Kentucky finished the Big Blue Bahamas tour unscathed, knocking off four of four opponents in dominating fashion. Each presented a different level and style of competition, but the Cats came out on top each time by a significant margin.
An average margin of victory of 29 points against professional basketball players, to be exact.
Needless to say, there’s a lot to be excited for in the upcoming 2018-19 season.
Here are the top ten things we learned from Kentucky’s Big Blue Bahamas trip.
These Cats like to have fun
The biggest gripe Kentucky fans had last year was just how hard it was to connect with the Wildcats throughout the season. We all wanted to love them and cheer them on, but their personalities just weren’t as vibrant and bright as we’re used to seeing. We just weren’t as emotionally invested.
With this team, we get everything you could possibly ask for. We have the sheer passion for the game and intensity in Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans, bright smiles in Tyler Herro and Immanuel Quickley, mean mugs from PJ Washington, senior maturity and professionalism from Reid Travis, etc. If things are going well, they use that energy for positive momentum. If things aren’t, their killer instincts kick in to kill the cold spell. They’re resilient.
It’s the perfect mix of personalities to make this unit just flat-out likable.
And a lot of it has to do with the following section…
Their chemistry is already high
This trip was meant for team bonding, and it did the trick, and then some. We got to see them work together in the Bahamian community washing the feet of those in need, giving them shoes to wear in the process. We got to see them have fun at the waterpark, racing down waterslides and passing time on the not-so-lazy river. On their day off, they set sail on a catamaran, relaxing and snorkeling with the fish in the ocean. Whatever they wanted to do, the Cats did it as a team and loved every second of it.
On the court, that chemistry is just oozing off of them. John Calipari says they are already ahead in practice, one of the most advanced of any group he has worked with. In games, the passing is impeccable, the defensive reads are stellar, talking is loud and constant, etc. They just work together really well, very reminiscent of the 2014-15 group filled with alley-oop jams and no-look passes.
After games, they started a new-and-improved version of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s “Breakfast Club,” where the team hit the practice court and worked until the early hours of the morning. They have one common goal this season, and that’s bringing No. 9 back to Lexington. By the early looks of things, they’re going to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans are the heart and soul of the team
As mentioned above, this team is just plain likable, and a lot of it has to do with Johnson and Hagans. Neither are going to be Kentucky’s leading scorers on a consistent basis, but their intensity on the court at all times is contagious and will directly impact the outcome of games this year.
On defense, they pick up all 94 feet of the court. They never give up on plays, never let their guard down, and never allow easy buckets. That killer mentality has allowed others to rise to the occasion and produce at a high level, as well. When their teammates make big plays, they are the first players to run up and congratulate them. Even if they have off nights offensively, and they did in the Bahamas, they will absolutely make up for it in other areas of the game.
We’ve heard the word “dog” in reference to both Johnson and Hagans this offseason, and now we know why.
Tyler Herro may be the leading scorer
Arguably the biggest takeaway from this trip was just how freaking good Tyler Herro is offensively.
He ended the Big Blue Bahamas tour leading the team with 69 total points (17.25 PPG) on 24-41 shooting (59 percent), adding 8-18 from three (44 percent) and 15-15 from the free throw line. He scored at all three levels, created his own shot, and did it all on ridiculous efficiency.
When I watched him play in the Jordan Brand Classic and the practices leading up to it, I saw an “it” factor with this kid that made me fall in love with him. Zion Williamson said he was the most underrated recruit in the nation, saying his offensive skills are second-to-none. By game three of the Big Blue Bahamas trip, announcers were saying Herro had the opportunity to be the biggest Lexington fan-favorite of all time.
Not too shabby for a four-star prospect.
The backcourt is interchangeable
One of the biggest arguments Kentucky fans had before this trip had to do with the team’s starting lineup, specifically with the backcourt. With so much talent and different skillsets, how do we know how to juggle starters/minutes?
Luckily for the Big Blue Nation, it doesn’t really matter, because they’ll all get a chance to shine.
Quickley, Hagans, Green, Herro, and Johnson all ran point guard at one point or another this trip. The Kentucky coaching staff put in all different kinds of lineups, and nearly all of them worked just fine. If the Cats had at least one shooter/dominant scorer in the backcourt at all times, things ran fairly smoothly without any real cause for concern. Quickley could be in with Hagans, Green could be in with Herro, and vice versa.
Side note: Quickley turned the ball over just twice this week (both coming this afternoon), just one of the many impressive aspects of the five-star freshman’s game we saw. The narrative going into this was that Quickely was a step behind the rest of the guards, but that was proven false rather quickly (no pun intended). He’ll be a major contributor this season.
There’s a whole lot to work with in this unit.
Kentucky was shorthanded again
Back in 2014, Trey Lyles and Willie Cauley-Stein missed out on all Bahamas game action due to injury.
Fast forward four years, and the Wildcats experienced two more injuries that forced the coaching staff’s hand when it came to different lineups during the foreign trip.
EJ Montgomery sat out the final three games of the event, while Jemarl Baker missed all four. They are each expected to be pieces of a likely ten-man rotation this season.
John Calipari will never admit to using a platoon system again, but when Montgomery and Baker come back, don’t be surprised to see some mass substitutions. We saw this week that every player expected to be in the rotation is deserving of major minutes, and the only way to do that may be going five-in and five-out.
Nick Richards, Quade Green, and PJ Washington have all improved
In the past, some players have returned for sophomore seasons at Kentucky, but their jump from year one to year two was minimal, at best.
This season, however, all three of Kentucky’s sophomore returnees showed major improvement during the Big Blue Bahamas tour.
Sophomore Nick Richards exploded on the scene in game one against the Bahamas National Team, and continued to show progress throughout the week. His timing was much better on shot-blocking, he looked comfortable with the ball in his hands, and he rebounded like a grown man. His on-court awareness was night-and-day from last year. He deserves a ton of praise for his quality minutes this week.
We didn’t see as much facilitating from Green, but his offensive production was a major improvement. The sophomore point guard is confident in his shot and with the ball in his hands. He’ll be a solid shot-maker from mid-range and three this year.
As for PJ Washington, have mercy. Sources within the program told me earlier this offseason that the team fully expects him to win SEC Player of the Year, and from what we’ve seen in the Bahamas, that wouldn’t be a surprise at all. He has cut weight, worked on his jumper, and still maintains the strength that made him so valuable in the post last season. Analysts compared him to Draymond Green this week, and I don’t think that’s terribly far off.
And his frontcourt-mate might be just as much of a problem.
Reid Travis will be a monster down low… in time
The fifth-year graduate transfer had the highest of highs and lowest of lows in his first four games in a Kentucky uniform. From the first Bahamas game, Travis dominated on the glass, but he wasn’t able to find his groove offensively. He looked sloppy, dropping passes out of bounds and fumbling the ball into the mitts of the opposition. Travis was able to use his body to create space and find open holes close to the basket, but just couldn’t find a way to put the ball in.
He got better, going for 11 points in game two and eight in game three, but the efficiency still wasn’t there. By the fourth and final game, Travis exploded for 19 points and 15 rebounds, proving to dominate in the post like we saw from his time at Stanford. He needed to get the rust off, and he seemed to really turn the corner this afternoon.
It may take a couple regular-season games before we see what Travis really brings to the table. When it comes, however, the Cats are going to be unstoppable.
There aren’t many weaknesses, if any at all.
After a 2-20 performance from three in their first game, many wondered whether or not this team would struggle from beyond the arc this season. They followed it up by hitting 24 of their last 48 shots from three to finish 38-percent from distance on the week. Check.
When it comes to mid-range scorers, Tyler Herro and Quade Green have that down to a science. Immanuel Quickley will continue to improve from there, while PJ Washington and Keldon Johnson have also proven they are more than capable from that distance. Check.
Down low? Look no further than Washington and Travis for easy buckets and/or free throw attempts. Montgomery and Richards are developing, but they will be extremely reliable as the year progresses, as well.
On defense, you have two lockdown defenders in Johnson and Hagans. Both will put their bodies on the line to make a winning play, something the Cats really didn’t have last year.
Beyond a pure numbers standpoint, their overall killer mentality is night and day from last season. When they built a lead against Mega Bemax last night, they just went after them harder.
Many times Kentucky fans begged the 2017-18 group to just beat the hell out of teams weaker than them. They just wanted to see them keep their foot on the gas pedal and steamroll someone.
But very rarely did they ever let it happen.
I don’t think that’s going to be a worry going forward.
This team is going to be special
So much talent, so little to complain about. So much personality. So much excitement. So much intensity.
When it comes down to it, it’s impossible to not get giddy about this group of kids.
I feel like I’m having déjà vu of the 2014-15 season. They may not be able to pull off the historic 40-0 feat the double-platoon squad came just inches short of, but they’ll dominate college basketball this year.
We’re just a few hours removed from the game, but I’m itching for basketball season already.