Kentucky is 10 games into the SEC schedule, has an 8-2 record and are in a three-way tie for first place. Beating the Tennessee Volunteers 77-64 in Knoxville on Saturday, combined with a two-game losing streak by the LSU Tigers, has opened the door for the Wildcats to claim yet another SEC regular season championship if they can take care of business over the next eight games.
So, since we are talking about taking care of business, let’s talk about how the Wildcats fared with the Volunteers on Saturday. A lot of Saturday’s game involved physical play down in the paint. The Tennessee game plan, much like Auburn and Mississippi State, was to knock Nick Richards around enough to hopefully get him in early foul trouble and keep him from getting into a scoring rhythm. That plan only partially worked. The Cats were still physical enough to outlast the Volunteers down low. Kentucky out rebounded Tennessee 33-29 and Nick Richards scored 15 points on 5-5 shooting and added 7 rebounds in 32 minutes of play. Keion Brooks Jr also helped do some of the dirty work underneath with 9 boards in 26 minutes of floor time. He also chipped in 4 points.
But what about the rest of the team? Well, Immanuel Quickley, as usual, was a guy that came up big the entire game. He scored 18 points in 5-9 overall shooting and was 2-3 on three-pointers. He also had 1 turnover during his 29 minutes in the game. Quickley continues to be Mr. Dependable, scoring late in the game through either drives to the basket, open looks from the three-point line and of course scoring at the free throw line. Johnny Juzang also came up big in a reserve role scoring 13 points on 4-4 shooting and was 3-3 from three-point range and 2-2 from the free throw line. A perfect shooting day in 24 minutes of action.
Now, I wish I could say some great things about Tyrese Maxey, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina, but unfortunately I can’t. Maxey played ok in his 31 minutes scoring 15 points on 6-13 shooting but was 0-3 on three-pointers. He also had 5 rebounds and only 2 turnovers in 31 minutes. Those are good numbers for most players but Tyrese Maxey is not “most players.” But more on that later.
Unfortunately Nate Sestina continued down the bad road he has gotten on. He had a zero stat line except for one rebound, four fouls and one turnover in 7 minutes. EJ Montgomery was much the same. He had 2 points and 3 rebounds in 15 minutes of action. And last but not least, point guard Ashton Hagans.
I realize that John Calipari loves Ashton Hagans as his point guard, and to that end I agree that he can be a disruptive force on defense, he is extremely athletic and can, at times, be a good rebounder. But unfortunately his play is very inconsistent. He can make exceptional plays look easy but he can also dribble the ball off his foot bringing it up the floor or drop it out of bounds without any defensive pressure.
When a team is trying to make a National Championship run they can’t afford to have a point guard that is, at best inconsistent, and at worst a non-scoring player that struggles in most half court offensive sets and can sometimes be a turnover machine. He has difficulty making the simple plays, doesn’t seem to always recognize when to push the tempo and when to hold up based on what the defense is doing and doesn’t always seem to understand the importance of the time and score of the game.
I will be the first to admit that at times he can be a dynamic player, creating havoc on defense and leading the break in transition but by this time in the season opposing coaches have figured out that if they can create a half court game, outmuscle Kentucky under the basket and constantly drive the ball on offense to score a layup, pick up hand check fouls or kick the ball out for an open three-point shot, they have an excellent shot at defeating the Wildcats on any given night.
The inconsistency of Kentucky’s guards, specifically Hagans and Maxey, are in my opinion what keeps UK from expanding leads beyond 5 to 8 points in games against opponents that quite honestly don’t match up from a talent level standpoint. Tennessee was one of those opponents.
If either Maxey or Hagans decide to step up and play consistently at the point guard position this University of Kentucky team could be a Final Four or better team. But if each player continues on the same path — Hagans making poor plays that lead to turnovers and Maxey taking ill-advised shots from way outside and trying to do too much offensively — it will be difficult for Kentucky to get beyond the Sweet Sixteen without a draw that is the perfect matchup for these players. And that has only happened once that I can remember in the last decade or so.
When the calendar says February and March is right around the corner college basketball teams that intend to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament should be rounding into form. Kentucky has improved from earlier in the season — they now know how to fight to win and a couple of key individuals have stepped up to lead the team — but if they cannot come up with a smart, tactical point guard that can recognize time and score in the game, get them into the correct sets that will take advantage of mismatches on the floor and efficiently score enough so that opponents have to play them honestly they will struggle when they reach The Tournament.
Basketball is a simple game in March. Find winning players that can consistently make winning plays. It’s not easy but it is simple. So far, UK is about a player or two short of that winning formula.