It has been seven years since the Kentucky Wildcats reached the Final Four in men’s basketball, an eternity for a program with the legacy of the one located in Lexington. The 2021-22 version of the Wildcats has a fighting chance to end the drought and might not be stopping at an 18th trip to the national semifinals — the program’s ninth national championship is beginning to look like an increasing reality.
John Calipari’s talented team has a long way to go, of course. Tuesday night’s trip to Knoxville to face a high-quality Tennessee Volunteers team (9 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) could have much to say about whether Big Blue Nation should hold off on making those reservations for New Orleans in April. A worrying injury to star guard TyTy Washington Jr. is among the elements that could affect UK’s efforts on Tuesday night and beyond.
With that in mind, ESPN’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi made their predictions for Tuesday’s Sonic Blockbuster matchup, and they also offered their assessment of UK’s ceiling in 2021-22:
What has surprised you most about this Kentucky team? Where would you rank the Wildcats on your current short list of national title contenders?
Medcalf: I’ve been surprised this has worked so well for Calipari, who hasn’t coached a Kentucky team constructed quite like this one. Calipari built his tenure at Kentucky on freshman talent, but this season he has done it with experienced transfers Oscar Tshiebwe, Kellan Grady and Sahvir Wheeler. It’s difficult to bring all of those players, who were stars at the former schools, and blend them with five-star freshman TyTy Washington Jr. and a collection of talented role players.
The Wildcats are legit and are fourth on my short list of national title contenders behind only Gonzaga, Auburn and Duke. Another national title in New Orleans — a decade after Anthony Davis led the Wildcats to their most recent championship in the same location — seems possible.
Borzello: The first thing is, as Myron said, how little Calipari has relied on his freshmen. But the second thing is how dominant Tshiebwe has been from day one. I mean, he opened the season with 17 points and 20 rebounds — and somehow that’s not even in his top five or six outings of the season. He’s having a remarkable campaign, one there was no way of predicting from him after he really struggled in 10 games before leaving West Virginia in the middle of last season. And also, Kentucky explored adding Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn to its roster last summer — does Tshiebwe even see the floor if Cockburn ends up in Lexington? As it is, he’s the Wooden Award favorite and putting up flat-out ridiculous rebounding numbers.
Kentucky is probably my national champion pick if the NCAA tournament began tomorrow — assuming Washington (who hobbled off with an apparent ankle injury against Florida on Saturday) is healthy. I just think the Wildcats have a little bit of everything. Multiple playmakers, a few capable shooters, experience, a dominant big man and a defense that’s still getting better. Washington’s health is the key, though. Without him, they’re simply just another Final Four contender — if that.
Gasaway: What Myron said: I’ve been surprised that Calipari has found such resounding success with a roster that’s such a departure from his usual model. Honestly, when was the last time he had two seniors (Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz), three juniors (Oscar Tshiebwe, Keion Brooks Jr. and Sahvir Wheeler) and, yes, a one-and-done-level performer (TyTy Washington Jr. is projected as a 2022 lottery pick)? It’s been a while.
Will this be Calipari’s new model now? Can he blend one-and-done players with a higher number of transfers going forward? The NBA appears to be in no great hurry to amend or do away with the one-and-done eligibility rule, and UK does have at least two national top-20 recruits coming in for next season. Throughout Calipari’s tenure, Kentucky has excelled not only at signing top recruits but also at convincing the following year’s prospects that there will, somehow, be playing time available. I, for one, will be watching with interest to see what — if any — takeaways Coach Calipari draws from his current bunch of veterans.
I rank Kentucky alongside the likes of Purdue, Arizona, Auburn and Baylor in the “everyone a half step behind Gonzaga” group of title contenders. Way up there, in other words.
Lunardi: Leaving a neighborhood Super Bowl gathering, there was an inevitable question from the peanut gallery. “Hey, Joey Brackets, who’s gonna win it all?”
Off the top of my head, I said, “The top of the field is way more bunched than last season, when Gonzaga and Baylor were seemingly head and shoulders above the rest. If I had to bet a mortgage payment, give me the Zags against Kentucky this time. No idea who wins.”
As long as it’s Gasaway’s mortgage payment, not mine …
What’s the formula for Tennessee beating UK on Tuesday night?
Medcalf: I think the formula begins with knowing how healthy Washington, who led the team with 28 points in January’s 107-79 win over Tennessee at Rupp Arena, will be after he limped off following a collision against Florida. Kentucky beat a Vols team that registered 108 points per 100 possessions by a significant margin. The Wildcats won’t make 61% of their 3-pointers again, but if they continue to pressure a Vols squad that committed 20 turnovers and failed to close out on the perimeter, surrendering far too many open looks, Kentucky should win again, even though it will have to do it in a wild road atmosphere.
Medcalf score prediction: Kentucky 80, Tennessee 74
Borzello: Tennessee has to completely flip the script from the first meeting between the two teams. In that one, Kentucky pummeled the Volunteers by 28, putting up an incredible offensive performance. Tennessee’s transition defense is going to be key. In January, Kentucky simply beat the Volunteers down the floor consistently — off turnovers, made shots and missed shots — getting clean looks before Tennessee was able to get set defensively. Washington being out or limited would hinder Kentucky’s ability to get out and run, so that’s going to be the big storyline entering Tuesday night.
Offensively, the Volunteers need to take care of the ball and also figure out ways to score at the rim. Interior defense might be Kentucky’s lone weakness, but Tennessee is 10th in the SEC in 2-point percentage and 13th in the SEC in percentage of points from 2-pointers. Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler — who is averaging 13.7 points and shooting 55.6% from 3 off the bench over the past six games — need to attack the paint off the bounce and get easy looks for teammates.
Borzello score prediction: Tennessee 72, Kentucky 70
Gasaway: The Vols have to hit their 3s. While Tennessee has deservedly earned a reputation as an excellent defensive team, these guys have also shot 36% from beyond the arc in conference play. Santiago Vescovi in particular has been on fire, and the good news for Rick Barnes in this matchup is that the Wildcats are not particularly adept at preventing 3-point attempts. Naturally it will also be crucial to keep Tshiebwe from pulling down too many offensive boards. On paper the Volunteers are a very good defensive rebounding team, but it’s always difficult to know how much of that number is based on opposing teams not trying for offensive boards. Nor is the previous game between these two teams much help in our rebounding forecast. It was a blowout, and UK made all of its shots. Bottom line: If Vescovi is hitting from outside and Tshiebwe doesn’t dominate the offensive boards, Tennessee can post a win.
Gasaway score prediction: Kentucky 77, Tennessee 73
Lunardi: All we can really assume is that Tennessee isn’t getting obliterated like last time. The Vols are angry, hungry and waiting for the Wildcats, who might or might not have a healthy Washington at tip time.
Even with Washington at full strength, this would be a tough sweep for Kentucky. I like Tennessee to ride its home court to a narrow victory, leaving the Wildcats to look for a rubber-game victory at the SEC tournament next month.
Lunardi score prediction: Tennessee 71, Kentucky 69
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