Kentucky men's and women's basketball finish in Top 25

(Photo: UK Athletics)
(Photo: UK Athletics)(WYMT)
Published: Mar. 18, 2020 at 12:52 PM EDT
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The Kentucky men’s basketball team finished among the top teams in the country in the final Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll rankings.

The Wildcats, who posted a 25-6 record in 2019-20, won another Southeastern Conference regular-season championship – the program’s 49th – and were set to make what would have been the program’s 59th NCAA Tournament appearance, were ranked No. 7 in the final USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 8 in the AP Top 25.

Both polls were released this week after the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kentucky was ranked inside the top 20 in both polls throughout the season, including reaching No. 1 in the AP Top 25 in November, the seventh time in John Calipari’s 11 seasons the Wildcats ascended to the top of the AP poll.

UK fell as low as No. 19 in the rankings in late December after losing back-to-back games in Las Vegas, but the Wildcats made a steady climb from that point forward. Ranked No. 19 in both polls heading into the Louisville game, Kentucky won 17 of the next 20 games to finish the season, capturing the SEC regular-season title for the sixth time in the 11-season Calipari era.

Kentucky reached the top 10 by mid-February and stayed there heading into the now-canceled SEC Tournament. It’s the seventh time in the Calipari era the Wildcats have finished in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 and the eighth time in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. Kentucky leads all schools with 45 AP top-10 finishes.

The Wildcats have been a mainstay in the AP Top 25 under Calipari. In the 200 polls in the Calipari era, Kentucky has been ranked 182 times.

This team, despite a lack of a postseason, will go down as one of Calipari’s most memorable groups. Forced to retool once again after losing four players to the professional ranks, including three in the first round of the NBA Draft, UK reloaded with a blend of talent, youth and some uncommon experience (by recent standards). While Calipari had another top-ranked recruiting class to help fill the losses, the story of the 2019-20 Wildcats was the development of its veteran core.

Immanuel Quickley evolved from a freshman reserve to the SEC Player of the Year in his sophomore season, leading the Wildcats in scoring (16.1 points per game), 3-point shooting (62 3-pointers on 42.8% shooting from behind the arc) and elite free-throw marks (92.3% shooting, third in the country). Junior forward Nick Richards, who struggled to consistently produce in his first two seasons, became a double-double machine and an All-SEC First Team performer, leading UK in rebounds per game (7.8), blocks per game (2.1) and field-goal percentage (64.4%, ranked fourth nationally).

Ashton Hagans continued to be one of the nation’s best defenders while leading the SEC in assists per game (6.4), and sophomore forward EJ Montgomery found his footing in the second half of the season with a consistent energy and fight to his game.

Freshman Tyrese Maxey lived up to the recruiting hype by averaging 14.0 points with a team-high three games of 25 points or more, and newcomers Nate Sestina, Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang all played key parts, especially in what would end up being the season finale, an 18-point second-half comeback at Florida.

In the end, Kentucky had the look of another dangerous Calipari group primed for a postseason run with stingy defense – UK ranked 20th in the country in defensive field-goal percentage (.394) – a penchant for closing out close games, and a consistent ability to capitalize at the free-throw line, where the Wildcats shot 79.7% for the season, a school record and the third-best mark in the country.

“I felt like we were going to win the whole thing,” Calipari said of his team heading into the postseason.

UK shined brightest in the most difficult situations, posting an 8-2 record on the road and rallying in times of crisis. The Wildcats reeled off six straight victories after the stunning loss to Evansville, won the SEC title after back-to-back losses in Las Vegas, and notched an unforgettable comeback at Florida just days after blowing a stunning 17-point lead at home vs. Tennessee – and doing so without Hagans in the lineup.

Kentucky was also 14-5 vs. quadrant one and two teams in the NCAA Evaluation Tool and 4-2 vs. AP Top 25 teams at the time of the matchup.

The women's team also finished in the final Top 25 as well. After an impressive season that ended with 22 wins, another top-four finish in Southeastern Conference play and an expected at-large selection in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats finished their season ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 final ranking. UK finished No. 18 in the USA Today/Coaches Top 25 that was announced Monday.

Kentucky was ranked inside the top 20 of both rankings all season long, peaking at No. 11 in both polls in mid-January. This is the 10th time in program history that UK has finished inside the top 16 of the AP’s final listing and the sixth time the Wildcats have achieved that under 13-year head coach Matthew Mitchell. This is the seventh time UK has finished top-18 or better in the coaches final top 25 with all seven of those appearances coming under Mitchell. UK has finished inside the top 25 of both final listings 10 of the last 11 years under Mitchell.

Kentucky has been a mainstay in the AP poll over the last 10 years. In the last 212 polls, the Wildcats have been ranked or receiving votes 195 times only being left out of 17 polls.

UK finished the 2019-20 season with a 22-8 record securing its 20th 20-win season in program history and its 10th under Mitchell. The Wildcats also earned 10 wins in league play for the 10th time under Mitchell. Prior to Mitchell’s tenure, Kentucky had never won 10 wins in league play. UK also finished top four in the SEC for the 11th time under Mitchell securing a top-four seed in the SEC Tournament for the 11th time in program history and 10th time under Mitchell.

During the season, the Wildcats earned three wins over ranked opponents taking down No. 6 Mississippi State, No. 12 Texas A&M and No. 22 Tennessee. The win vs. Mississippi State was Kentucky’s first over a top-10 team since taking down No. 2/3 Mississippi State back in February 2017 in Lexington. UK also defeated Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament marking the first time the Wildcats have beaten the Lady Vols twice in the same season and the first three-game winning streak against Tennessee in program history.

Statistically, the Wildcats put together one of the best seasons in program history in 2019-20. Kentucky hit 252 3-pointers during the year, which set a new program record for 3s made by a team in program history, surpassing the previous record of 240 makes in 2012-13. UK hit 10 or more 3s in 13 games and hit a new school-record 16 3-pointers in the win vs. Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Wildcats 36.3 percent from long range this season is the fifth-best percentage in program history while its 72.5 points per game are its best scoring average since 2015-16.

UK ended the season fourth nationally in turnover margin at 7.90, while it was 11th nationally in fewest turnovers with 361 and 33rd nationally in assist-turnover ratio at 1.14. The Wildcats 252 3s ranks 24th in the nation and second in the SEC, while its 8.4 3s made per game was 21st nationally and second in the SEC and its 3-point field-goal percentage was 23rd nationally and second in the league.

Individually, Rhyne Howard had one of the best seasons in program history averaging 23.4 points per game, which ranked second nationally and first in the SEC. Howard led Kentucky with 6.5 rebounds per game and set a new program record for 3s made in a season with 84. She also paced UK with 62 steals while she was second in blocks with 29 and third in assists with 66. Howard is considered a candidate for national player of the year after league coaches named her the SEC Player of the Year.

Junior guard Chasity Patterson played in 19 games after sitting out of the first half of the season due to NCAA transfer rules and averaging 11.5 points with 29 assists and 25 steals. Senior guard Sabrina Haines was the only Wildcat to play and start in all 30 games averaging 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while hitting 40 percent from long range. Senior guard Jaida Roper played in 30 games with 19 starts averaging 7.8 points per game while leading UK with 102 assists.

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