Thus far, the 2023 men’s college basketball offseason has been one of frustration for the Kentucky program and its fans.
After a 2022-23 season that fell significantly short of expectations, the Wildcats’ outlook for next season remains in question due to a lack of roster clarity.
What’s known is that UK will bring in five highly touted freshmen for next season, along with retaining the services of three scholarship players from last season’s team. At least six scholarship players from last season’s team will be departing Lexington.
Everything else — headlined by a possible return for star forward Oscar Tshiebwe — is unclear and still to be revealed.
What’s also known is the Wildcats are yet to bolster their roster via any additions from the NCAA transfer portal.
In addition to uncertainty, Kentucky’s offseason so far has been dominated by high-profile failures when trying to recruit players out of the transfer portal.
Most notably, this has included swings and misses with Hunter Dickinson, the top prospect ever to enter the transfer portal who swapped Michigan for Kansas, and Keshad Johnson, a starter for San Diego State in last season’s national championship game who recently announced his move to Arizona.
While it’s true UK head coach John Calipari has been selective with the transfer portal players he’s seriously pursued, it’s also true that the Wildcats have failed to land the players they’ve made a legitimate run at.
This has been the talk of the offseason for both Kentucky basketball media and Wildcat fans alike, but what about those outside the bubble?
Isaac Trotter, a national college basketball writer for 247Sports, pointed to the unknowns with Kentucky’s stay-or-go roster decisions as a reason why UK’s transfer portal performance has suffered.
“I think it’s hard to really make waves in the transfer portal when you have a lot of unknowns,” Trotter explained. “Arkansas is able to smash in the transfer portal every year because they have huge minutes to replace. … A lot of transfers want guaranteed minutes and a guaranteed massive role. Kentucky can’t promise any of those things yet.”
Tristan Freeman, who covers college basketball nationally for FanSided’s Busting Brackets site, said Kentucky’s failings in the transfer portal are emblematic of a new-look college basketball landscape.
“I think it’s more about parity in college basketball. With NIL (name, image, likeness), teams no one would’ve normally expected are now in the mix for top talent,” Freeman said, citing the influx of top offseason transfers to West Virginia as an example.
“The days of, ‘We’re Kentucky, come play for us,” and that being all that’s needed are over.”
At the same time, UK’s offseason of failing to attract top transfer talent comes on the heels of several disappointing seasons for Calipari’s program.
Since the Wildcats lost in the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, UK has managed just one March Madness win, which came last season over Providence before a second-round exit.
This recent form — combined with this offseason’s roster construction questions — has made it easy to see causes for concern for the future of the UK program.
“Kentucky’s failures in the transfer portal this offseason signal to me that Coach Cal is struggling with which direction he wants to go in building a team,” said Ethan Bock, who analyzes college basketball transfer players for The Portal Report and also covers West Virginia men’s basketball for West Virginia Sports Now.
“Does he want to build around one-and-dones, which he has mastered, or does he want to get with the new era and build around veterans in the portal? I don’t think he can decide and it’s this weird mesh of both.“
After transfer portal misses, UK’s focus shifts to talent retention
As the Wildcats have continued to miss out on players from the transfer portal, it’s become increasingly important for UK to retain its top performers from last season.
Central to this is Tshiebwe, who averaged a double-double for a second straight season during the 2022-23 campaign.
Additionally, having one of last offseason’s transfer imports, Antonio Reeves, return to Lexington is now a top priority: Reeves was UK’s second-leading scorer last season, averaging more than 14 points per game.
“As long as Tshiebwe and Reeves are back, the offseason misses won’t matter,” Freeman said. “That’s arguably why they couldn’t land (Hunter) Dickinson in the first place.”
“Oscar Tshiebwe and Antonio Reeves potentially returning are crucial to how good Kentucky can be next year,” Bock added. “You need to retain and add talent in the transfer portal (and) NIL era.”
For Trotter, bringing both Tshiebwe and Reeves back for next season would serve as a significant floor-raising move for the Cats.
“(Kentucky) still has a lot more talent than some of its counterparts in a wide-open SEC,” Trotter said, noting that by retaining these top players, UK would also crystallize roles for both its incoming freshmen and potential transfer options.
“Playing with an offensive rebounder like Tshiebwe and a sniper like Reeves is attractive,” Trotter continued. “I’d be stunned if Kentucky keeps whiffing in the portal after Tshiebwe and Reeves make their respective decisions.”
Will freshmen star power be enough for UK next season?
At this point in the offseason, the die has been cast for Kentucky.
Even if players like Tshiebwe and Reeves (or even forward Chris Livingston) opt to come back to Lexington, the Cats will be a young team next season.
Per KenPom, Kentucky was 118th in the country last season in average Division I basketball experience among players, with an average of 2.23 years. This was an abnormally high mark for a Calipari-coached team at UK, and that figure will drop significantly next season.
UK is bringing in four McDonald’s All-Americans as part of its five-player 2023 recruiting class. The other player, guard Robert Dillingham, would have been one as well if he had been eligible.
The 2023 Final Four (Florida Atlantic, Miami, San Diego State and UConn) was the first to not feature any former McDonald’s All-Americans since the NCAA Tournament began seeding teams in 1979.
Can a freshman-heavy approach still win in this new era of men’s college basketball?
“I think in the ‘COVID era’ where there are still plenty of fifth-year seniors, having such a young roster puts you at a clear disadvantage unless you have a superstar freshman like Alabama’s Brandon Miller,” Freeman said. “You could see Calipari make an effort to try and get older this offseason, but when you have so many incoming five-star guys expecting minutes, it’s going to be a hard sell for veterans looking for more than 10 (to) 15 minutes per game.”
“I think we’ve entered a new era with veterans being a core part of a national title team,” Bock said. “We haven’t seen success from a freshman-built team in years.”
To bolster his point, Bock cited the makeup of the last four national champions: UConn, Kansas, Baylor and Virginia.
“(They) all had retained veterans mixed with some transfers,” he said.
The three men’s basketball champions since the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — UConn, Kansas and Baylor — all had rosters that averaged more than two years of Division I college basketball experience.
There’s still time left for UK’s roster composition for next season to change significantly.
This could arrive via the returns of any of the three players from last season yet to announce their future plans: Livingston, Reeves and Tshiebwe.
And while the deadline for players to enter the transfer portal has already passed, graduate transfers can enter the portal at any time.
This is how the newest name on the Kentucky basketball transfer portal radar, former Loyola-Maryland and Rutgers guard Cam Spencer, became available late last week.
But we’ve reached the stage where, without question, Kentucky’s success for next season will be determined more by its top-ranked freshman recruiting class than by a potential portal addition.
“The Wildcats had an opportunity to take that next step back up to competing for a national title if they could’ve landed a top transfer. (Not) landing a Hunter Dickinson or a Keshad Johnson is a missed opportunity for being Kentucky. The brand sells itself,” Bock said. “Maybe with a talented high school class, they’ll be able to make up for the losses in the portal.”