By DAWSON RULE, Contributing Writer
For most Kentucky fans, November 6, 2018 is a day to forget in the storied history of UK basketball. Not only had the UK football team just lost one of its biggest games in history a few days before, but this day was also the day that Duke and its elite freshman steamrolled UK’s elite freshman.
The hype was surely there, with Duke boasting a roster with names like Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, while the Cats hype surrounded not only freshman like Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson, but also a big time returner in the likes of PJ Washington.
From the moment the ball was tipped, it was all Blue Devils. Duke looked as good as any team assembled in recent years in college basketball and the young Cats were rattled all night long. The 118-84 beatdown was not the way UK fans envisioned the start of the season let alone the final score being.
Flash forward four months later and Kentucky now holds the advantage in NCAA Tournament seeding over Duke and if the Cats take care of business in the upcoming SEC Tournament in Nashville, they will be a one seed In the Louisville Regional, with Duke most likely being the two seed. How they got to this point boils down to only one thing — another excellent coaching job by John Calipari.
After the Duke game, Kentucky fans went through a long period of little interest in basketball which almost never happens. After an exciting football season still going on and the 30+ point loss to Duke, some UK fans just weren’t in “basketball mode” yet. This malaise went on for over a month and in this period, a disheartening loss to Seton Hall and the transfer of Sophomore Guard Quade Green just added to the distress and dis-interest of basketball for Kentucky fans.
This general malaise over the fanbase ended with a Signature win over North Carolina on Dec. 22, a few days after the announcement of the Quade Green transfer. Not only did this win help get UK fans back interested in basketball, but it also set the stage for success for the rest of the year with the emergence of Ashton Hagans. Hagans who has originally been splitting minutes with Green and Immanuel Quickley started for the Cats and logged eight steals and scored seven points. Not only did this game show the emergence of Hagans, but also showed that Keldon Johnson And Reid Travis were going to be consistent threats to score the ball against anyone.
A week later the Cats traveled to In-state rival Louisville to play the Cards. Behind a strong scoring effort from Tyler Herro who dropped twenty four points and another great defensive performance from Hagans, the Cats came into Louisville and got a strong convincing win. The cats were looking to finally start hitting their stride, but this ended a week later in Tuscaloosa.
Kentucky riding off of two straight convincing wins rolls into SEC play against the Crimson Tide. Hagans rise from role player to starter and strong scoring efforts from Travis, Johnson, and Herro had Cats fans excited to tip off in the SEC. The Cats held a solid lead throughout the game but eventually let it slip away and had to play catch up throughout. The fight was there even in the waining seconds of the game as Kentucky stormed back and had a chance to win. A Tyler Herro three pointer that hit the back of the rim proved to be the biggest shot for the freshman that didn’t fall as Alabama has knocked off the cats 77-75. The furious comeback was the only bright spot in a game Kentucky should have won. Once again the momentum was shot and UK Basketball fans were wondering when the team was going to start to peak or even show signs of being ready for March. For the next month, Cats fans got the answer they were looking for.
The month January and February were kind to UK. After the Alabama loss, the Cats rolled off 10 straight wins including ones over Kansas, Auburn on the road, and Mississippi State on the road. Kentucky was finally looking like a true threat to anyone for the NCAA tournament, but two conference teams emerged to contend with Kentucky. In this period Tennessee had Risen too the top of the rankings and took the number one spot in the college basketball ranks for weeks. LSU was also making a name for themselves and just kept winning ball games. Before UK had to play either of these two teams, They had to get PJ Washington going. Most UK fans called him out for sleepwalking through the season and not “Showing up” for some games. This changed when PJ scored a convincing 20 points in a huge showdown with Kansas. This set the stage for PJ to finally become the leader this team needed for an opportunity to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.
LSU showed why PJ couldn’t be the only player to eventually “Show up” for a big game. The Tigers were A top 20 team and came into Rupp Arena and handed UK their only Home loss on the season. The game ended on a controversial tip-in over the cylinder by LSU’s Kavell Bigby-Williams that was the buzzer-beating shot. Fans in Rupp Arena yelled Goaltending and with good reason. The replay showed the ball being over the rim as it was tipped back in. Unfortunately this play could not be reviewed and The officials walked out of Rupp Arena with little to no explanation and the LSU Tigers won the ball game. Kentucky fans were infuriated and had trouble accepting the loss as they felt robbed. No loss is a good loss but with the number one team in the UT Volunteers coming to town the next game, this loss was a motivational factor for UK to come out and take down Tennessee.
Tennessee’s reign of the number one spot ended later that week as Kentucky thoroughly dominated the Vols the entire game with great scoring efforts from Washington, Travis, Herro, and Johnson. This big time win for UK essentially wiped the LSU game from our memory and wiped it away from hurting them come seeding time. At this point, Calipari had his team rolling and the only loss after that was playing at Tennessee. They being the great team they are had revenge on their minds and came out swinging. UK was absent Reid Travis who went down two weeks prior with a minor knee sprain against Missouri. Tennessee poured it on the Cats in the rematch and won by 19 points. UK fans weren’t worried about this loss at all, but more about getting Reid Travis back healthy for a march madness run.
Kentucky went on to finish the regular season at 26-5 and right now sit with a very high chance of getting a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. With Reid Travis expected to return this week, UK Looks to win all their SEC tournament games to hold on to that one seed they are projected to have.
Reid’s importance to this UK team is shown on the court and through how other players see what he does for the team. PJ Washington says that having Reid back is important because “Not a lot of teams can double (team) us because we definitely have another post player who can really score the ball”. This UK team has had quite an impressive year with most losses coming against very good teams.
The Cats look to roll into March 100 percent healthy with Reid back and look to take care of business in Nashville this weekend to hold onto their projected One seed In the Louisville Regional. With PJ Washington finally taking a leadership role with this team and the young freshman taking over, this looks like another potential special year for the UK Basketball team to make a run in the tournament.
Coach Cal has been in this position before and knows exactly how to get his teams to gel together at the right time and has the Cats in a great position a mere few days before the brackets come out.