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Kentucky wildcat basketball

Startling: The Kentucky Basketball Association’s management has not yet turned on a completed stadium.

Mark Pope has never won an NCAA Tournament game. Last year at BYU, Pope was bounced by in the first round by Duquesne with a team that lacked athleticism, struggled on defense, and relied heavily on three-point shooting.

It turns out that his BYU roster wasn’t exactly Pope’s preferred style of play. With access to a different caliber of elite recruits and high-quality transfers at Kentucky, he’s leaned heavily on the defensive end of the floor, pairing rangy shot-blockers like Oklahoma State’s Brandon Garrison and Drexel’s Amari Williams with elite perimeter defenders like San Diego State’s LaMont Butler, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.

Defense was so heavily prioritized this offseason that the head coach who produced the 14th most efficient offense in the country by Kenpom last season is still missing a go-to scorer.

Andrew Carr, who transferred to Kentucky from Wake Forest is a capable stretch-forward who averaged 13.5 points and shot 37.1% from three at 6-foot-10. Otega Oweh is a slender 6-foot-5 slashing guard who scored 11.4 points a game for Oklahoma a year ago. Koby Brea from Dayton might be the best outside shooter in the country, and Kerr Kriisa is an excellent facilitator.

Mark Pope assembled great complementary offensive pieces, but Kentucky lacks the primary shot creation necessary to compete for a National Championship. There isn’t a player on the team who is reliable enough in isolation to close out a game down the stretch and with the gravity necessary for everything to click together as a cohesive unit.

Pope’s latest transfer portal target is the solution to that potentially catastrophic deficiency.

In his fourth season at North Florida, Chaz Lanier averaged 19.7 points a game while shooting 51% from the field and 44% from three. The 6-foot-4 guard has one remaining season of eligibility and currently, Kentucky is the front-runner to acquire his services.

He was arguably one of the most improved players in the entire country after scoring under five points a game in the 2022-23 season for the Ospreys and only starting eight games. While his shot volume increased as the team’s best player, so did his efficiency.

Lanier is a quality playmaker with the ball in his hands and will give the offense additional spacing with his outside shooting prowess, but most importantly, he is the missing isolation scorer that this roster desperately needs.

Last season, he averaged 1.27 points per isolation possession which was 93rd percentile in the country. He was also in the top 10% of scorers in terms of points per possession on spot-ups, dribble hand-offs, and pick-and-rolls as the primary ball-handler. While not a hyper-elite athlete, his long strides and body control allow him to get past defenders and draw the eyes of all five defenders. For all the talent he’s amassed, Pope doesn’t have a player who stresses a defense in that way.

For all his gaudy numbers, Lanier isn’t a ball-dominant player. He’s also a lethal scorer off movement and can knock down catch-and-shoot threes, so his presence wouldn’t disrupt the flow of Pope’s motion offense.

His skill is one thing, but his size presents other tantalizing possibilities for Kentucky’s first-year head coach. Lanier is big enough to play on the wing in lineups with any two of Butler, Kriisa, Brea, and Oweh, or can slot next to either Butler or Kriisa as the shooting guard in oversized lineups. This addition wouldn’t just give the offense a much-needed focal point, but it would give Pope incredible flexibility with his lineups.

It’s starting to get crowded in Lexington, that reality is undeniable and almost led to Amari Williams reneging on his commitment to the Cats, but Lanier is too perfect of a fit for Kentucky’s coaching staff to pass up on. Without him, Kentucky can contend for the SEC title and should be a safe bet to get through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. But, if Pope can land the First Team All-ASUN guard, Big Blue Nation can start to daydream about a Final Four appearance because that’s a reasonable expectation for this veteran-laden roster.

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