There is no other way to put it: Kentucky’s 83-76 victory at West Virginia could go down as one of the single most important results we see anywhere in college basketball this season. Take the youngest team in the sport, put them in one of college basketball’s most hostile road environments, against a Top 10 team which appears to be the worst possible opponent based on style of play, and it felt like a recipe for disaster for the young Wildcats. And for 23 minutes on Saturday, it was. Thanks to a turnover prone first half, the Wildcats fell down by 15 at the half against West Virginia, and by 17 points with 17 minutes to go on Saturday night.
That’s also what made the final 17 minutes that much more incredible.
From the 17-minute mark on, the Wildcats played – by far – their best basketball of the season, and really some of the best basketball (in a relative sense) of the Calipari era at Kentucky. All the things that plagued this team in an up-and-down first 20 games of the season disappeared, as the Wildcats were poised, aggressive, smart and mentally tough.
It was, in a word, one of the great regular season wins of the Calipari era, and one that can – if they take advantage of it – could launch this team to unexpected heights that even the most optimistic fan couldn’t have possibly expected.
Understand, this wasn’t just a second half rally against a Top 10 team on the road, but so much more.
And here are seven reasons that Kentucky fans should be extra excited about this victory:
Kevin Knox was the star Kentucky so desperately needed
Every week on my podcast, I have various guests on my show who double as some of the sharpest minds in all of college basketball. And in the past few months, whenever the topic has turned to Kentucky, virtually all of them have agreed on one thing: The issue that has plagued the Wildcats early this season, is that they don’t have a difference-making star on their roster. In theory, it felt like Kevin Knox could be that guy, but up until Saturday night, he wasn’t in that same John Wall/Anthony Davis/Tyler Ulis/De’Aaron Fox “I’m gonna throw the team on my back and refuse to let them lose” class that those other guys were.
We all knew Knox could get there, but the question was whether he ever would or not.
Well, Saturday could officially go down as the “Kevin Knox Game” from here on out. It is also the game which may have proved that he’s the superstar this team so desperately needs.
Knox finished the game with 34 points, but just looking at the box score doesn’t tell the true story of the game. For starters, he was one of the few guys who wasn’t intimidated early, finishing with 15 points in the first half when his team desperately needed it. Even better, when the tough three point shots weren’t there, he wasn’t afraid to attack the basket, which softened up the Mountaineers defense and led to a couple easy buckets and some free throws. And of course, with the game on the line, he hit a dagger three-pointer which essentially sealed the Wildcats victory.
Again, this just might go down as the “Kevin Knox game.” The game where Kentucky needed its best player to be a superstar, and the game where he finally reached that potential. If Kevin Knox can play like that from here on out, that’s a scary idea for the rest of college basketball.
They out-hustled and out-toughed West Virginia in the second half
Earlier in this article, when I called Saturday’s victory “one of the great regular season wins of the John Calipari era” some might have scoffed at that notion. But it’s important to note that we need to add some context here. It wasn’t just about who the opponent was, or where the game was played, but that West Virginia was the exact kind of team that was supposed to give the Wildcats their biggest problems. The Mountaineers are a veteran and experienced team, and they play the kind of physical, pressure defense that was supposed to make the young ‘Cats wilt late.
Which is what made the second half comeback so fascinating to watch unfold: Late in the game, Kentucky was the mentally tougher and more physical team. They hustled to grab loose balls, got second and third chances on the offensive boards, and when Hamidou Diallo and Sagaba Konate got tangled up on the floor late, it was Konate, not Diallo who got up off the floor flustered and angry.
In essence, West Virginia wanted to get down in the mud and get dirty with the Wildcats – and the Wildcats not only obliged, but looked like they were having fun doing it. And if you can out-tough West Virginia, you can out-tough anyone in college basketball.
They didn’t wilt late
This is kind of the same principle as the section above, but I think it’s important to kind of add some extra details here. Understand that it’s one thing to be tough and physical when things are going well, but it’s also easy – especially for a team so young – to quit on themselves late. And I’ll be honest: After Kentucky had erased the big deficit, took the lead and then lost it (thanks to some big shots form “Beetle” Bolden) I thought they might freeze. The Wildcats had expended a ton of energy to re-claim the lead, and then the big, bad, veteran team punched back. And I didn’t know if they had it them to stay poised, collect themselves and counter-punch.
Boy was I wrong. After West Virginia wrestled the lead back away and jumped out to a 66-62 edge with under eight minutes to go, Kentucky was nearly flawless from there. Once they tied things up at 66 they never again trailed, outscoring the Mountaineers – on West Virginia’s home-court, mind you – 21-10 from there.
Of all the things that impressed me Saturday, Kentucky’s poise late impressed me the most.
Oh, also: The youngest team in college basketball is now 16-5, just beat a Top 10 team on the road, and had a chance to win every game its played with 5 minutes to go. If this a "bad" coaching job from John Calipari, I'm scared what will happen when he gets "good" again.
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 28, 2018
They won on a night where their “best” players weren’t at their best
At this point it’s really hard to say who the “best” players have been on this team over the course of the season, but in some order, they’ve probably been Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and P.J. Washington. Wenyen Gabriel has been great in the gritty/do-it-all role player off the bench as well.
And that’s what was so refreshing to watch on Saturday night: The comeback occurred when the Wildcats’ best players all weren’t playing their best. P.J. Washington barely played at all thanks to early foul trouble and the strong play of Gabriel and Nick Richards, and Gilgeous-Alexander was good, but not great. He finished with six points and a team-high five assists, while also committing four turnovers.
Therefore, it’s got to be taken as a totally positive sign for Coach Cal and his staff that this team played so well, even on a night where the players they lean so heavily didn’t perform (with the exception of Knox of course).
It also has to be a positive that…
They got contributions from unexpected places
Put simply, you can’t beat a Top 10 team on the road when two of your three best players don’t play up to their usual standard, unless somebody else steps up. And there were a number of guys who did exactly that on Saturday.
Quade Green was excellent with eight points and four assists off the bench, and Nick Richards played – at least what I believe – was his best game since that 25-point, 15-rebound outburst against Fort Wayne. The stats might not back it up, but in addition to eight points and nine rebounds, Richards also got a bunch of crucial offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities late as well.
Heck, I’d argue that even Jarred Vanderbilt played well all things considering. Now I know he went 0-5 from the field and missed a number of easy put-backs and lay ups. But he also had 11 rebounds in 11 minutes, including a staggering seven offensive boards.
Even if Vanderbilt is struggling on offense, the one thing you can’t teach is effort and energy. He brought that in spades Saturday, and really has done that in limited playing this year.
Speaking of effort and energy…
Wenyen Gabriel is turning into the leader this team needs
If you’ve read my work here at KSR this year, you know that I’ve got a bit of a brewing man-crush on Wenyen Gabriel. I’m sorry, but seeing a highly-rated kid struggle as a freshman, then get pushed to the bench as a sophomore, only to openly embrace his role and gladly do all the little things that helps his team win? That’s got me swaying like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert.
Honestly, I don’t know what else there is to say about the guy. I not only love his game, but I love everything he stands for. He doesn’t care about stats. He doesn’t care about a starting role. He doesn’t care about being the star. All he cares is about helping do all the little things it takes to win. And he did that again on Saturday, crashing the boards, hitting big shots and playing tough defense on older and more experienced players.
You can’t win big at any level of basketball, without having a couple guys who are willing to do all the dirty work. And with a solid six-point, nine-rebound, three block stat line, Gabriel is that guy right now.
They didn’t even play their best basketball
You know what the craziest aspect of this game was for the Wildcats? They beat a Top 10 team on the road Saturday, and didn’t even play their best, absolutely flawless game to make it happen. Kentucky had a bunch of turnovers early, missed plenty of easy shots around the basket (thanks to the tough West Virginia defense) and again, had some of their best players (like Gilgeous-Alexander and Washington) not play their best games overall. And they still found a way to win.
It wasn’t always the prettiest performance, but it certainly was one of the most exciting in a long time for the Wildcats.
For all the angst, anxiety and anger about this team they are now 16-5, with a win against a Top 10 team on the road.
And the best part? If the Wildcats play like they did on Saturday, there isn’t a single team left on their schedule they can’t beat.