November 6th was a frustrating day for the Big Blue Nation. It wasn’t the fact that Kentucky lost, it wasn’t necessarily the fact that it was Duke, and it really wasn’t even the point differential.
The frustration stemmed from the tremendous expectations everyone had coming into the year.
The Bahamas trip had fans genuinely believing this was a team capable of challenging the 2014-15 team in terms of overall depth, talent, and chemistry. They were two-deep at every position with a perfect mix of size, experience, and skill-set. They might not have run the table like that historic unit nearly did, but fans just knew this team could display absolute dominance over any given opponent in similar fashion.
When the Duke nightmare happened, Kentucky coaches, players, and the fanbase as a whole were dealt a heavy dose of reality. And it was a reality check that lingered throughout Lexington, a hangover that no one has truly gotten over… until last night.
On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats we expected to show up to start the season finally arrived with a bang. And it may have been just enough to energize a fanbase that truly hasn’t been itself since Kentucky’s previous matchup with North Carolina in the 2017 Elite Eight when… Well, you know what happened.
Kentucky didn’t play the perfect game. They didn’t shoot the ball all that well (44 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from three), the bench only scored four points total, and they turned the ball over 18 times.
But it was still a performance the Big Blue Nation couldn’t help but fall in love with. It was an effort that is absolutely sustainable for the long haul, an underrated aspect of this game that fans need to get excited about.
On both ends of the court, the Wildcats implemented the think less, act more mentality Calipari has been begging for since the season began. He has told the media on numerous occassions that this team will reach its true potential when they just play on instinct, and the numbers show they did just that.
For starters, the Wildcats outrebounded the No. 1 rebounding team in America by a tally of 43 to 33. A North Carolina team that grabs an average of 46.1 total rebounds and 12.7 offensive per night finished with 33 and five in those categories. The Tar Heels have not had an offensive rebounding percentage that low since February of 2016. On the Wildcats’ end of things, no player finished with more than ten rebounds and no one in the eight-man rotation failed to grab a board. It was a balanced effort across the board.
To put it simply, Kentucky just flat-out outworked the most dominant rebounding team in the nation on the glass.
In other effort-focused statistics, Kentucky finished with 24 assists on 28 field goals, 11 steals, and nine blocks. On offense, the ball movement was impeccable, working the ball inside and out and waiting through the shot clock until they found the open shot. And when those opportunities came, there was zero hesitation from anyone on the floor, with the entire unit finishing with a season-high 65 field goal attempts and 26 three-point attempts on the day. If shots weren’t falling, and they weren’t for a while in the first half, they trusted their efforts on defense to make a stop for another shot opportunity the next time down the floor.
In specific player efforts, Ashton Hagans was the epitome of this mindset, having a methodical recklessness to his game that resulted in seven points, four rebounds, three assists, eight steals, one block, and five turnovers. He’s a technician on the defensive side of the ball and a facilitator on offense, playing both by just hitting the ground running. When the opponent showed even the slightest bit of space while dribbling or bringing the ball across their body, Hagans made a play. He’d wait for even the slightest mistake by a North Carolina ball-handler or passer and pounce at the perfect opportunity, reminiscent of former Kentucky guard Rajon Rondo. It was an effort that actually tied the school record held by Rondo and Wayne Turner for steals in a single game (eight).
Hagans was the heartbeat of the team, and everyone followed suit in their own ways.
Reid Travis was an absolute bully down low, finishing the day with 20 points on 6-15 shooting, seven rebounds, and three assists. And frankly, there wasn’t a Tar Heel defender that could stop him in the paint. He’d outwork his opponent and either score, draw a foul, or have defenders collapse on him to create open opportunities elsewhere on the floor. He was the anchor for the team on offense. As John Calipari told CBS after the game, Travis is a flat-out “beast,” and this program is lucky to have him. When all else fails, you can rely on the graduate transfer to make big plays and put the ball in the basket.
Finishing with a team-high 21 points on 7-11 shooting (4-7 from three), Keldon Johnson also proved once again why Calipari called him the team’s most consistent shooter this offseason. He didn’t necessarily have the highlight-worthy plays we’re used to, but the team didn’t need that last night. They needed a player with the ability to knock down big shots in crunch time to create cushion on the scoreboard and put pressure on North Carolina on the other end of the floor. At the 7:55 mark in the second half, Johnson drilled back-to-back threes to push Kentucky’s lead to 11, ruining any momentum North Carolina felt they had. It never felt like UNC could claw their way back, an obvious change from what we’ve seen from the team thus far.
Unlike what we saw in the Seton Hall game, the Wildcats drew first blood and forced the Tar Heels to respond, not the other way around. They were proactive and forced the reaction.
After a cold start to the game, Tyler Herro found his groove by finishing with 15 points on 6-17 shooting and 3-8 from three. He also added four rebounds and five assists. It felt like he was learning on the fly this game after overthinking a bit in the first half.
PJ Washington also flirted with a triple-double, adding 11 points (5-9 shooting), ten rebounds, and eight assists in 30 minutes of action. It was the perfect example of Washington letting the game come to him without forcing the issue. Hitting one of three shots from deep, the sophomore forward missed only two shots from within 15 feet. He was efficient and went out of his way to facilitate his teammates. He may not have been the team’s most dominant scoring threat, but one could argue it was one of Washington’s best performances in a Kentucky uniform.
Beyond individual contributions, the overall team chemistry was the best we’ve seen since the season began. The smiles were back and the overall enjoyment of the game was there. For the first time this year, the “fun” aspect of Kentucky basketball was back.
It’s a happy locker room after the Cats beat North Carolina. pic.twitter.com/SiBZP7OKR7
— CoachCal.com (@CoachCalDotCom) December 23, 2018
This is the blueprint John Calipari can use to make this team reach its potential. No one on the team did anything they can’t do on a regular basis to help win the game (obviously eight steals a night isn’t sustainable for Hagans, but maximum defensive pressure certainly is). No one shot lights out or had a few more lucky bounces than usual, and with 18 turnovers, there were obviously mistakes made. But their relentless effort on both ends compensated for some of those mistakes and allowed for a dominant victory against a truly elite basketball coach and team.
If Kentucky plays the way they did last night, they can beat anyone in the nation. They can look like the team we saw down in the Bahamas this summer based solely on grit and hustle. Points will come, but intensity is the key for this team to become the Final Four squad they are capable of being.
And by the looks of things, they realized that last night.