Could something magical be happening in John Calipari’s 10th year at Kentucky? It sure feels like it.
After getting blitz by Duke 118-84 in the first game of the 2018-19 basketball season, Kentucky has righted the ship. The Wildcats have beaten North Carolina, Louisville, and Kansas en route to Calipari’s 10th straight 20-win season, and the only other demerits on its big blue ledger are a loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden and an uncharacteristic stumble against Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Now some commentators believe the Wildcats will garner a No.1 seed when invitations to the “big dance” are doled out come March.
This year, Kentucky is proving to be unfazed by the conference meat grinder. A marquee win at Mississippi State this past Saturday gave the Wildcats their 10th straight victory to put them at 20-3 (9-1 SEC) overall. Oh, and during that streak, the Wildcats just happened to sneak in a 71-63 win over then-No.13 Kansas for good measure.
What’s been the impetus for Kentucky’s rise? A few things.
First, the players. PJ Washington has been an absolute terror. Against Mississippi State, Washington went for 23 total points. He was 9-for-13 from the field and also proved he could stroke it from deep, going 3-for-3 from long distance. It was his seventh 20-point game of the season and his eighth straight game in double figures. Washington is now averaging 14.2 points per game and 8 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward from Dallas is netting an unbelievable 44 percent from 3-point range and 51 percent of his shots overall.
Second is the emergence of Tyler Herro. In only 23 games, the freshman from Milwaukee has branded himself as a road assassin, burying critical 3-point shots like the one he hit with only 3 minutes to go this past weekend in Starkville.
Reid Travis, the graduate transfer from Stanford, has been solid, averaging 11 points per game. But perhaps Travis’ best contributions to the team are the intangibles of maturity and stability. If the devil is in the details, Travis is his henchman.
Then there’s the rest of the bunch. Freshman guard Ashton Hagans is developing into a capable ball distributor and floor general. Against MSU, he dished out nine dimes, tying a career high. Keldon Johnson is the team’s X-factor. Though he is the Wildcats’ second leading scorer at 13.9 ppg and is shooting more than 40 percent from 3-point distance, Johnson has been in a mini-slump for several weeks. After averaging 15.3 ppg in November and December, he is averaging only 10.8 ppg in conference play. If he can get going again, Kentucky will be even more dangerous when bracket basketball arrives.
The Wildcats have also tightened the vice-grips defensively. Holes have closed since the porous effort against Duke because, at Calipari’s full-throated behest, many of the freshmen have become more defensive-minded. Now the ‘Cats rank second in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) behind Florida in scoring defense, allowing only 65.1 ppg. They rank fourth in the country in rebound margin, hauling in 10 more boards per game than their opponents. They are tied for 15th in the country in blocked shots, chopping down 5.1 attempts per contest. And finally, they are holding their opponents to 40.5 percent shooting from the floor, which is second only to Tennessee in the SEC.
But the biggest catalyst for Kentucky’s rise from Davy Jones’ locker room after the Duke debacle has been the captain himself, John Calipari. This very well may be Calipari’s best coaching job since he’s been at Kentucky. Given Calipari’s unique system that puts a premium on one-and-dones, reloading is an annual event. With the high degree of volatility from a player turnover standpoint, teams are expected to mature and jell—lickety-split. This team is doing just that.
Calipari is proving to be the mastermind at the controls, knowing when to pull back and when to push, but always driving forward.
Kentucky will have its mettle tested this week, as it welcomes No. 21 LSU to Rupp Arena on Tuesday and No.1 Tennessee on Saturday. The Wildcats’ remaining schedule includes road games at Missouri, Tennessee, and Ole Miss, and home games against Auburn, Arkansas, and Florida before the SEC tournament begins on March 13.
This isn’t Calipari’s most talented squad but it could end up being his second team to cut down the nets. H&A
All photos courtesy UK Athletics
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