Words of wisdom for BBN

After a tough overtime loss to Seton Hall this weekend, it has left some fans wondering what to make of this team. Frustration about an unexpected loss is understandable but panic is unwarranted in my opinion.

Had Kentucky came down and made a shot to win the game as time expired it really wouldn’t change anything about how the game went. Yes they would have picked up a win instead of a loss and most fans would have said what a great win it was for a young team. This is Kentucky, so moral victories are not a thing we do. My point is that there were a lot of signs of growth in this game that should not be erased by a 1 point loss. On the flip side there are clearly several areas that have to improve going forward and they should not have been erased even if the Cats had won.

The most obvious bright spot was PJ Washington, who played like a man on a mission. He led or tied for the team lead in four statistical categories. He had 29 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and blocked 4 shots. Remember his free throw struggles at the end of last season? He stepped up to the charity stripe 13 times and made 12 of them. The most encouraging thing was the blocked shots. The Cats desperately need him to provide that so Cal can play PJ and Reid Travis together for long stretches. If this game can serve as a launching point for PJ it will be huge.

Another encouraging thing was the play of Ashton Hagans who continues to show that he is figuring out how to run the team. His quickness and athleticism are difference makers on both ends of the floor. He is still extremely raw at this point and has a long way to go before he becomes the player he can be, but growth is happening. As he becomes more confident about attacking the basket in both the half court and the full court it will really help the teams offense. He is also still learning how to use his elite defensive abilities to his advantage. Give him a few more months of coaching and he will be an amazing defender. At this point, if I was going to point to one player as the key to making a deep run in March I would say Hagans. If he can put it all together by post season play, it will totally transform this team. 

Reid Travis did not put up the same numbers as PJ but he was dominant when he was on the floor. The fact that he fouled out and missed the entire overtime was a key reason that Seton Hall got so many easy shots close to the basket. They are still figuring out how to play off each other but the duo of Reid and PJ will be one of the Cats biggest weapons this season. 

The other thing that is becoming clear to me is that Cal is figuring out that the team has six guys that he is most confident in at this point. The rotation he wants to use is PJ Washington, Reid Travis, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. It was great to see Quickley make a couple threes, because he should be one of the Cats more reliable shooters. I think EJ Montgomery will eventually work his way in as the 7th player to be a main cog in the rotation. Quade Green and Nick Richards can both fight their way back in but that is in their hands at this point. Both provide things that Cal would love to have on the court so it is certainly possible they will work themselves back in. Jemarl Baker seems like a long shot to get meaningful minutes at this point but he is still a wild card. His shooting would be a nice addition if he can defend at the level he needs to.

As far as the areas that Kentucky must improve upon, the biggest is making shots from beyond the arc. Tyler Herro played well from inside the arc and scored the ball well from there. Unfortunately he was 0-6 from beyond the three point line which dropped him to just 27% on the season. I firmly believe he is a much better shooter than he has shown so far. Eventually his shot will start to drop with regularity but he has to keep his confidence by working relentlessly in the gym. Keldon Johnson only took 9 shots in 43 minutes and 2 of them were desperation shots. He is too good to be that small of a part of the offense. Figuring out how to keep him involved in the offense is a must for this team. EJ Montgomery only saw 8 minutes of action and he did not look good in the time he was out there. He has to figure out how to earn his way on the floor because his skill set gives Kentucky things that no other player on the roster can offer.

Ultimately we are just 9 games into what will hopefully be a 40 game season. That means that we are not even to the 1/4 point of the season and over 3/4 of the teams games remain to be played. Cal is still figuring out this team as much as they are figuring things out themselves. What is the best way for them to defend? How do they need to play on offense? What areas can they be elite in and hang their hats on? Cal is working through each of these questions and some will take months to figure out.

Obviously the hope was that this team would be ahead of the game a bit more and not suffer through as many growing pains as some seasons, but that is not the case. They have the pieces to compete for a national championship but it is going to take time and more losses for them to get there. The struggle is part of the journey and it is what can truly form a team. It also makes success that much more sweet when it comes for the fans willing to stick with the process. If you are a fan that is miserable watching the team go through the low points as they learn how to win, I would recommend tuning back into the season in March. For the fans that are willing to stick things out, I would say to get behind this team and support them as they figure stuff out. The reward will be well worth it in the end.  

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