions of Sarr, former Rhode Island forward Jacob Toppin (Rhode Island) and fifth-year senior guard Davion Mintz (9.7 points and 3.0 assists per game last season at Creighton) provide much-needed experience. They also offer leadership for seven freshmen including highly touted guards Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke and forward Isaiah Jackson.
Sarr’s biggest mark, though, will have to be in the post after the exits of Richards and E.J. Montgomery. The native of France offered hints of what’s to come after career highs of 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds last season with the Demon Deacons, highlighted by a 30-point, 17-board performance against Notre Dame in February.
Both responsibilities intrigue Sarr as he adjusts to new teammates, Calipari and the lateral move from one high-profile Power Five conference to another.
“All I can do is just focus on my work, focus on helping the team as much as I can,” said Sarr, who was granted immediate eligibility with Toppin to play late last month. “And then we’ll see the impact at the end of the season.”
“They’re always willing to listen to any advice. ... It’s just fun to be around them. It makes my job easier as a leader because they’re always asking questions.”
Some other things to watch as No. 10 Kentucky begins with another group of new faces:
THE ‘OTHER’ TOPPIN
Jacob Toppin, 6-8, is the younger brother of Obi Toppin, last year's consensus National Player of the Year while at Dayton. He averaged 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game as a Rams freshman and says his game mirrors his much-heralded older brother in athleticism and shooting from all over the floor. “He’s just a lot bigger than me. And that’s what I’m trying to get to,” said Toppin, who faced his brother twice last season in Atlantic 10 Conference play.
Clarke, Boston, Jackson — all chosen for the Jordan Brand Classic — and point guard Devin Askew were rated as five-star prospects by several recruiting sites. Forwards Cam'Ron Fletcher and Lance Ware (6-9) were rated four-star recruits.
Guards Dontaie Allen and Zan Payne are available to play after missing last season with knee injuries. Payne, the son of former longtime Wildcats assistant Kenny Payne has missed two seasons with the injury.
Kentucky’s bench will look different with the departure of longtime associate coach Kenny Payne in August to become a New York Knicks assistant. Calipari has hired coaching veteran Bruiser Flint, his onetime assistant at UMass, and former Texas staffer Jai Lucas to join Joel Justus as assistants. Tony Barbee has been promoted to associate to the head coach.
Kentucky opens Nov. 25 with three games over five days in the Bluegrass Showcase. Attendance at 20,500-seat Rupp Arena will be limited to 15% capacity and follow coronavirus protocols. The Wildcats will face in-state Morehead State, Detroit Mercy and Richmond. The non-conference slate includes home games against Notre Dame and Texas (SEC/Big 12 Challenge); neutral-site matchups against Georgia Tech, Kansas and UCLA; and the annual rivalry showdown at Louisville (Dec. 26). The Wildcats open SEC play against South Carolina on Dec. 29.
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