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7 reasons Kentucky fans should be extra excited after Saturday’s win over West Virginia

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.

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.


Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

32 Comments for 7 reasons Kentucky fans should be extra excited after Saturday’s win over West Virginia

  1. holdem197727
    8:26 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

    Love this team and love coach Cal. I dread when the day comes when he retires. Then all the Cal haters will see what we got and wish we still did.

  2. rainman
    8:49 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

    Maybe we need to tap the brakes a little on that huge win sat.?
    While it was Impressive, it’s my belief that WV ran out of gas
    somewhat early in the second half! They expended an enormous
    amount of energy pressing in the first half. Still it is hard not to
    get excited about the fight shown, and the ability to play off one
    another for more than just a possession or two!
    Anyone else think WV was SPENT in the second half?

    • Booby Petrino
      8:57 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      That would be to our credit too, that they had to work so hard against us in the first half that they were spent in the second. I mean this isn’t early in the season, they are experienced players. The same could be said for our team in some of our losses (looked tired) … And we have young players not used to having to play so hard and have had a short bench due to injuries.

    • Smyrna_Cat
      8:58 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      It is kind of funny saying a pressing team ran out of gas.

    • BigBlueNationDude
      9:03 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Yes I kinda agree. It was a good win dont get me wrong, but WV is on a slide and frankly if they arent hitting the 3 ball they arent very good. Remember that we have struggled even at home to very mediocre teams. If they can pull of a solid stretch here towards the end they could be team that can make a run. I still have my doubts.

    • catsarerunnin
      10:20 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Nothing like a very wet blanket.

    • 4everUKblue
      11:03 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      And why do you think they ran out of gas and shot so poorly? Couldn’t possibly be the awesome defense the cats played could it?

    • syrin23
      1:17 am January 30, 2018 Permalink

      What I haven’t seen people mention is the Cats eventually found a way to destroy them on the press. They kept getting to the basket with Know finishing off some amazing shots. Did you notice WV STOPPED pressing because we were beating them so bad on it? That’s a testament to this team. And no, I don’t think they ran out of gas. They ran out of fight.

    • ed.mueller
      3:27 am January 30, 2018 Permalink

      They weren’t spent, they just couldn’t make shots. I was tracking the game on the ESPN website, and at halftime, I looked at my coworker, a UNC fan, and said, “it’s not over. They’re a really streaky offensive team, and I don’t think they can shoot 54% from 3 for both halves. If they do, we’ll lose, but I don’t think we’re out of the game if we can cut down turnovers and get to the rack.”

      Naturally, we were down 17, and he was skeptical, but every score update proved me right.

      I’ll say this. After Florida, we got step 1…the coaching staff isn’t all-in on teaching effort now. That’s step 1.

      After this game, there’s a moment to point to and a real, tangible experience that the coaches can point to regarding how to play.

      The team isn’t all the way there yet, and there WILL be bumps in the road, but the second half of that game was awesome.

      Kids will revert. It’s going to happen, but that’s ok. We’ll get better. We’ll lose, even maybe lose 10 games. That’s fine. This team is better than you think it is, and the best shooter isn’t playing this year.

      For perspective, I don’t remember exactly who we were playing. I think it was A&M, but Cal literally said that with 3 scholarship players out we’d lose every game. Quade, Vando, And Baker were out for the game.

    • Rixter
      8:10 am January 30, 2018 Permalink

      Hmmm… Cats wore down ‘Press Virginia’? Solid work, boys.

  3. katmandue2you
    9:00 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

    I’m thinking we all should extend a huge “thank you” to Coach Huggins for presenting our young Wildcats with exactly what they needed in order to take that huge step so essential to us having any chance for a successful season. His team and that game put our young men in a position to either swim or drown…and drown was all but what they did. Just when they were practically left for dead they burst to the surface and collectively screamed “we wanna live!” This game forced this young team to do what Cal has been trying like hell to get them to do. Thanks a million Huggy Bear and WV!!!

  4. wyatts1
    9:07 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

    We got a strong team thats going to be a real contender come march and thats a fact, since nearly all of coach Cals teams have really turned it up during tourney time I’m excited to see how well this team can and will do then. My only concerns from now til then will be our Center spot, and our shooting guard spot, all the others positions i believe are good to great with all things considered. Shooting guard concerns is around diallo, he seems to be going into the right direction especially after the WVU game but it doesn’t seem like we have a true back up if he doesn’t come around. Lastly our Center spot, there’s only one true Center on this team and even though he had a great 2nd half in the WVU game we really need his size and ability to be maximized by March without fouling due to teams like Purdue etc who could really magnify a veterans vulnerabilities let alone a learning true freshmen, with only undersized teammates to lend a hand of the bench. With all that said i wouldn’t trade my team for any others out there!! Kick some azz BIG BLUE!!

    • unbridled
      9:29 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      We don’t need a true center. Cal wants position-less basketball.

      What’s Wynyard’s status?

    • FACTS
      10:50 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Wynard doesn’t know the plays!

      I was sitting behind Cal one game at home. He put Wynyard in and in 1 minute he took him right back out. I heard him yelling, “you can’t put him in because he doesn’t know what he is doing.” You all can disagree with me, but know that if your disagreeing with me you are disagreeing with Cal.

    • wyatts1
      2:28 pm January 30, 2018 Permalink

      Position less sounds great and can compensate for many things, but against a true Center idk if it would be a good match up, especially against a great big man or two like Purdue has.

  5. Luether
    9:41 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

    Sorry Aaron, I generally agree with your posts but WV is just not a very good basketball team right now. They are clearly overrated and have lost 4 of their last 5 games. For whatever reason, they are just not playing well. An acknowledgment of this fact certainly does NOT lead to a conclusion that we should be “Extra excited” about the recent road victory in Morgantown…

    • Booby Petrino
      9:43 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Lol ^^^

    • AllBlueAllDay
      10:06 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Somebody is still butthurt his team got waxed by 29 points in Rupp.

    • runningunnin.454
      10:19 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      That’s just silly, Luether. WVA lost to teams ranked #8 and #10, and to TCU which was ranked for most of the season. They are a good team, and especially tough at home.

    • FACTS
      10:56 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      If we play for each other and want to win for each other like last night, there is no question how far this team will go during March. TBH this year has been a fun year of basketball. We don’t have a team that’s gonna Win out every game and beat every team by 20+ (I wouldn’t mind this at all though) or lose every game. We have a team that can lose to anyone or win against anyone and it all depends on their energy, care for each other, and their effort, within which they can all control. This is what makes basketball the most exciting sport IMO.

    • FACTS
      10:57 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      2nights ago, my apologizes

    • catsarerunnin
      10:21 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Well Luether my sources tell me you’re an ass clown….

    • 4everUKblue
      11:05 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Funny….same thing my sources tell me.

    • AllBlueAllDay
      11:25 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Really weird… I have sources in northern Chile and they tell me the same thing.

    • UK Big Board Update
      11:39 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      LMFAO!!! Lueser is still SO MAD!!!!!

    • ed.mueller
      3:31 am January 30, 2018 Permalink

      WVU is a very good basketball team. They happened to play very good basketball teams before us.

  6. Catnation
    10:45 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

    Yeah West Virginia sucks and it was a crap win against a veteran team at their place with a respected coach. Nothing for the NCAA selection committee to see here at all.

    • FACTS
      10:59 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      I would disagree with you here.

      I wouldn’t say this is a “Crazy” win that is gonna take us to the final four, but it sure will help. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, but we will see what impact this win has had on this team.

    • 4everUKblue
      11:07 pm January 29, 2018 Permalink

      Some people just can’t be happy, it’s just more pleasurable for them to be miserable. Sorry Catnation, you’re not bringing me down with your BS.

    • T-wah
      12:19 am January 30, 2018 Permalink

      You may want to reread Catnation’s comment. I’m pretty sure he was being sarcastic.

    • ed.mueller
      3:33 am January 30, 2018 Permalink

      Folks, recognize snark. He was being facetious

  7. Miller45
    5:18 am January 30, 2018 Permalink

    this one is over, so happy for the win, but time to improve on the successes and take care of business, Vanderbilt isn’t just gonna concede a UK win I promise you that