By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
We are just a little more than four weeks away from a big game. Most of you are thinking that big game is against the Georgia Bulldogs on Nov. 3rd. That is a big game but not the one I am thinking about. This big game involves a round ball and is played on a hardwood court. That’s correct. I’m talking about the first basketball exhibition game of the 2018-2019 season for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Those Wildcats. The consensus preseason No. 1 team in the nation.
Since the start of the season is about a month away it’s time to talk a little basketball. Let’s talk about how this year’s team could become the next National Champion in a long line of National Champions that have represented UK Basketball.
They have all the ingredients. Several athletic, good shooting point guards. But also point guards that can distribute the ball to the open man – either on the break or out of a set offense. And point guards that will be able to play lock down defense on their opponents.
They also have an extremely talented set of shooting guards that can score from anywhere on the floor. Whether it is creating their own shot, hitting a three pointer off a curl screen or scoring in transition, this group of players can do it all.
Last but not least let’s talk about the Cats’ inside game. In the post UK has a physical mix of guys that can rebound, score in the paint and also help their teammates score through either a solid pick-and-roll game or by playing high-low from the free throw line.
All of that sounds great. The Wildcats this year should be a very difficult team to handle for anyone in college basketball but before we hand them the trophy and play “One Shining Moment” with all the confetti falling down let’s talk about what could derail the Cats.
I know. You’re saying what could possibly derail this UK team from cutting down the nets in early April. The only weakness that I see for this team could be their interior defense. If they draw an experienced, athletic team that can score from the outside and has a huge post presence it could spell trouble for the Cats. Here’s why.
Kentucky’s two most experienced inside players – Reid Travis and PJ Washington – aren’t that big. Both are listed at 6’8″ tall and weigh in around the 230 to 240 lb. range. Nick Richards is 6’11” and tips the scales at 244 lbs. but has the least experience of the three. Can Richards get better and be an intimidating force on the inside for Kentucky? Of course. But the big issue is even if Richards does become a mainstay down low on defense either Washington or Travis will have to sit. Or if Coach Calipari tries to play all three together – which in my opinion he won’t – then either Keldon Johnson or Tyler Herro has to sit. That won’t happen.
So the dilemma for Calipari is if he wants a dominant offensive team he can go with both Travis and Washington in the low post but that could leave the Cats vulnerable to a team that is taller and just as physical inside – if that team can also consistently make three-pointers. If he wants a dominant defensive team he can play Richards in the post with either Washington or Travis – and sub in Montgomery along with either Washington or Travis. But unfortunately he can’t do both.
From Calipari’s perspective it’s a good problem to have. It’s like coach Nick Saban at Alabama saying ,”I can play Tua at quarterback and if I need to bring in a sub I have Jalen Hurts available.” Either way he is playing a great player in that spot just like Calipari will be doing in the low post.
But when tournament time rolls around, unless 6’10” EJ Montgomery has turned into a defensive stopper with a great low post offensive game, Kentucky’s coaches will have to mix and match various players to meet the makeup of the team they are playing. If they get matched up with a team that has a tall, physical group of inside players that have fouls to give – which in turn could create foul trouble for either Washington, Travis or Richards — it could spell trouble for UK similar to the problems that occurred with the very physical game that West Virginia played against UK in the Elite Eight in 2010 or the physical game that Wisconsin played against UK in the 2015 Final Four. Both losses were created by opponents that turned the game into a push and shove contest that left the Wildcats in the frustrating position of not being able to score at their end of the floor while their opponents continued to draw fouls on UK and hit free throws and inside shots to win the game.
Having the No. 1 team in the preseason could be a blessing or a curse, but with the incredible amount of overall talent on this team, if they continue to work hard and develop their skill level — especially on the inside — just like John Calipari teams in the past have done they should be a very difficult out even in the Final Four.