Once Davion Mintz announced his welcomed return to Lexington for a sixth and final year of eligibility back in July, the Kentucky men’s basketball roster sat at 12 scholarship players, one that included 13,385 minutes, 5,203 points, 1,917 rebounds, 1,132 assists and 543 3-pointers in total returning production at the collegiate level. Factor in the three highly-touted freshmen the program signed in TyTy Washington, Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins to round out its 2021 recruiting class, it was a roster most fans were ready to throw a bow on top of while the countdown to Big Blue Madness began.
And then Kofi Cockburn and Jalen Duren – a second-team All-American at Illinois and the No. 1 high school recruit in America, respectively – became available and contact with both prospects ramped up, opening the door for one final home run swing before calling it an offseason.
Both players had polarizing recruitments — or lack thereof, depending on who you talk to. Cockburn had genuine interest in the Kentucky basketball program, going out of his way to tell reporters UK was a “serious option” and new assistant coach Orlando Antigua was the reason he signed with Illinois in the first place. Numerous sources close to and directly involved with Cockburn’s recruitment told KSR at the time that UK was at the top of the priority list and the 7-foot, 285-pound center entered the portal specifically to speak with the Kentucky coaching staff. The All-American big was planning to take a visit to Lexington before the end of July, with a tentative commitment date to follow shortly after.
On the other side, though, Kentucky was coming off a year where team chemistry was a serious issue that plagued the roster from the start, something John Calipari went out of his way to fix this offseason through a major roster overhaul that included seven new additions. Sources inside the program constantly raved about the team’s positive synergy and the night-and-day difference in chemistry from last season compared to now, along with the overall confidence in the roster in terms of skill, production and style of play. Internally, there is a belief the hard reset within the program was a great success.
As a result, there were concerns of any late addition to the program – yes, even Duren to a lesser extent – but specifically with Cockburn and his fit on the roster. Calipari had built this team with the idea of picking up the tempo, spreading the floor and getting shots up from the perimeter, and with the Illinois center being a back-to-the-basket anchor in the paint who thrives with the ball in his hands, it went against everything the UK head coach strived to do this offseason to modernize the offense. Contact was consistent between the UK assistants and Cockburn all the way up until the week of his final decision, but when it came down to pushing all of his chips in on the 7-foot center or walking away from the table, Calipari did the latter. It was a thorough look that resulted in deep internal conversations with the coaching staff and players – how many times does the opportunity to add a National Player of the Year contender in July come around? – but with fit concerns present, Cockburn was encouraged to return to Illinois as the face of its roster and take advantage of endless name, image and likeness opportunities that are destined to come his way.
As for Duren, Kentucky’s push – led by Calipari, mind you – was strong from the start and continued into the final week of his recruitment. While similar ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ concerns crept in at times, the staff was confident the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center was versatile enough to play either the four or the five, allowing him to play alongside any of UK’s frontcourt pieces. As a solid passer with a growing outside shot and elite athleticism, he fit the the style of play Calipari was going for and would have given the Wildcats a major jumpstart on the NIL era and spark on recruiting as a whole. He was never a need for UK, but judging by the staff’s recruiting efforts down the home stretch, it’s clear Duren was a strong, strong want. The push was undeniable, and it led to some internal optimism following Peach Jam that the Wildcats and Memphis Tigers were “50/50,” battling down to the wire for the five-star center.
On the flip side, though, there was skepticism among rival coaches and well-connected national sources that Kentucky even had a realistic shot to land Duren in the weeks leading up to the decision, with the general assumption being that the five-star’s recruitment would ultimately come down to Memphis and Miami (FL). With Cockburn available and highly interested in UK, there was a near consensus among sources outside the program that Calipari made a mistake in gambling on Duren when an All-American talent was there for the taking, even considering the fit and scholarship number concerns. Several felt Cockburn would’ve immediately become UK’s best player upon signing with the program, and if there was a risk to take, it would be to rebuild the offense around the star center.
For Kentucky, though, the all-or-nothing risk wasn’t a concern, as the staff felt the team’s talent, shooting, size, depth, and most of all, chemistry was enough to contend with the 12 scholarship players already on the roster. Duren would’ve simply been the icing on the cake.
Is it enough, though? Is the internal optimism justified, or will the staff grow to regret not making a harder push for Cockburn? Let’s look at the final 2021-22 roster.
- TyTy Washington
- Davion Mintz – 11.5 PPG (40% FG, 37.8% 3FG), 3.2 RPG, 3.1 APG*
- Sahvir Wheeler – 14.0 PPG (40% FG, 22.5% 3FG), 7.4 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.7 SPG
- Kellan Grady – 17.1 PPG (47.1% FG, 38.2% 3FG), 4.6 RPG, 2.4 APG
- CJ Fredrick – 7.5 PPG (47.4% FG, 47.4% 3FG), 1.9 APG, 1.1 RPG
- Dontaie Allen – 5.4 PPG (39% FG, 39.7% 3FG), 1.5 RPG
- Oscar Tshiebwe – 8.5 PPG (52.3% FG), 7.8 RPG
- Keion Brooks Jr. – 10.3 PPG (44.1% FG, 21.4% 3FG), 6.8 RPG, 1.6 APG
- Jacob Toppin – 5.2 PPG (44.4% FG, 30.8% 3FG), 3.5 RPG
- Lance Ware – 2.0 PPG (40.6% FG), 3.0 RPG
- Daimion Collins
- Bryce Hopkins
In terms of returning talent, Kentucky is bringing back 42.1% of its minutes, 41.9% of its scoring, 39.0% of the rebounds, 42.4% of the assists and 60.6% of the 3-pointers from a season ago with Mintz, Brooks, Allen, Toppin and Ware all back in Lexington. Only two Calipari-coached UK teams returned a greater percentage of minutes and points than the upcoming 2021-22 team were the 2011-12 national title squad and the 2014-15 Final Four team that started the season 38-0.
Looking for shooters? Mintz (37.8%), Grady (38.2%), Fredrick (47.4%) and Allen (39.7%) are all proven 3-point specialists at the collegiate level, while Washington is considered one of the best shooters in his high school class. Need someone to facilitate? Wheeler led the SEC in assists last season, while Mintz, Washington and Grady are all more than capable. Athletes? Mintz, Tshiebwe, Brooks, Toppin and Collins are your guys. Someone to anchor the frontcourt? Tshiebwe is an All-Big 12 Conference Second Team honoree, while Brooks has shown spurts of brilliance when healthy. Depth? You’ve got 12 scholarship players, six guards, six bigs, all capable of producing in the SEC.
It’s hard to poke holes in the roster on the surface, but there are potential concerns, especially when considering how the Cockburn and Duren situations unfolded. At his best, Tshiebwe is a double-double machine, averaging 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in 31 starts as a freshman at West Virginia. He’s a board magnet on a team built to shoot threes, he’s going to get his opportunities for offensive rebounds, putbacks and cleanup opportunities. That being said, he’s averaged just 22.4 minutes per game with a high foul rate (7.1 fouls per 100 possessions, 5.0 fouls per 40 minutes in 2020-21). For comparison’s sake, Isaiah Jackson averaged 3.0 fouls per game, 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes and 8.3 fouls per 100 possessions in 2020-21. On another note, Cockburn averaged just 27.0 minutes per game last season at Illinois. Was there not a way to stagger playing time or find a happy medium with minutes and touches?
Outside of Tshiebwe, can Brooks or Toppin take major steps forward with another full year and real offseason under their belts? Can Collins, who didn’t start playing basketball till he was 16 or lift weights till he arrived on campus, avoid a major adjustment period and contribute early? How much run will Ware and Hopkins receive? Could we see any surprises?
Guard play shouldn’t be an issue and there’s plenty of reason for optimism there, but without Cockburn or Duren, Kentucky will need a few pieces outside of Tshiebwe to not only contribute, but take major leaps forward in the frontcourt.
Calipari took a risk this summer not only by backing away from the table on Cockburn to go all in on Duren, but by firmly believing this roster is capable of competing for a title without either. Quite the gamble, but it’s one the UK head coach was comfortable making after watching this team practice for eight weeks in Lexington.
“Just sitting here reflecting on the past eight weeks we spent with our team, mastering skills, building trust and coming together,” Calipari said August 6, just hours before Duren announced his commitment to Memphis. “I can’t wait to get back in practice with them. I really like my team!”
We’ll find out if it was the right call in the coming months.