As things stand currently, Kentucky has one graduate transfer (Kellan Grady), one redshirt junior (CJ Fredrick), four juniors (Keion Brooks Jr., Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler, Jacob Toppin), one redshirt sophomore (Dontaie Allen) and one sophomore (Lance Ware) on the roster compared to just three incoming freshmen (TyTy Washington, Daimion Collins, Bryce Hopkins). And that’s not even accounting for Davion Mintz, who is currently deciding between making the jump to the professional ranks or returning for his sixth and final year of college basketball.
Kentucky’s upcoming 2021-22 roster will not just be the most experienced in recent memory, it will boast the strongest veteran presence of John Calipari’s 13-year career in Lexington.
Following UK’s 9-16 season that led to a first-round exit in the SEC Tournament and just the second missed NCAA Tournament of the Calipari era, the coaching staff went out of its way to add experience and veteran leadership through the transfer portal. Adding four talented, experienced transfers, along with the return of the likes of Brooks, Toppin, Allen and Ware, the program will not have to rely on true freshmen to find success.
The hope is added experience will bring consistency.
“The biggest change we’re looking forward to seeing is, when you get older guys, you get this feeling that you can be more consistent,” UK assistant coach Jai Lucas said Thursday. “Them having played so many games, when you get guys like Kellan Grady, CJ (Fredrick), Sahvir (Wheeler), and you add them in with Keion (Brooks Jr.), Davion (Mintz) depending on what he decides to do, that’s something you can be excited about.”
Of the four teams that made it to the Final Four in 2021, only four total true freshmen averaged more than 10 minutes per contest, with Baylor, Gonzaga, UCLA and Houston each having one. Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs was the only true star of the bunch.
While freshmen have performed extremely well under Calipari over the years and this past season was certainly the outlier rather than the norm, there’s still something to be said about adding proven commodities with collegiate experience as opposed to relying on true freshmen to carry the weight of the program on their shoulders from day one. Should, say, Washington or Collins emerge as surefire superstars, it’s icing on the cake with experienced players like Wheeler and Tshiebwe already on the roster.
“One thing you learned last year was that the teams that were good were the teams that were older,” Lucas added. “That comes from less practice and less time being together, so the teams in the Final Four were old teams. We’re trying to see if that’s something that can benefit us this year. We didn’t get the chance to go out and recruit, then people leave and go to the draft as expected. Having these older guys, you try to see if they can fill that void.”
Will the transfer portal trend continue in the future, even with Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman being added to the coaching staff in hopes of bringing superstar freshmen back to Lexington? The program is taking a wait-and-see approach, but it’s an avenue the coaches are grateful to have in their back pocket moving forward thanks to the one-time immediate transfer rule.
“You really don’t know. It’s a trend right now because it’s so fresh and new, you don’t know where it will go and how it will happen from here,” Lucas said. “For us, it was ‘what do you need and what’s the timing?’ If we have something you can get early that you feel you need and want, you get that from a high school kid. If there’s something that happens late or someone leaves unexpectedly, the transfer portal is there to find something you need later.”