It’s no secret to anyone reading this, but there is a big, massive, season-altering game on the docket for Saturday afternoon.
No, I’m not talking about Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Although I hear that will be a good one.
I am of course talking Kentucky vs. Louisville, at 2 p.m. from the Yum Center. And what I can tell you is that this is a MASSIVE game this particular season for both teams. Louisville is still trying to find itself, and would love a big win heading into ACC play. Kentucky meanwhile wants to prove to America that last week’s win over North Carolina was no fluke. Win this one, and the Wildcats are officially on a roll heading into SEC play. They would also have a second, big-time non-conference win to add to their eventual NCAA Tournament resume.
So with so much on the line, what are some things to watch out for? Here are five things I’m looking for from the Kentucky perspective.
How is Ashton Hagans ankle? And how replicable is his performance from last week?
As best I can tell they don’t hand out MVP awards for the CBS Sports Classic, but if they did, there is no doubt that Hagans would have taken home the honor for Kentucky. The freshman point guard was simply the most impactful player on the floor for the Wildcats against UNC, setting up the offense on one end and completely causing nightmares for the Tar Heels on the other end. He finished with eight steals on the night, and the crazy part is that he did it on basically one leg after turning his ankle early in the game.
Talk about a gutsy performance in what was essentially a “must-win” game for Kentucky. Now the question is, how healed is his ankle? And can he come close to replicating that performance on Saturday at the Yum Center?
Look, it’s obvious that no one expects Hagans to finish the game with eight steals like he did the other day. But if he can continue to bring the intensity that he did on the defensive end, he can once again completely get Louisville out of its rhythm on offense. Louisville point guard Christen Cunningham is actually coming off an injury himself (in his case, a concussion) and probably won’t be 100 percent, which makes Hagans performance that much more important.
If Hagans can get under Cunningham’s skin, and help on leading scorer Jordan Nwora, he could make it difficult on Louisville’s offense and once again completely swing a game. And it could completely swing a win in Kentucky’s favor.
How will the entire team’s intensity be?
While Hagans was the headline story of last week’s win against North Carolina, the underlying story was that the entire team had a different attitude than we had seen all season. Gone was the loosey goosey, float-through-the-game attitude we saw the first two months of the season, and in was an intensity and anger that we frankly hadn’t seen the entire regular season.
As I joked when Keldon Johnson and P.J. Washington bumped chests late in the game: “Bahamas Kentucky is BACK, baby!” (Ok, as you can see, I spelled Kentucky wrong. But hopefully you got the point).
Keldon Johnson chest bumping PJ Washington heading into a timeout, after another momentum changing play? Bahamas Kenticky is BACK, people
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) December 23, 2018
Anyway, it was that exact intensity and that style of play which created so much excitement for this team following the Bahamas trip. Yet sadly, we really hadn’t seen much of it since the team returned to the mainland this season. But for Kentucky to get a win in this one, and get on a roll going forward, they’re going to once again need that intensity. Heck, they’re going to need that intensity all season long.
And if they can get that intensity all season long? Well, look out. There isn’t a single team in college basketball that Kentucky can’t play with.
Can Tyler Herro start hitting his open shots?
As I wrote earlier in the week, all the pieces are slowly starting to fall in place for Kentucky. Hagans has established himself as this team’s point guard. Reid Travis and P.J. Washington have figured out how to play together. Keldon Johnson is doing Keldon Johnson things.
But the one missing piece right now is Tyler Herro. And if he can start to knock down wide open jumpers, can you imagine how much more dangerous this team could be?
Look, I know what some of you are thinking: “AT, cut the kid a break. He’s averaging 12 points per game. That’s nothing to scoff at from a freshman.” I totally, 100 percent agree. At the same time, let’s also never forget that he’s shooting just 29 percent from three this season. This, after shooting a staggering 57 percent in the Bahamas over the summer.
And the crazy part is, it’s not as though he’s taking super-tough shots, or that the shots have even been defended well. It’s not as though he’s going up against elite players every game either. The bottom-line is that at this point, Herro has wide open shots. And they’re just not falling.
The good news is that this is perfectly normal. All great shooters go through slumps. The fun part is this: Imagine when those shots start to go in? And how much more dangerous this UK team will be?
If that happens… WATCH… OUT.
What can Kentucky get from its bench?
In hindsight, probably the most incredible thing about the North Carolina win is that Kentucky got the victory while getting virtually nothing from its bench. In total, non-starters combined for just six points (although Nick Richards did add six rebounds as well).
And the crazy thing is that Kentucky still won going away! Can you imagine how dangerous this team will be once it starts getting production from non-starters?
And again, here’s the wild thing: It’s not like the guys on the bench aren’t capable of playing better. It’s not like they’re a bunch of three-star recruits who are just filling out the back-end of the roster. Instead it’s three McDonald’s All-Americans coming off the bench right now (Richards, Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery) with another Top 75-ish or so recruit in Jemarl Baker.
So seriously, can you imagine how dangerous this team will be when Baker gets comfortable on the floor for the Wildcats? Or if they can start to get just a tiny bit more from Montgomery, who is averaging just five points and four rebounds so far this season? Seriously, everyone – even Montgomery – knows he can do more than that. And we know Richards and Quickley can give more when given the opportunity as well.
Finally, will there be a hangover this weekend?
To fully explain my last thought, we must go back to a blurry night in Vegas a few years ago. I was actually at the Kentucky-North Carolina game in Vegas two seasons ago when Malik Monk went off for a surreal 47 points in a win against the Tar Heels. It remains one of the best college basketball games I’ve ever been to. And the after-party certainly hasn’t been matched since.
Anyway, enough about my Vegas nights, because the bottom-line is, we all remember what happened next: Kentucky came back home high off that win and ended up losing at Louisville. I don’t remember ever detail of the game, but I seem to remember the 73-70 final score was closer than the game itself was.
So coming off a massive win, can Kentucky avoid seeing history repeat itself and get another big win heading into SEC play?
It’s just one of many things I’m interested to see this weekend.