Dread it, run from it, Kentucky is coming…
There is no denying that Kentucky is seen as one of the villains of college basketball. Much like the evil empire in Star Wars or Thanos from the Avengers, Kentucky is the bad guy in the story. There are a few villains in college basketball that almost every fan loves to hate but a strong argument can be made that Kentucky is the most hated. The Wildcats have won more games than any other team in college basketball history. They have been to 17 Final Fours and have won 8 National Championships. Most of the hate is simply a form of jealousy, “they hate us because they ain’t us” as the saying goes. The hate only increased when John Calipari rolled into Lexington as a coach that rival fans already despised. Since that day the national media and opposing fans have all hurled as much junk at Cal and Kentucky as they could find. When Kentucky started the season by being blown out it brought great joy to all the haters that loathe the Cats. They breathed a sigh of relief because they thought they wouldn’t have to worry about Kentucky competing for the title this season. They thought wrong.
That game was an embarrassing loss for the young team and it broke them down a bit. Yet, it is that humiliating defeat that laid the foundation for what this team is becoming. And becoming is the key word because they are still only beginning to scratch the surface of their potential. The growing pains have not been pretty at times and that has resulted in some ugly wins and close losses. More losses will come as this team continues to work towards reaching their full potential. But on Saturday the Wildcats sent a warning shot across the bow of college basketball. Kentucky is coming and there is nothing you can do about it.
The road win against Auburn was the biggest win of the season to date and it was not a fluke. The Cats didn’t steal a win, they led for over 32 minutes of the game and took the Tigers best shot in the 2nd half. The Cats relented the lead for a few seconds late in the game but they stayed poised and quickly retook the lead. Beyond the game itself, here are the reasons that I think Kentucky is a legitimate threat to win a championship this season.
- They have 5 game changing players- Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, PJ Washington and Reid Travis are all capable of changing a game. Each can dominate a game at any given moment. Kentucky has had depth in a lot of years since Cal has been here but they have not had this many game changers on their roster in several years. The balanced scoring attack is extremely hard to defend and it also protects the team from being too dependent on one player. The five combined for 76 of the Cats 82 points against Auburn and they just keep getting better.
- This team has 9 guys that can contribute in any game- I know I just sang the praises of the Cats top five players but the four man bench is extremely good. Immanuel Quickley would start on most teams in the country and he came up with huge plays down the stretch to help seal the win. He can score double-digits in any given game and is an amazing 6th man. Both EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards struggled on Saturday but they can be impact players off the bench. They give the Cats a shot blocking presence when it is needed and they have size to match-up with teams that have length at center. I continue to believe that Cal has to work them in as much as possible for this team to reach it’s potential. Jemarl Baker is the 9th man off the bench but he is an elite shooter and a good defender. All of the bench can help win a game when needed. The depth protects the team from foul trouble and injury which could be huge in tournament time.
- They are the best free throw shooting team in the Cal era- This team can step up to the line and drain shots at an impressive clip. Cal has been criticized for his teams struggling at the stripe but this one is miles ahead of any team he has had here in that regard. It is helped by the fact that Tyler Herro may be the best free throw shooter that Kentucky has ever had as a freshman. Free throw shooting seems trivial until the game is on the line in March.
- They are beginning to be player driven- Cal talks about wanting his teams to be empowered. He wants them to be player driven, rather than being coach driven. This team is beginning to drive itself. That was shown early in the game at Auburn when Ashton Hagans yelled “wake the f*** up” at Keldon Johnson. Keldon responded by stepping up his game and afterwards he said he was glad Ashton got on him. Other moments in the game showed teammates getting after each other in a good way. When the players begin to push each other it frees Cal up to coach the game instead of coaching energy.
- There are not many elite teams this year-Yes Duke is a very good team this year and they are the favorite to win it all. They have showed some major flaws recently in terms of shooting from deep and a lack of depth. Outside of Duke I just don’t see many teams that look all that great. Tennesse is really good but I still think Kentucky has a higher upside because of the Cats talent. Look at the top 10 and tell me how many teams have a better chance to cut down the nets than Kentucky does. It will not be many.
There is a lot of time left to play and this team still needs to grow a lot before they are a championship team. The key is that they are becoming that team a little bit more each game they play. They are going to take some more lumps along the way but that is all part of the growing process. This week will offer the Cats a huge opportunity to pick up two big wins in Rupp. I have always seen the potential of this team but after a big win on Saturday, I hope that others see it now too. As for being the big bad guy, I think fans might as well embrace it. Is collecting championship rings really all that different from collecting infinity stones?