A loaded freshman class comes into Lexington, hoping to bring the Kentucky Wildcats to their first Final Four since 2015.
The Kentucky Wildcats are going back to the drawing board in 2024, bringing in an absolutely terrific freshman class. While most John Calipari recruiting classes are near or at the top, this one is extra special. The Wildcats have 4 of the top 16 recruits in the country, according to 247Sports Composite rankings. Reed Sheppard is another sought-after recruit, earning the 43rd ranking in the class of 2023.
A few experienced players will try and help these freshmen adjust. Fifth-year seniors Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell have played Power Conference basketball before and have shone in their roles. They will be instrumental in helping this UK team reach its’ full potential.
One major concern is the status of Aaron Bradshaw. The No. 4 rated recruit by 247Sports Composite is dealing with an injury and will likely miss the start of the season. Tre Mitchell will be extra important, and returning sophomores Ugonna Onyenso and Adou Theiro will also have to step up underneath when called upon.
Overall, this is as talented as a Kentucky Wildcats team that I can remember, and given their last few finishes in March, seem to be flying under the radar heading into the season.
Click here to learn more about our preseason top 100 teams heading into the 2023-24 college basketball season.
Head coach: John Calipari (32nd season, 15th at Kentucky)
2022-23 record: 22-12 (12-6)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to Kansas State, 75-69, in second round of NCAA Tournament
Notable departures: Oscar Tshiebwe (NBA), Jacob Toppin (NBA), Cason Wallace (NBA), Sahvir Wheeler (Transferred to Washington), Chris Livingston (NBA), CJ Fredrick (Transferred to Cincinnati)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Kansas (Nov. 14, in Chicago), vs. Miami-Fla (Nov. 28), vs. North Carolina (Dec. 16, in Atlanta), at Louisville (Dec. 21), vs. Gonzaga (Feb. 10)
PG: Rob Dillingham (6-3, 176, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 16 rated recruit
SG: DJ Wagner (6-4, 192, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 6 rated recruit
SF: Antonio Reeves (6-6, 195, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 14.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.1 APG, 39.8 3P%
PF: Justin Edwards (6-8, 203, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 3 rated recruit
C: Tre Mitchell (6-9, 231, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 11.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 36.4 3P% (West Virginia)
6: Aaron Bradshaw (7-1, 226, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 4 rated recruit
7: Reed Sheppard (6-3, 187, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 43 rated recruit
8: Adou Thiero (6-8, 222, So.)
2022-23 stats: 2.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.4 APG, 34.5 FG%
9: Ugonna Onyenso (7-0, 247, So.)
2022-23 stats: 2.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.1 APG, 1.0 BPG
10: Jordan Burks (6-8, 202, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 178 rated recruit
11: Joey Hart (6-5, 203, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 199 rated recruit
Kentucky Wildcats MVP: Antonio Reeves
While Justin Edwards, DJ Wagner, and Rob Dillingham could all end up finding bigger roles than Reeves, at least from the start, the fifth-year senior will be looked upon as the guy in Lexington.
Reeves nearly left, but opted to come back and his decision was crucial. Last year, he was the second-leading scorer with over 14 points per game. Coming from a smaller school in Illinois State, the moment was never too big. Reeves actually set a personal best with a 39.8% mark from deep on the year.
For the Kentucky Wildcats to be successful, they’ll need another monster season out of Reevves. It’s one thing to have great freshmen talent, but it’s another to rely solely on them. Reeves should be able to put some of that weight on his shoulders.
Kentucky Wildcats make-or-break player: Rob Dillingham
Edwards and Wagner will be looked upon to score right away as freshmen, but it will be Dillingham slotted in at point guard. Lucky for him, Wagner can also handle the ball, so it won’t all be thrust onto Dillingham.
Still, there’s a long list of successful PGs in Kentucky’s history, and Dillingham certainly comes to town with all the makings to keep that going. It may not seem fair to place all of that pressure on a freshman, but it’s kind of the norm at UK.
For Dillingham, it will be about playing within himself. There are so many great players all around him, so not trying to do too much and letting the game come to him will be the best path to success.
Key analytic: RPG
A whole new set of players comes in and the biggest difference we may notice is how well – or not so well – Kentucky controls the glass.
Oscar Tshiebwe was a generational big man in college basketball and the Wildcats benefitted from that. Last year, Kentucky nearly averaged 40 RPG, 9th in the country. They led the nation in ORPG with 13.9.
So far, the odds of the Wildcats replicating that are iffy. Bradshaw’s injury concern is the biggest reason, but Tre Mitchell also isn’t a dominate big man in the sense that Tshiebwe was. Mitchell is still very talented, but has a much different game, often opting to stretch the floor and shoot threes.
As far as rebounding goes, Onyenso could be the x-factor off the bench. He played sparingly last season but showed flashes of being a legitimate shot blocker and rebounder. Look for him to be key, especially as long as Bradshaw is out, for helping the Wildcats out in the paint.
Kentucky Wildcats 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 5th in the SEC
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – National Champions