The Kentucky basketball team is used to starting over, and this season is no different as the No. 10 Wildcats open the slate against visiting Morehead State on Wednesday.
Six underclassmen from last season’s team entered the NBA draft — three were selected — so it again will be a sea of new faces when Kentucky takes the court at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr. is the lone returner who was part of the rotation last season. Brooks averaged 15.1 minutes while contributing 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
Brooks is now a team leader after the departures of first-round draft choices Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley, second-round selection Nick Richards and the undrafted trio of Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina. In addition, reserve Johnny Juzang transferred to UCLA.
“It’s just a different team, a whole different dynamic,” Brooks said. “I can’t pinpoint one moment when I really noticed it. It’s just, like I said, a different team, a different group of personalities. It takes some adjusting to getting used to.
“I was just accustomed to seeing Ashton, seeing Tyrese, Johnny, all those guys every day. But you know, that’s kind of what you signed up for when you came to Kentucky. People aren’t going to be here long.”
The Wildcats (25-6 last season) have won all 10 meetings with Morehead State, which is located approximately 65 miles east of Lexington.
Kentucky will break in its new highly acclaimed players against the Eagles in the four-team Bluegrass Showcase. Richmond and Detroit Mercy are part of the three-game, round-robin event being played over five days.
Shooting guards Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke are considered the best players of the freshman class while point guard Devin Askew also will be an immediate contributor. Big men Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware and small forward Cam’Ron Fletcher also are slated to make impacts.
Wildcats coach John Calipari also scored well on the transfer market by landing senior center Olivier Sarr (Wake Forest), senior point guard Davion Mintz (Creighton) and sophomore forward Jacob Toppin (Rhode Island).
The 7-foot Sarr averaged 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds while being a third-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference choice last season.
“Olivier is a really skilled player,” Ware said. “Olivier can really shoot it, very versatile. Obviously, (Olivier) being an older guy and just his knowledge of the game and his ability to rebound, block shots, it’s all there.”
Mintz started 79 games at Creighton before missing last season with an ankle injury. Toppin averaged 5.1 points and 3.9 rebounds in his one season with the Rams.
Toppin is the younger brother of Obi Toppin, the eighth overall pick in the NBA draft by the New York Knicks after being the consensus national player of the year last season for Dayton.
Morehead State, which went 13-19 in 2019-20, has experienced four consecutive losing seasons. The Eagles were just 2-14 in road games last season.
Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin knows his club will have its hands full with the Wildcats.
“Kentucky has a great tradition, and they’ll have a lot of talented freshmen and transfers once again,” Spradlin said. “So it will present a great challenge right away.”
Senior forward James Baker Jr. is the Eagles’ top returning player and has started 53 games over the past two seasons. He blocked 42 shots last season while averaging 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Morehead State hasn’t been part of the NCAA Tournament since school legend Kenneth Faried led them to the Big Dance in 2009 and 2011. But being part of Kentucky’s season-opening event gives the squad a taste of the big time.
Plus, getting on the court is a feel-good moment in the eyes of Spradlin with the coronavirus pandemic causing so much havoc around the nation.
“We are excited to get the season kicked off in general, especially with all the things that have happened over the last eight months,” Spradlin said.
–Field Level Media