NCAA Tournament game day: Kansas State 75, Kentucky 69
Click below for more of the Herald-Leader’s and Kentucky.com’s coverage of Sunday’s men’s basketball game between Kentucky and Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament at Greensboro, N.C.
Kentucky’s season is over.
A Wildcats team that was ranked No. 4 in November and came into the 2022-23 college basketball season with seemingly realistic national title hopes was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament on Sunday with a 75-69 loss to Kansas State.
A long offseason lies ahead, and the first question on the minds of many UK fans will be: Who will come back for another run with the Cats in 2023-24?
Coach John Calipari typically meets with players immediately after the season to discuss their future plans, and the first wave of stay-or-go decisions is likely to begin in the next week. Here’s a look at every scholarship player on the Kentucky roster and predictions for what each of those Wildcats might do.
It’s likely that several players from this season’s UK team will ultimately choose to go pro — or possibly transfer to a different college for next season — and there’s typically a surprise or two, especially in the new era of college basketball that allows transfers to play right away at their new schools. It’s also worth noting that every Kentucky player has at least one season of eligibility remaining.
That said, these are the players most likely to be gone from the Wildcats’ program …
Sahvir Wheeler: After being sidelined for six weeks with an ankle injury, Wheeler was expected to return to the court for Friday night’s NCAA Tournament opener, but he remained sidelined for both games in Greensboro, N.C. Wheeler led the Southeastern Conference in assists in his final season at Georgia, his first season at Kentucky and was atop the league leaderboard in that stat again this season before the injury sidelined him and took him out of consideration for a three-peat. He has tested the NBA Draft waters in the past, but he’s not currently considered to be a prospect for the league and is likely to be playing in college again next season, just not at Kentucky. The 5-foot-9 point guard from Houston has already transferred within the SEC once during his college career, and it won’t be a surprise if he does it again for his final year of college eligibility. Unless things change in the coming days, Wheeler is not expected to be back with the Cats next season.
Cason Wallace: The 6-4 guard from the Dallas area lived up to his recruiting hype and entered the NCAA Tournament as a projected lottery pick for the 2023 NBA Draft. Projected lottery picks do not return to college for another season. Anything other than Wallace declaring for the draft would be one of the biggest stay-or-go shockers in the Calipari era.
Jacob Toppin: The 2022-23 season didn’t go exactly as Toppin had planned, but he was still a key part of Kentucky’s team and showed growth on and off the court in his third year with the Wildcats’ program. The 6-9 forward from Brooklyn will turn 23 years old in May, and — though he’s not currently projected as a pick in the 2023 NBA Draft — he is likely to keep his name in the pool this time around, barring a change of plans over the next few weeks.
College basketball’s reigning national player of the year gets his own category.
Oscar Tshiebwe — a 6-9 big man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — is in a unique position with a complicated decision to make. If he had left college last summer, he would have been a second-round pick (at worst) in the 2022 draft. Instead, he opted to come back and give it another run with the Wildcats, with the program’s ninth national championship as his overriding goal. Those plans fell short, and Tshiebwe’s draft stock also took a hit in year two, with scouts knocking his defensive prowess and nitpicking other shortcomings in his game as it relates to the current playing style in the NBA.
Tshiebwe is still on some draft boards for 2023, but there’s a real possibility — perhaps a probability — that he isn’t selected at all in the June 22 draft. It’s also possible that his preseason knee surgery impacted his play (and mobility) to the point that a third year at Kentucky might restore some of the draft stock, but the chance of returning and further opening himself up to criticism is also a risk.
While Tshiebwe could earn more through name, image and likeness deals during a third season at Kentucky than he might make in his first season as a pro, don’t expect that to be an overriding aspect of his decision this spring. This time last year, the buzz was that he would return. Now, it sounds more likely that he’s gone. We’ll have to wait and see.
Stay or go?
These five players have even cloudier futures at Kentucky, and — until we hear more from each Wildcat and those in their orbit — no outcome should be considered a surprise.
Chris Livingston: Getting the former McDonald’s All-American back for a second year would be a major victory for Calipari, who is likely to be leaning on several high-potential (but unproven) freshmen next season. Livingston broke into the starting lineup and found his niche on this roster, but he could be due for more of a featured role if he decides to return. NBA scouts seem unsure of how the 6-6 wing fits in the league, and he’s not currently considered a 2023 draft pick. There will be voices in his circle that try to persuade Livingston to exit after one season — either to the draft or to a program that can promise a bigger role — but the wise-beyond-his-years 19-year-old has proven in the past that he’s not afraid to make his own decisions and stick with them. Expect him to at least go through the NBA Draft process. What he does after that might be the most intriguing stay-or-go decision of this UK offseason.
Antonio Reeves: The four-year college guard turned into Kentucky’s top backcourt scorer during his first season with the Wildcats, but he’s not currently considered an NBA Draft prospect. Reeves turned 22 years old in November. If he returns for a fifth year of college — all current seniors have an extra year of eligibility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — and shows improvement on the defensive end, might he climb his way into draft consideration? It’s possible, given his shooting ability and confidence on offense. Before Reeves’ run of big-scoring games late in the season, there was a sense around Kentucky’s program that he might be the most likely of the seniors to return. Now, nothing should be seen as a surprise.
CJ Fredrick: It was another injury-riddled season for Fredrick, who turns 24 in July and has now been in college for five years. Fredrick has his degree and was engaged to UK women’s basketball player Blair Green during the season. Green went through her Senior Day ceremony this month and is not expected to return to college. After all the injuries, will Fredrick want to give it another go? He’s as competitive as they come, and he could be a veteran presence for a young backcourt next season. Don’t necessarily expect a quick decision from the senior guard.
Daimion Collins: It would be understandable if Collins opted for a change of scenery after all that he’s been through this season. His father passed away while visiting Collins in Lexington just before the start of the season, and the 6-9 sophomore obviously needed time to deal with that life-changing event. When he returned to the court, Calipari, who said Collins lost 16 pounds in the aftermath of his father’s death, brought the 20-year-old along slowly, and what was supposed to be a breakout season never materialized. While it’s possible Collins — a former McDonald’s All-American — might transfer elsewhere for a fresh start, he has talked about the support he’s received from the UK coaching staff and his teammates, and he’s another player who could see a much more sizable role if he sticks around for next season. Calipari thought Collins was due for a major breakthrough before this season began. Expect the coach to remind the young player of his potential at Kentucky during their upcoming discussions.
Lance Ware: While Ware has been at Kentucky for three seasons now, he’s never quite established himself as an every-game contributor. Part of that is due to the presence of Oscar Tshiebwe, who has taken a bulk of the playing time on the block. If Tshiebwe is gone after this season — and UK doesn’t add a center in the transfer portal — there would likely be a bigger opening for the more physical Ware to play extended minutes among a frontcourt that would otherwise consist of longer, slighter rim-protector types. It’s possible Ware could look elsewhere for his next season of college, but the Camden, N.J., native genuinely likes it in Lexington and has earned the trust of Calipari, who named Ware a team captain before the NCAA Tournament. It probably doesn’t hurt that fellow Camden natives DJ Wagner and Aaron Bradshaw will be joining the program this summer.
Returning to UK?
The Kentucky roster features two players who came to Lexington last year with little outside expectation of an immediate impact, viewed more as longer-term building blocks for the Wildcats’ program. For both of these players, that increased impact could come as soon as next season. Transfers are always possible with lesser-used players, but Calipari wants both of these guys back, and they could be major pieces to the UK puzzle in 2023-24.
Adou Thiero: A perplexing, last-minute addition to Kentucky’s program at the time of his commitment last spring, Thiero quickly became a fan favorite with his energetic playing style and overall hustle on the court. The 18-year-old has acknowledged that he’s still finding his own game, due largely to the fact that he’s still growing, making it unclear exactly what position he’ll play in the future. But his athleticism and energy was utilized by Calipari at various points in the season, and he’s a versatile player that should see an increased role in year two with Kentucky, especially as he finds more of an identity on the court. While Thiero would have liked more playing time as a freshman, there are no indications he plans to look elsewhere for next season.
Ugonna Onyenso: There was talk that Onyenso — a near-7-footer from Nigeria — might redshirt this past season, but he earned considerable playing time right off the bat as Tshiebwe recovered from preseason knee surgery. Onyenso didn’t play more than three minutes in a game over the final two-plus months of the season, but Kentucky’s coaches have been salivating over his potential moving forward, and — if Tshiebwe does depart the program this offseason — it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Onyenso compete for the starting center role next season, depending on how much further his game progresses over the next few months. Onyenso came to Kentucky taking the long view of his development, and anything but a return to Lexington for year two would be a major surprise, based on his plans coming in.
The 2023 recruits
Whoever chooses to return for another run with the Wildcats will find a slew of new teammates in the UK locker room next season.
Calipari has locked up the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for the 2023 cycle, with combo guards Robert Dillingham, Reed Sheppard and DJ Wagner, small forward Justin Edwards, and 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw all coming in and looking to make an immediate impact.
Wagner and Edwards, at the very least, will be projected starters on next season’s team, no matter who chooses to return or who Kentucky adds through the transfer portal. A recent (very, very early) 2024 mock draft from ESPN projected Edwards as the No. 4 pick in that draft, Wagner at No. 7, Bradshaw at No. 28 and Dillingham at No. 30 — all in the first round — a sign of just how talented this freshman class is expected to be.
If some of UK’s current players choose to return, Calipari could have the combination — a few veterans plus a large number of five-star recruits — that he’s been lacking in recent years but was present for much of his early success at Kentucky.
The Cats’ top-ranked recruiting class is set. Who will join them in Lexington next season?
The wait for the final word on that begins now.
This story was originally published March 19, 2023, 5:17 PM.