After starting the game on an 8-0 run and leading by as many as 14 in the second half, Kentucky numerous opportunities to not only solidify the road victory over South Carolina, but run away in blowout fashion.
Instead, the Gamecocks clawed back, converting on offensive rebound opportunities and turnovers by the Wildcats, setting up for a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer by redshirt freshman Jermaine Couisnard.
While the current crop of Wildcats have every reason to put their heads down and let the head-scratching loss linger after their disappointing effort in Columbia, South Carolina head coach Frank Martin offered words of wisdom for the team during his postgame press conference.
For starters, when he watched film of this Kentucky team, he was “overwhelmed” by the team’s individual talent and impressed with the “unity” they maintained on the floor.
I like that team, I really do. I was watching them on film and sometimes you get overwhelmed with their individual talent. I don’t want to say I was overwhelmed watching film, but I was impressed with the unity that those kids play with.
The leader of the pack? Sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans, who Martin believes is the “toughest point guard in the country.”
“[John Calipari’s] got the toughest point guard in the country in Ashton Hagans,” he said. “So when your point guard is tough as nails, the rest of your team resembles that behind him. That’s who Ashton is.”
Martin then noted that junior center Nick Richards and his development from the time he first got to Lexington to now makes him “respect the heck out of him.”
Most people care about the one-and-done prospects, but the South Carolina head coach believes success stories like the one we’re watching with Richards is exactly what is beautiful about college basketball.
“I told Nick Richards after the game, the one beauty, because we all worry about the top-ten players out of high school, and the one-and-done, and the greatness, blah, blah, blah. All the nonsense we talk about because certain people cover high school basketball, so they focus on the one-and-done [players] in college. I told Nick Richards I respect the heck out of him. You know why? Because that’s the beauty of college basketball, you get to see kids grow and get better. Nick Richards is so much better now than when he was a freshman, it’s not even close.”
Combine Hagans’ presence on the perimeter and Richards’ success in the post, and Martin believes Kentucky has a special one-two punch that will only get better as the year progresses.
“When you have a point guard that is so tough, and a center that has committed himself to working, to earning the right to play,” Martin said. “It makes your team really good.”
And it’s not just those two veterans turning his head. Martin also pointed out the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey, and EJ Montgomery, adding that they are key complementary pieces to the dynamic duo in Hagans and Richards.
“Now, [Immanuel] Quickley is taking a step up as a player from where he was last year. The young man [Tyrese] Maxey can really score the basketball. EJ [Montgomery] is taking a step up.”
And John Calipari deserves credit for putting all the pieces together and building another balanced roster, even if they’re going through some early struggles.
“I’ve said this a hundred times, [John Calipari] doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the job he does with those kids every single year,” Martin said.