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UK Basketball: The Defense Finally Steps Up

EJ Montgomery scores on a follow shot against North Dakota. (Jeff Houchin Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

It was great to see the University of Kentucky basketball team step up their defensive play and get a convincing 96-58 win over North Dakota after a disappointing season opening loss to the Duke Blue Devils and a less than stellar win over Southern Illinois. It was also great to see sophomore PJ Washington have a breakout game with 25 points on 4 of 5 three point shooting and seven rebounds. Other players on the floor also made some significant strides.

It seemed like Immanuel Quickley was more comfortable at the point guard position. He did a good job of getting players into the flow of the game, ran the fast break well and seemed to mostly make good decisions about when to drive the ball and when to drop it off to a teammate. Quickley had four assists with no turnovers which is a step in the right direction for a point guard. As the season progresses that assist number needs to continue to grow to six, eight or even ten per game.

Three games into the season certain players are already showing that they will be the guys to step up at the end of the season when it really counts. One of those players is  EJ Montgomery. He is a guy that at 6’10” can  score on the inside through post up moves and put backs but he can also step outside and hit the medium range jump shot from the wing or free throw line. As his offensive confidence grows he will become a major player for this UK team down the road.

Tyler Herro – in scoring 18 points – showed flashes of brilliance but needs to develop more consistency. He demonstrated against North Dakota State that he can knock down outside shots, play good defense and is quick enough to step into the passing lanes to create steals and has the speed and athleticism to score in transition.

All of these freshmen and sophomore players are still growing their game, developing their ability to play consistently for longer stretches of time and learning how to overcome adversity – whether it is foul trouble or a poor shooting night.

But to me the key to this team – and it doesnt always show up in the stat line  – is the play of Reid Travis. He can become the Benny Snell of UK Basketball. There are a lot of guys on this team that can score in bunches – and they will – but they may not do it every night. At least not until they are playing in the NBA. What Reid Travis brings is a mentality that this team needs. A mentality that other Calipari teams have lacked over the last couple of years.

It’s the mindset of “I’ve been here, I’ve seen that, I’m not rattled, I’m not flustered”. He’s the one player on the floor that if his shot gets blocked he fights to get the ball back and puts it up again… and again until it goes in or the officials call the foul. He doesn’t sulk, he doesn’t pout, he just pulls up his socks and comes to work.

Every practice, every play, every game. That consistency and steadiness will help this team down the road when shots aren’t falling and someone needs to step up and get a big rebound or hit a couple of big free throws done the stretch. It’s that steadiness on the fooor that can’t be measured in the stat line.

So as the season progresses look for other players to step up and score more points and get more highlight plays on ESPN’s SportsCenter but keep an eye on Reid Travis. Regardless of who the media analysts pick as star of the game or who gets their name listed in the ESPN crawl across the bottom of the television screen know that the success of this team game in and game out will be created by the consistency that they get from a senior leader who is willing to go get the tough rebound, take a charge or dive on the floor for a loose ball. It’s just the way the game should be played and Reid Travis knows how to play it.

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