JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Coach Cal Very Optimistic About 2021-22 Wildcats

Coach John Calipari is pretty excited about his 2021-22 basketball team.

It’s no surprise that Calipari, who is beginning his 13th year at Kentucky, is already moving on from that painful 9-16 campaign last season. He can hardly wait for his “veteran” squad to show its full potential as the leading SEC championship contender as well as a Final Four candidate.

“I'm jacked about where we are, where we're going, how the recruiting's going, all that,” said Coach Cal during last week’s virtual news conference. “Great group of young people. How about they come together. (While) we're going to do name, image and likeness (NIL, which allows college athletes to earn compensation), we're going to give 10 percent back to charity. Who does that when you're 18 and 19 (years old)? That means we've got some good senior leadership.”

The players have begun informal practices and workouts, and Calipari and his staff like what they have seen so far.

“I’ve been pleased with all of them,” he said. “They've done some really good stuff together the seven, eight weeks this summer. They came together as a team. They did good stuff. They started doing team things. You never see one or two guys. You see six or seven.

“There's going to be great competition, but it's good competition. It's going to bring out the best of guys.

“Athleticism is there. If you're really skilled and you're really athletic, wow. But if you're really skilled and you're not quite athletic, you may be okay now. The game is changing right before us.”

Athlon Sports agrees with Calipari’s optimistic outlook. Athlon has just released its impressive 2021-22 College Basketball Yearbook, which ranked UK at No. 9 in its preseason Top 25 poll.

The Wildcats have addressed their concerns or deficiencies by adding four standout transfers (CJ Fredrick, Kellan Grady, Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler) and a nice group of three talented rookies (Daimion Collins, Bryce Hopkins and TyTy Washington Jr.). They now have proven shooting guards in the backcourt and a strong nucleus in the frontcourt to go along with valuable experience from the transfers and returning players like sixth-year senior Davion Mintz and junior Keion Brooks Jr.

“Keion has gotten so much better, so much better,” said Calipari. “I think part of it is Bryce (Hopkins) has come in with a physicalness. He's better than I thought. First of all, good with the ball, gets you on his shoulders, and all of a sudden, it's got Keion playing more that way. Keion has one of the best floaters in the country. Shoot it! Less threes, more floaters.

“I like that we have physical strength in Oscar (Tshiebwe) and Lance (Ware). We have that shot blocker in Daimion (Collins). So we have the pieces.”

With UK’s new-found weapons, Athlon Sports likes the Wildcats as the top favorite to capture the SEC title. But it won’t be that easy as the colorful yearbook has a total of five SEC teams in its preseason Top 25 poll. In addition to the Wildcats, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Auburn are the ranked teams from the 14-team conference.

Of course, the other league schools like Mississippi State, LSU and Florida will be very competitive. Don’t be surprised to see more than a handful of SEC teams – perhaps eight or nine -- in the NCAA tournament field of 68 in March.

As far as the nation’s top 15 freshmen who likely will make the biggest impact this winter, SEC has four of them, according to Athlon Sports. They include Washington Jr. (Kentucky), Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee), JD Davison (Alabama) and Jabari Smith Jr. (Auburn). A 6-3 freshman from Phoenix, Arizona, Washington was ranked as high as the No. 14 overall players by Rivals and ESPN and second at his position by ESPN.

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Meanwhile, if you are a Cincinnati Reds fan, you will definitely like a recently-published volume about the Reds of the 1950s and ‘60s, which included familiar names like Ted Kluszewski, Joe Nuxhall, Jim Maloney, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, to name several.

The title of the 340-page paperback, written by well-known writer Greg Rhodes, is “Redleg Memories: The Reds of the Fifties and Sixties.” Even though I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, I truly enjoyed many behind-the-scenes stories about the Reds and the other folks, bringing back my old memories of the Crosley Field where I saw the Pirates battle the Reds many times.

A historian for the Cincinnati Reds, Rhodes has penned several books about the Reds. He was the founding director of the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum.

If you’re interested, the entertaining book is available on Amazon.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including recently-published “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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