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5 Things To Watch for As Kentucky Gets Set to Battle Louisville
by Aaron Torres on December 29, 2018 at 8:00 am

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).

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.

14 Replies to “5 Things To Watch for As Kentucky Gets Set to Battle Louisville”

  1. Smyrna_Cat says:

    I know he twisted his ankle in the game, but he kept playing and there was no indication he was hurt after the game. Has there been something about it during the week?

    Love AT articles as always.

  2. dcforuk says:

    My 7th grade daughter had some friends over today for her 13th birthday. Both boys and girls came. Two of those boys, my 8th grade son and I played a good ole fashioned game of horse (I’m too old for 2 v 2). We have coined a new phrase for shots that go in and out. We say “you Tyler Herro’d that one” when a shot goes in and rattles out. Even Brad Nessler said “got it” to one of Herro’s shots that missed. In other words, it is like a golfer missing putts on the edge vs 6 inches from the cup. He is all over the rim. Either he has been unlucky or there is something about his touch that is a little less touchy. I think the former which, if so, means he will be just fine!

  3. dcforuk says:

    BTW – your misspelling makes sense. Kenticky’s defense against UNC resembled a TICK that latches on moreso than a TUCK in bed (defense asleep) albeit Hagans was driving that transformation!

  4. Aar says:

    Nice article as usual. Thank you.

    I for one tend to think the Cats that played the last two (maybe three) Saturdays are playing completely differently than they did in the Bahamas. With one exception – intensity. They are moving as a coordinated team on both ends of the floor in a way that they just couldn’t on the island. It’s a very good thing.

    My question for this team is who steps up when the foul trouble sets in. This is their first road game and they will get in foul trouble. Who steps up? In the past Harrellson, Hawkins and others have played above their prior performances against Louisville and taken the rest of their season to a new level.

    I think AT hits it on the head in calling out Herro and the bench to have great performances tomorrow. However, Herro is quite productive and hit 37.5% from three against UNC. It would just take 1-2 more made threes and 1-2 more steals for him to officially “break through”. I think this game stacks up quite well for any of the non-starters to have a huge game but Richards, in particular, seems to be prime. He matches up well with their bigs, rebounded great and had a few shots that barely missed last Saturday. I also look for Baker or Quickley to make significant three point shots tomorrow – whether it’s a dagger or two at the right time/times or filling up the bucket. I’m hoping for one of those two to have a big shooting game.

    1. dcforuk says:

      Cal prefers a tight 6-7 man rotation historically. That generally works except for foul trouble. There are two perimeter options and two inside options for foul trouble. It’s like a golf swing. You won’t necessarily know until you get to the course what your swing (e.g. bench players) has for you that day. Inside, it’s either Nick or EJ or perhaps a smaller three-guard lineup. Outside, it’s Quickley or Baker unless EJ comes in at the three moving KJ to #2 spot.

    2. Aar says:

      Backing up Johnson at the three is an interesting proposition this season. Herro probably has the best skill set and size match for the position although he works with finesse where Johnson is all dawg. Quickley is probably the best fit at the three of the current non-starters but Baker could also hold down the position well.

      Montgomery playing with confidence and in rhythm at the three would make this team really long. Looking at his skill set and personality, the three is probably a good fit for him. I mean it as a compliment when stating that I see a decent amount of Skal Labissiere in him. Offensive skill development gives Montgomery a great starting point. Wondering whether he started working out with the backcourt when Cal made the comment about using him at the three a week ago? His growth opportunity for a three is in defending smaller, quicker players – particularly outside the arc.

      I think the Quickley/Baker fight for “backcourt 6th man” will be back-and-forth all season and not become clear until the Sweet 16. Moving Montgomery to the three makes for an interesting eight player rotation that could give this team some powerful match up combinations. I mean how about a look with Richards at 5, Washington or Travis at 4 and Montgomery at 3. Prolly only worth a few minutes a game against certain opponents but the length would be tough to match. My question is whether Cal and staff can “land this plane” of making Montgomery an effective wing before March.

    3. dcforuk says:

      Barring injury, at this point I believe that EJ and Nick will have important yet limited minutes the rest of the season. Good question regarding Quickley/Baker; however, the nod would seem to go to Quickley since he can both shoot AND dribble.

  5. bigbluehank says:

    I’m interested in several things. Will Cal wear a tie, or will his audition for a late-night vacuum salesman position continue? Will he realize that playing the best lineup doesn’t necessarily mean playing the most NBA-ready prospects, and can he deal with not having scouts become enamored with the players he puts on the court in crunch time? Will he have enough guys leave for the Association for him to enjoy his favorite night of the year?

    1. dcforuk says:

      You can think about anything but you can’t think about everything! Hopefully, that stuff won’t be on his mind but it’s clearly on your mind and apparently is rather bothersome to you!

    2. RealCatsFan says:

      Cal can wear a tutu if he wants as long as he beats Louisville. You must be new around here- Cal does it his way. You should know that by now.

  6. Luether says:

    Another great post, Aaron. Looking forward to game time…

  7. Racerr11 says:

    Big blue Hank lol your sad. I doubt that a team not even ranked in top 25 will add much to the tournament resume for the Cats. Herro has missed wide open shots time after time and most of them not even close, but I do believe he will get it going soon. The last 3 or 4 games you could see us coming and making small strides to improve it wasn’t just all the sudden against UNC. We will continue to make strides as always because Cal is a great coach and as usual we are ready when it counts.

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