Look, I know it hasn’t been a great few days for the folks who follow Kentucky sports.
And really it’s easy to understand the frustration surrounding the basketball team. Three months ago, the Wildcats looked like an unbeatable juggernaut in the Bahamas, a team that seemed destined for a Final Four and potentially the school’s ninth national championship. Three months later they look like a team that is going to struggle to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC.
Of course we know that’s not reality. But it is how they look right now.
The good thing is (and this is just my opinion) that Kentucky isn’t broken. Yes, they have flaws, but everyone does this time of year. Yes, the coaching staff needs to figure out how to use their players, but that’s totally normal.
More than anything though, you know what this team needs: Tough love. To quote the movie Major League, “We’re coddling these guys” or at least we were after the trip to the Bahamas. These guys believed their press clippings. They believed they were invincible and unbeatable and destined to get to Minneapolis. After getting punched in the mouth by Duke and holding on to survive against Southern Illinois they learned the hard way that’s not the case.
So yes, this team has been torn down. And now it’s time to build them back.
Here are four things that have to change for Kentucky to reach their potential this season.
It’s time to start Quade Green and Immanuel Quickley together in the backcourt
I know I wrote this exact same last week, but it’s worth repeating here: As soon as I saw Ashton Hagans trot out for the opening tip against Duke I knew Kentucky was in trouble. Seeing Hagans in the starting lineup indicated to me that Calipari was more concerned with matching up with Duke (and in turn putting his best defensive guard on the floor) rather than playing his best starting five. Calipari got burned and even on Friday against Southern Illinois only dipped his toe in the water with his best lineup. He replaced Hagans with Quickley, but still brought in Green off the bench.
As I said on my podcast Tuesday, Quade Green/Immanuel Quickley were by far the most effective backcourt for Kentucky in the Bahamas. Have been again tonight. Wouldnt have mattered against Duke but should be the starting backcourt going forward, with Hagans and Herro off the bench
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) November 10, 2018
Well two games in, we’ve seen enough and the bottom line is that Kentucky’s best starting lineup features Quickley and Green on the floor together. And they should be out there in the starting lineup tonight when Kentucky plays North Dakota.
There really is no other way to put it: Those two on the floor together have been Kentucky’s most effective offensive group. They were in the Bahamas, and they were late in the Southern Illinois game, when Kentucky needed an offensive spark and these guys combined to rip off eight straight points. It was that little jolt which ultimately got Kentucky over the hump and got them the win.
Now I already know that some would question that lineup and say “Yeah, but those two struggle on the court together defensively.” Honestly, I see where you’re coming from. At the same time, what’s the point of having your best defensive lineup out on the court to start the game if your offense is so bad that you’re going to fall behind by double-digits anyway?
There is no reason, which is why these two should start against North Dakota. Starting them also allows…
It’s time to bring Tyler Herro off the bench
Please don’t take this is as me attacking an 18-year-old kid. I’m not. But at the same time, all these players came to Kentucky to be challenged and pushed, and behind closed doors, I promise you John Calipari is being brutally honest with them. So it only makes sense that I’m honest too, and right now here is the honest truth: Herro isn’t helping Kentucky much on either offense or defense right now.
For whatever reason he appears to be more comfortable coming off the bench, and that’s not just my opinion but fact. Remember, in the Bahamas Herro averaged 17 points per game on a ridiculous 59 percent shooting from the field – an insane percentage for a player who does most of his damage from beyond 15-feet. Yet since arriving back on the mainland, Herro is shooting an abysmal 24 percent to start the season. And please don’t tell me it was all Duke – Herro also went 0-6 against Southern Illinois too.
So yeah, he is really struggling. To me it seems like the college game is coming at him too fast, which by the way, is perfectly normal. Just as an example, I remember talking to John Calipari when I was writing my book “One and Fun” and Coach Cal mentioned to me that even John Wall – a future NBA All-Star – got overwhelmed during his one season at Kentucky. So it’s natural that Herro would do the same. Calipari said as much at Tuesday’s press conference when he said that Herro is “Still trying to feel his way out.”
So while Herro figures things out, what better way to get him relaxed and in his comfort zone than bringing him off the bench? Do that and Herro doesn’t have to focus on both offense and defense, but instead, can worry about what he does best: Getting buckets. And like so many young players, I’m guessing once his shots fall, his defense will suddenly look a lot better too.
Plus, by bringing him off the bench you really are helping the team in every way. You’re putting your best offensive backcourt on the floor (Quickley and Green) while also adding instant offense off the bench. Herro’s lack of defensive presence is also mitigated by playing with Ashton Hagans, the team’s best perimeter defender. In turn, Hagans’ lack of offense is mitigated as well.
This one is a no-brainer. Make Herro comfortable again and the shots will start falling. Bring him off the bench.
If P.J. Washington is hurt, let him sit – but if he can play, he’s got to… PLAY
Right now I feel like I’m in an episode of the Real World– that’s right, I stopped being polite and starting getting real. And boy does it feel good!
And in my quest to stay real, I’ve got to ask: What the hell is up with P.J. Washington? Right now, he’s playing with the excitement of a 60-year-old man about to get a proctology exam, and with the same sad expression on his face my dog makes every time I leave the house. I thought basketball was supposed to be fun! Only you’d never know it watching Washington who is averaging just 5.5 points and four rebounds per game right now. Woof!
Even worse, everything that made P.J. Washington well, P.J. Washington last season is gone. The edge, the anger, that chip on his shoulder isn’t there. In the past, you could always expect one thing from Washington and that was mental toughness.
And on Friday night we might have finally gotten the reason why Washington has struggled so much. Following the Southern Illinois game, Calipari claimed that Washington is still recovering from a finger injury and surgery in the spring.
Here was Calipari’s exact quote:
“You know what, he’s struggling a little bit. And he’s still — he had an operation on that hand, and I don’t think right now he’s confident enough yet in that hand. But my thing is, forget the hand, just run and go crazy and play with unbelievable energy and get away from what you look like in other areas. Just make easy plays and fly up and down.”
My first thought here is this: Again, didn’t he get that surgery back in June? While I credit Calipari for defending his player (like any good coach should) if Washington is that banged up, how did he play so well in the Bahamas? Because I’m pretty sure he averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds there. If his hand was fine then, when did he re-injure it?
But let’s say that Calipari is 100 percent telling the truth. The second part of the quote is still important, which is what Calipari said on the back-end: Even if the hand is hurting, it’s no excuse not to play hard. The one thing that made P.J. Washington, P.J. flippin’ Washington, last season was his motor, his energy and mental toughness.
And it’s all lacking right now.
That’s also why maybe my biggest proposed change for Kentucky is this: If Washington really is hurt, tell him to sit out and get healthy. Tell him to do what he needs to do to get back 100 percent.
But if he is going to step on the court, there will be no excuses for effort. It’s OK to miss a shot or two. What’s not ok is the lack of hustle, the lack of fight, the lack of energy.
Again, if he’s hurt he should sit. But if he’s going to play… he’s got to PLAY!!!
Which leads me to…
Get more reps for E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards
This is kind of a trickledown effect of figuring out what is up with P.J. Washington. But if Washington doesn’t want to play or can’t go hard, get the guys playing time who deserve it. And right now those guys are Reid Travis, Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery. Washington has the most talent of all four – but right now he either isn’t physically capable of playing at his peak or mentally isn’t there.
Whatever the case, it’s time to play the players who deserve it.
By the way, you know who isn’t slacking? How about Richards, the guy who just grabbed 19 rebounds the last time he took the court. Think Richards is playing with effort and energy? Because I’d say that he is indeed. And hopefully Richards will see the court a bit more going forward.
Then there is Montgomery, who – you could argue – outside of Keldon Johnson has been this team’s best player. He’s averaging 9.5 points and five boards, which doesn’t sound great on paper until you realize he’s playing just 19 minutes a game. That averages out to about 19 points and 12 boards per game over a full 40-minute game. He’s also shooting 57 percent from the field, a solid number when you consider he has taken the second most shots on the team behind only Johnson.
So while he’s playing well and his other teammates are struggling why not get him more reps?
Which also leads me to my conclusion. And in reflecting back on the big picture with Kentucky this team, things really aren’t as bad as everyone thinks. Yes, they need work and no they’re not a finished product. No team is at this point.
But they do need work, and they do need change – in lineups, playing time and attitude.
Hopefully it starts tonight.