By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
The crazy world of college basketball is just getting started and has already thrown fans a lot of curve balls over the first eight or nine games of this year’s thirty-one game schedule. It’s been amazing to watch so many Top 5 ranked teams lose to unranked teams. I’m not sure what to make of game results like No. 1 ranked and undefeated U of L losing to 5-3 and unranked Texas Tech or an unranked Penn State beating No. 4 Maryland. Based on the up and down nature of most of the favored teams this season it’s difficult to know who will emerge as a front runner at the end. With that being said, there are a few things I do know about this college basketball season so far.
I do know that UK has played eight games so far and here are the eight things that I know based on those games.
No. 1, I know that EJ Montgomery is talented enough to dominate a college basketball game, any college basketball game, if he wants to. After his 25 point, 9 rebound performance against Fairleigh Dickinson he showed that all the natural talent and athleticism he displayed in flashes throughout his freshman season is finally starting to become more consistent throughout each individual game. Now if he can just develop that consistency from game to game.
No. 2, Ashton Hagans is becoming a pass first point guard and the numbers are showing it. That’s a good thing for this UK team full of scorers. Hagans is averaging 7 assists per game – good enough for second place in the SEC – and had 11 assists against Fairleigh Dickinson. He is starting to take advantage of defenses by making a straight line drive to the basket which is opening up the alley-oop dunk for Nick Richards under the basket. That’s one more weapon in the UK arsenal that we didn’t see much of last season.
No. 3, these Wildcats will continue to struggle early on against every team on their schedule until they eliminate the bad defensive habits they have developed and incorporate better one on one defensive techniques that will allow them to stay in front of their man. Too much standing straight up and not moving their feet on defense will allow almost any guard to beat them off the dribble which then opens up a diagonal pass for a lay up or a wide open three point shot in the corner.
No. 4, Immanuel Quickley is beginning to remind me an awful lot of a right-handed Jack “Goose” Givens with that smooth dribble into the high post for a mid-range jumper and that jump shot off the curl at the elbow. Those were patented Jack Givens moves to the basket and Quickley, with his athletic ability and smooth touch, seems to be able the mimic the “Goose” fairly well. Now I’m just waiting on that 41-point game…
No. 5, Kentucky’s 3 point shooting doesn’t look good now but by the end of the season they will have 3 very good outside shooters in Quickley, Maxey and Juzang along with Whitney and Brooks who also look very capable. Those players, along with big man Nate Sestina, should be able to consistently hit enough outside shots to keep teams honest and open up more driving lanes for Hagans and Maxey. It’s hard to keep good 3-point shooters down for very long. Jamal Murray and Devin Booker are proof positive of that.
No. 6, point guard turned shooting guard Tyrese Maxey still hasn’t figured out his role on this team yet. Once he does, look out. Right now he’s struggling to figure out if he is supposed to be a point guard, shooting guard or a guy that is only needed to rebound and get out on the fast break. Once he develops a clear understanding of his role and his outside shooting comes around it will open up driving lanes for him to the basket and create more opportunities around the rim. Now if he could just learn how to play a little defense.
No. 7, Nick Richards is the most improved player on the team, by a lot, and may be the most improved player in the SEC. He is playing with confidence, is becoming a go-to guy down low with his soft jump hook and he also creates a consistent shot blocking presence in the low post. Now he and his teammates just need to eliminate the offensive fouls on those moving screens.
And finally No. 8, I know that the college basketball landscape appears to be wide open to any team that wants to step up and take control. So far only 8 games into the season 5 unranked teams have beaten 5 Top 5 teams and four different No. 1 teams have lost to four different unranked teams. Two of those losses – Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and Kentucky at Rupp Arena – rarely ever happen. That tells me this year’s NCAA Tournament winner could come from just about anywhere. It’s hard to say with any certainty right now that there is a single team playing today that could make it through five straight games of competitive basketball to reach the championship game without throwing a clunker in along the way. That will make those No. 1 seeds this year that much more important.
As the season goes along it will be very interesting to watch this UK team develop. The absence of Nate Sestina due to a broken wrist has put EJ Montgomery into a position that allows him more minutes on the floor and requires him to produce during those added minutes. I think that and the eventual emergence of Tyrese Maxey as a consistent scorer will be the keys for this team to go a long way in March.
Now there is one other thing I know. I know that I am ready to see this team bring home title No. 9. Here’s hoping they grow up enough to do it.