Who will start for Kentucky basketball this season? Defense or shooting could decide

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – Reading much into preseason scrimmage lineups is a dangerous proposition for college basketball fans.

But when Kentucky coach John Calipari all-but confirmed three of the five members of the initial “Blue” team in last week’s Blue-White scrimmage had earned starting nods for the Nov. 9 season opener versus Duke, it was time to take notice.

“I would say Sahvir (Wheeler) and TyTy (Washington),” Calipari said after the scrimmage. “Is it Kellan (Grady)? Is it Bryce (Hopkins)? How are you doing this?

“The four position, who is it going to be? You and I would say Oscar (Tshiebwe) seems to be the five.”

Calipari acknowledged what group defends best together will be the primary consideration in filling the final two spots in the starting lineup, but that will not be the only factor on the Hall of Fame coach’s mind.

Will he follow through on summer promises to increase the emphasis on 3-point shooting? How much will he value experience on a roster full of veteran transfers? Will Calipari revert to his usual preference of playing two traditional big men together?

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Here is a closer look at the options for the final two starting spots.

Guard/Small forward

Kellan Grady drives to the basket during UK's Pro Day in Lexington on Monday, October 11, 2021

Candidates: Dontaie Allen, Keion Brooks, C.J. Fredrick, Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz, Bryce Hopkins, Jacob Toppin

What to know: When Calipari added Grady and Fredrick via the transfer portal, fans dreamed of Kentucky fielded a guard-heavy lineup full of 3-point threats.

Washington gives the starting lineup one strong shooter, but Wheeler, who shot just 26.2% from 3-point range in two seasons at Georgia, is considered the worst shooter of UK’s guards. Calipari started Hopkins, a 6-foot-6 forward, at the three with the Blue team. Hopkins was not considered an elite shooter as a recruit, but he hit 3 of 5 3s in the scrimmage.

If Calipari actually wants to maximize his team’s shooting ability, he will likely start Grady, Fredrick, Allen or Mintz at the three. Grady shot 36.6% from 3-point range in four seasons at Davidson. Fredrick shot 46.6% from beyond the arc in two seasons at Iowa. Allen and Mintz were Kentucky’s two best shooters a year ago, hitting 39.7% and 37.8% of their 3-point attempts respectively.

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Of that group, Grady might make the most sense to start at the three. The 6-foot-5 guard faces an adjustment in competition in making the jump from Davidson to Kentucky but has played more than 4,000 minutes of college basketball already in his career. Mintz looks like a valuable six-man with his ability to play on or off the ball. Fredrick has missed most of preseason practice with an injury. Calipari has made it clear that Allen must prove to be more than a shooter to earn a permanent spot in the primary rotation.

If Calipari wants to go big, he could start Hopkins, Brooks or Toppin at the three.

Brooks, the only Kentucky player who has played in front of a packed Rupp Arena before, seems likely to start at the three or four but faces stiff competition at both spots. Toppin, who has missed preseason practice time with an injury, might be the best defender of the options at the three. Hopkins, the lowest-ranked recruit in UK’s 2021 class, has been the breakout star of summer workouts and preseason practice.

Power forward

Daimion Collins passes during UK's Pro Day in Lexington on Monday, October 11, 2021

The candidates: Keion Brooks, Daimion Collins, Bryce Hopkins, Jacob Toppin, Lance Ware

Picking the most talented player as a starter is usually a safe bet, so it probably should come as no surprise that Calipari  Collins, one of two projected 2022 NBA draft first-round picks on the roster, to open the scrimmage with the Blue team. At 6-foot-9, 202 pounds, Collins might struggle against some older, more physical opponents, but he is already considered an elite shot blocker with an evolving offensive game.

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It would be little surprise to see Collins follow the same trajectory as Isaiah Jackson a year ago, but Jackson did not start the first seven games of the season. If Collins opens the season in a reserve role, Calipari will likely go small at the four with the 6-foot-6 Hopkins or 6-foot-7 Brooks at the four. The 6-foot-9 Toppin could also factor in the competition when he returns to 100%.

Calipari has usually defaulted to playing two traditional big men together, but this roster may force him away from that strategy until Collins is ready for a starting role. Ware is the other traditional big on the roster, but he fits best as Tshiebwe’s backup, even after surprising with 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Blue-White Scrimmage.

Starting lineup projection

Sahvir Wheeler, TyTy Washington, Kellan Grady, Keion Brooks, Oscar Tshiebwe

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ