How good do national experts think the Kentucky basketball team will be this season?

·3 min read
Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

The four games that the Kentucky men’s basketball team plays in the Bahamas this week won’t matter in the grand scheme of the 2022-23 season.

These are exhibitions in August, three months before the Wildcats officially tip off their latest campaign. UK’s coaches will get an early feel for their players, and fans will get a sneak peek at their team.

There should also be plenty of eyes on these Cats nationally.

Kentucky is ranked as one of the top teams in college basketball going into the 2022-23 season, and — while keeping in mind that nothing really matters for a few more months — this tour of the Bahamas will surely draw in some curious onlookers who come up with those rankings.

Just how good should Kentucky be this season?

The early rankings from ESPN, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated, The Athletic and NCAA.com’s Andy Katz all have the Wildcats in the top four nationally. That obviously means there’s a high expectation from those outside Kentucky that the Cats could (or should) return to the Final Four for the first time in eight years.

ESPN has the most recently updated rankings, and those put UK at No. 4, behind only North Carolina, Gonzaga and Houston. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi updated his Bracketology for the 2023 NCAA Tournament on Tuesday morning, with those four schools all listed as No. 1 seeds.

Going into this week, the Caesars sportsbook has UNC as the national title favorite at 8-1 odds, with UK and Gonzaga as the co-second-choices at 10-1.

The most recent rankings from CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated also have the Wildcats at No. 4 nationally, while Katz ranks Kentucky at No. 3 on his list. Longtime college basketball reporter and analyst Seth Davis has UK at the very top of his list — No. 1 in the country.

Davis mentioned the blend of returning players — Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler and Jacob Toppin, most notably — and influx of new talent like Cason Wallace, Chris Livingston and Antonio Reeves in forming his No. 1-ranked team. UK also brings back Daimion Collins, Lance Ware and CJ Fredrick, who sat out last season with an injury but should be a major presence on this team.

“And that painful first-round loss to Saint Peter’s is going to serve as a powerful motivator,” Davis concludes.

Indeed, the Cats’ stunning NCAA Tournament exit in March is bound to be a major talker around this squad. In the early going, at least. Kentucky has enough talent and upside to quickly cement itself in the national title discussion early in the season, and this Bahamas trip will be a major step in the Wildcats’ team bonding experience going into the 2022-23 campaign. It’ll also be the first step toward turning the page on the way last season ended.

Tshiebwe is the first national player of the year to return to college since North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough did it in 2008. (The Tar Heels then won the national championship). There are some questions around Wheeler’s game, but he was graded as one of the best point guards in the country last season and has led the Southeastern Conference in assists two years running. Toppin could be on the verge of a breakout season, and those three should get plenty of additional help.

The Cats’ schedule in the Bahamas begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday with the opener against the Dominican Republic National Select Team, followed by games with college teams Tec de Monterrey (Mexico) and Carleton University (Canada), and then the Sunday finale against the Bahamas National Team.

All four games will be televised live on the SEC Network.

Bahamas schedule

Wednesday: Kentucky vs. Dominican Republic National Select Team, 7 p.m. (SEC)

Thursday: Kentucky vs. Tec de Monterrey, 7 p.m. (SEC)

Saturday: Kentucky vs. Carleton University, 6 p.m. (SEC)

Sunday: Kentucky vs. Bahamas National Team, noon (SEC)

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