The Kentucky Wildcats aren’t a great team, but they are generating great results. These Cats don’t have overwhelming talent, but they are relentless and tough.
By Matt Zemek
Big Blue in 2020 won’t dominate opponents for 40 minutes, but it will own the final seven on a regular basis. This team will often fail to shoot well, but it will never fail to work hard… and it is getting better at doing the responsible things on the court which turn close losses into close wins.
Kentucky has steadily matured this season, and the evidence of that maturity was abundant on Saturday against the Auburn Tigers, a very good team which denied UK a Final Four trip last year and beat the Wildcats a few weeks ago.
Kentucky grew up on Saturday, at the end of a month of February in which this team did a lot of growing.
The publicity will mostly flow to Immanuel Quickley for grabbing 12 rebounds against Auburn, and to be very clear, Quickley deserves all the credit he is receiving. Quickley has become Kentucky’s most dependable offensive player. He always does something on offense to help this team win. Grabbing rebounds, though, represented a new dimension for IQ, which – if he can continuously bring it to the table – will make Kentucky that much more formidable in March.
A scorer sacrificing on the glass is the kind of thing mature players and mature teams do.
Yet, as impressive as Quickley was on the glass, the effort which more fully embodied the evolution of the Cats against Auburn was Ashton Hagans’ performance.
Like so many Kentucky games (particularly first halves) this season, the shooting line was not pretty at all for Hagans. He went 2 of 13 from the field. Yet, he was an essential – not merely peripheral – piece of the puzzle against Auburn. He handed out five assists. He collected three steals. He played his typically great and disruptive defense.
Most of all, though, Hagans committed only one turnover. It is noticeable how much Kentucky benefits when Hagans provides a good floor game and doesn’t give the ball away. Yes, he shouldn’t shoot as much as he does, but he offered a reminder on Saturday that a player doesn’t have to score points or shoot well to wield considerable influence over a game’s outcome. Hagans made his presence felt in so many ways – and weeded out bad mistakes on offense – that his shooting line wasn’t a decisive factor.
That’s what a maturing player does late in a season.
Beyond any individual player, Kentucky also continued to shoot extremely well at the free throw line. This is the big difference which could lead to a Final Four run and get this team through a rough March game in which other facets of competition don’t unfold the way John Calipari wants. Free throws could be this team’s lifeline, a real plot twist heading into the month of Madness.
Kentucky was also much more disciplined on defense in this game, compared to the first go-round against Auburn this season. The Wildcats allowed Auburn to make 44 trips to the foul line in Alabama a few weeks ago. Yes, the officiating in that game was atrocious, but even then, players have to adjust to the whistle the zebras make. Kentucky did not adjust.
In this game, UK halved the number of free throw attempts it allowed Auburn. The Wildcats conceded just 22 free throw attempts. As a result, Auburn scored 20 fewer points at the charity stripe: only 13, compared to the 33 it scored in Auburn Arena earlier this winter. That made a pretty big difference.
Mature teams do the things Kentucky did on Saturday. Mature teams win without shooting spectacularly well. Mature teams sacrifice and weed out mistakes, giving themselves every possible winning edge even when the shots aren’t falling.
This is what a mature team looks like. One month of mature basketball could bring John Calipari and this program back to where they know they belong.