Well that felt good, huh? For the first time since conference play began back on January 5, the Kentucky Wildcats knocked off the rust early and cruised the rest of the way to take home a 69-49 victory over Georgia on the road.
It wasn’t pretty to start with, but a burst of energy to start the second half helped lead the Wildcats to their third consecutive victory in the SEC and an overall record of 13-3.
Here are my top ten takeaways from Kentucky’s big victory:
Another slow start…
Following a disappointing 77-75 loss on the road at Alabama, Kentucky managed back-to-back victories against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, but the focus following each matchup had more to do with the head-scratching slow starts against lesser competition than the victories themselves.
On the road against a 9-6 Georgia team that had seen losses against teams such as Temple, Georgia State, and Arizona State, the trend continued, as the Wildcats found themselves down 6-11 early and then later tied at 29-29 with just 3:16 remaining in the first half.
They pushed ahead to take a 35-31 lead at the break, but Kentucky’s “meh” performance still left Wildcat fans frustrated about playing down to their competition yet again.
… led to a dominant second half finish
Whatever Kentucky lost in the first half was quickly found in the second, as the Wildcats managed four straight baskets to open the half to take a comfortable 44-31 lead. The rest was history, as Kentucky cruised to a 20-point beatdown in front of a rowdy Georgia fanbase.
The intensity picked up on both ends, thriving on the Bulldogs’ confusion and converting on their mistakes. As Georgia continued to jack up unnecessary three-pointers, Kentucky pushed the ball in transition and added to their lead.
On the day, the Wildcats finished with a higher field goal percentage than the Bulldogs (43.8 percent to 3o.4 percent), outrebounded them 43-35, managed just ten turnovers compared to their 14, had more assists, more steals, and fewer personal fouls. The Cats dominated in all aspects of the game.
Kentucky finished with their largest margin of victory (20) since SEC play began to start the month and it was the biggest since their 88-61 victory over Utah on December 15. For a team that needed a bit of momentum, they got it.
And a lot of it had to do with the following individual…
Ashton Hagans is Kentucky’s best player
It’s official, Big Blue Nation. Kentucky’s best player has been established, and his name is Ashton Hagans.
Finishing with a career-high 23 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals, and just one turnover, Hagans was a menace on both ends of the floor.
On offense, the Kentucky freshman was able to get wherever he wanted on the court against the Georgia defense, driving his way to the basket and even knocking a couple jumpers down to keep the opposition off-balance throughout the game. On defense, it was yet another elite performance for Hagans, jumping the passing lanes and taking advantage of even the slightest mistakes made by Bulldog ball handlers. It was as complete of a performance as we’ve seen from any Kentucky player all season long.
Following his 23-point, three-steal performance, Hagans has now managed five consecutive double-digit games and six consecutive three-steal games, the first to accomplish that feat in Kentucky basketball history.
To take it a step further, the Covington, GA native managed the second-most points in the Calipari era for a player taking on a team from his home state since Brandon Knight scored 24 against Florida in 2011. While some Kentucky players have struggled in homecoming games over the last several years, Hagans thrived in the spotlight.
Just as a friendly reminder, Hagans is technically still supposed to be a senior in high school right now. Seriously. This is a kid that should be finishing up his final high school basketball season, preparing for prom, and picking up his cap and gown to graduate with his peers. The Kentucky coaching staff (specifically assistant coach Joel Justus) put in the extra work to get him here on time and play catch-up, giving him the tools he needed to find his footing as a college basketball player. It took him a little while, but there’s no doubt Hagans has finally broken through as a superstar in the SEC.
Tyler Herro had a quiet all-around performance
While Hagans was easily the biggest star of the evening, Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro also quietly put together one of his most complete performances of the season. The Wildcat out of Greenfield, WI managed 12 points (4-10 shooting), seven rebounds, four assists, and two steals on the day, making a solid impact on both ends of the floor.
Against Vanderbilt, Herro finished with just four points on 1-3 shooting to go with six rebounds and three assists. It was his lowest scoring output since the second game of the season against Southern Illinois.
He didn’t light up the scoreboard necessarily, but he did more than enough elsewhere to help contribute to the big victory.
PJ Washington got things going again
Like Herro, Washington failed to get much going against Vanderbilt, finishing with just three points on 1-4 shooting, eight rebounds, and one assist. For the vast majority of the game, the Kentucky sophomore was invisible on the floor.
Tonight, however, Washington got things going again by finishing with ten points on 4-6 shooting and 1-1 from three, also adding six rebounds on the day.
Instead of floating around the perimeter, he got back to what he knows best, driving to the basket and dominating against weaker defenders. Washington is a bully-ball playmaker, and after an overall unimpressive performance last outing, we got to see what we love most about the Kentucky sophomore once again.
… but Reid Travis’ struggles continued
He got off to a hot start by scoring Kentucky’s first two buckets and then he eventually added another with 5:45 remaining in the half, but from there, the Wildcat graduate transfer was unable to get anything going after intermission.
And it wasn’t even that he didn’t contribute in the scoring column in the second half. It had more to do with the fact that he is struggling in a major way to score against long and athletic defenders in the SEC right now, and on the other end of the floor, guarding those same individuals on defense is proving to be extremely difficult. John Calipari told ESPN that the Kentucky senior is overthinking things right now and trying to do too much, and it’s certainly evident.
He finished with six points, five rebounds, and one assist on the night, but even that might paint the picture a little better than the actual result. Would a lineup or rotation change help? Would he be better suited coming off the bench? I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that’s a question we might be coming across sooner rather than later.
Could Nick Richards be the answer?
With Travis struggling against athletic bigs, it may be time to push Sophomore Nick Richards higher up in the rotation and give him more minutes moving forward.
The Wildcat center finished with just four points on 2-5 shooting, but his effort on defense was a major spark for Kentucky in their big run to open things up in the second half. He managed seven rebounds, three blocks, and just one (questionable) foul, and it seemed some of his biggest moments came in momentum-swinging situations.
To say he’s had an up and down career from a productivity standpoint through his first year and a half as a Wildcat would be an understatement, but his play as of late absolutely warrants more minutes in the rotation. I might even be willing to listen to arguments for Richards making a jump into the starting lineup going forward to switch things up a bit.
Where has Keldon Johnson been to open SEC play?
Shooting 0-6 from the field and 0-1 from three for a career-low zero points, it just wasn’t Keldon Johnson’s day against the Bulldogs. His previous career-low was eight points, and even that felt like an underwhelming performance for the Wildcat star out of South Hill, VA averaging 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists on the year.
On defense, Johnson wasn’t much better, allowing Georgia offensive players to make easy drives to the bucket and take uncontested jumpers on the perimeter. He did finish with three rebounds, two assists, and one steal on the day, but I have a feeling the film room sessions aren’t going to play in the star Wildcat’s favor to close out the week.
He has gone from scoring 13 points to 8, and then 15 to zero here to start conference play, and focus on both ends of the floor has fluctuated on a possession by possession and game by game basis. There’s no doubt Johnson will turn things around, but hopefully that comes sooner rather than later.
Jemarl Baker was big off the bench
Once again, Kentucky redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker came in and turned heads in limited action. In just 13 minutes, Baker drilled two massive three-pointers for six points, along with one assist, one rebound, and one steal on the day. On the defensive end of the floor, the shooting guard out of California proved once more he’s not a liability, providing solid defensive possessions both on-ball and off.
If Baker can come in and do nothing but knock down a big three or two off the bench every night moving forward, it’ll be huge come tournament time for the Wildcats.
Tom Crean still creeps me out
Kentucky came to town for the first time in the Tom Crean era at Georgia, and once again, we got a few weird/fantastic moments from our ‘ole pal Clappy.
At the 14:54 mark in the second half, ESPN aired a brief piece of Crean coming onto the practice floor and showing the world what proper free throw technique looks like. Even though I’m sure his intentions were in the right place, it felt like an old VHS tape from the 1980s of a YMCA rec-league coach in action. If you had to ask yourself, “What the hell is going on?” throughout the segment, you weren’t alone.
We also got this gem of a photo from the night:
— David Scott (@Finna_Go_HAM) January 16, 2019
Even during his interaction in the postgame handshake line with John Calipari, Crean had a few too many pats on the back for the Kentucky head coach:
Tom Crean tapped John Calipari’s arm FOURTEEN times in the postgame handshake. pic.twitter.com/gv58OZhVUJ
— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) January 16, 2019
I was disappointed when it looked like Kentucky would never face Crean following his departure at Indiana, but goodness am I glad the Cats get to take him on at least once a year now that he’s at Georgia.
Now at 13-3 and 3-1 in the SEC, things are trending in the right direction for the Kentucky Wildcats. Let’s keep it rolling against Auburn on Saturday.