The Kentucky Wildcats produced a 2-0 week in the SEC. They needed to do it. They did it. That much is good. A stabilizing week for the program is what all Big Blue Nation fans should expect.
By Matt Zemek
There is no need for any withering criticism of the Cats after this particular week, which featured a home win versus bubble-hugging Mississippi State and a road win at a struggling and undermanned Tennessee team.
However, while sparing the Wildcats from harsh criticism, we can gently point out that the kinds of tendencies which will lead to a March disappointment are still there. Chief among these flaws is Ashton Hagans’ floor game at the offensive end of the court.
Hagans is still struggling with turnovers. He is still taking more shots than he probably ought to take. Yes, it is true that he has to take a certain amount of shots when the defense gives them to him. Basketball players cannot retreat from the responsibility they have to take a few shots in order to keep opposing defenses honest. Yet, when a player can’t reliably score, it is up to that player to find a different way of making himself useful. Hagans is clearly struggling to find that niche in which he can be that kind of player on a relentlessly regular basis for Kentucky. This is the kind of question which has to be answered more convincingly in the weeks ahead if the Wildcats are to maximize their potential in March.
The best part of the Tennessee win on Saturday was the collection of contributions from players other than Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley. Johnny Juzang and Keion Brooks provided valuable and substantive minutes for John Calipari, which can lengthen the bench and – instructively – convey to Ashton Hagans that he doesn’t have to overextend himself on offense.
Kentucky’s bench has not been especially deep. Getting more players to contribute a modest amount can reshape the complexion of this team in a powerful way. Players can settle into roles without thinking they have to influence every aspect of what this team does, especially on offense. This is the upside Kentucky possesses as it prepares for the tougher portion of its SEC schedule.
The coming week of SEC basketball does not figure to be especially challenging. The Wildcats go to Vanderbilt and then host Ole Miss. Yes, Vanderbilt upset LSU, and yes, Memorial Gym isn’t a walk-in-the-park venue for SEC teams. However, Kentucky has far more talent than either the Commodores or Rebels. If Kentucky plays a moderately good game – attentive, energetic, intelligent – even a B-minus performance in the counting stats (shooting percentages, rebounds, assists) should be plenty good enough to win.
Put it this way: Kentucky would have to play very poorly to lose to either Vanderbilt or Ole Miss… and while that’s not probable, it is possible. We have seen Kentucky drag itself through some hard-to-watch games and halves of games this season.
This brings us back to the longer bench and the greater diversity of production in Kentucky’s lineup, witnessed in the Tennessee game. If more players are contributing, this reduces the burden on any individual Kentucky player to perform well. The more options John Calipari has in terms of configuring his lineup, the lower the chances UK’s whole roster will fail to perform well. Yes, maybe Hagans will continue to struggle, but if Juzang and Brooks continue to develop, Kentucky can minimize its weaknesses.
That is exactly how a team avoids playing D-grade basketball, and can more reliably perform at a B-minus level, which might not be spectacular, but will certainly be good enough to handle the Vanderbilts and Ole Misses of the SEC.
Developing the bench will also put Kentucky in position to be ready for the meat of its SEC schedule, which begins Tuesday, Feb. 18 in Baton Rouge against LSU, the game we all have circled on our calendars.