Date & Location: Jan. 9 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
2022-23 Record: 22-12 overall (12-6 SEC)
NCAA Tournament Finish: Defeated No. 11 seed Providence in the Round of 64, 61-53, lost to No. 3 seed Kansas State in Round of 32, 75-69
Last season was supposed to be Kentucky’s return to form. The Wildcats had the reigning National Player of the Year in Oscar Tshiebwe entering his senior season and surrounded him with veteran returners, a pair of five-star freshman and a talented transfer guard in Antonio Reeves, who’d averaged 20.1 points per game in his final season at Illinois State. Kentucky was picked first in the SEC media poll, predicted to win its first conference title since 2020.
But the pieces head coach John Calipari assembled never quite fit together enough to reach the team’s ceiling. Instead, the Wildcats finished third in the league standings, suffered an early exit in the SEC tournament at the hands of Vanderbilt and were knocked out of the Big Dance during the first weekend.
There was a chance the team could run it back with the roster one more time, as every player had at least one more year of eligibility remaining. And with the way Calipari almost completely ignored the transfer portal through March, April and May, it certainly seemed like that was the hope. Instead, four players exited via the transfer portal and four others kept their name in the NBA Draft.
That leaves Calipari with just three returners: Reeves, who initially declared for the draft but later withdrew, sophomore forward Ugonna Oyenso, who briefly had his name in the transfer portal before deciding to rejoin the Wildcats, and sophomore guard Adou Thiero. The trio combined to average 44.3 minutes per game last year, with Reeves getting the bulk of playing time, making 14 starts.
Kentucky was in the mix for high-profile transfers such as Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, San Diego State’s Keshad Johnson and Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma but Calipari missed out on all three. His lone transfer addition came in late June when he picked up West Virginia forward Tre Mitchell — who only entered the portal after the Mountaineers fired former head coach Bob Huggins.
Another reason Calipari seemed reluctant to dip into the transfer pool was likely because of how confident he is in his next group of freshmen. The head coach’s Class of 2023, which is rated as the best in the country, features five players ranked in the top 30, rivaling that of Michigan’s “Fab Five.” Forward Aaron Bradshaw, wing Justin Edwards and guards DJ Wagner and Rob Dillingham are all projected to be one-and-done prospects, with ESPN’s Jonathon Givony listing all four in his most recent 2024 NBA mock draft. Reed Sheppard might make the leap, too, if given the right opportunity. Calipari also signed three-star guards Jordan Burks and Joey Hart as well as Croatian big man Zvonimir Ivisic to round out his class
The biggest question for the Wildcats this season will be whether the talent of their young stars is enough to overcome the experience that the roster desperately lacks. The team might struggle with its depth early on, as both Bradshaw and Oyenso were dealt injuries this summer that could cause them to miss the start of the season. That didn’t seem to rattle Kentucky too much during its foreign tour to Canada in July, though, as the team went undefeated at the GloblJam tournament.
Missouri established itself as a team to be reckoned with by beating the No. 19 Wildcats on Dec. 28 last season, 89-75. With a roster full of new faces, Kentucky might look to do the same when it hosts the Tigers this year.