Kentucky has the star pieces that are necessary to make a deep run in March.
Three premier, borderline elite guards that can all handle the ball, shoot, and play defense. A potential All-American in the paint that has flourished right in front of the eyes of the Wildcat faithful. There’s veteran leadership. Scoring at all three levels. An experienced coaching staff. The recipe for success is casually unfolding. All they’re missing is consistent 10-15 minute stretches from the reserves.
Over the last couple of games, Kentucky might have added that weaponry to its arsenal.
It started with Keion Brooks Jr. in the road win against Arkansas and continued on Tuesday night with both Brooks and Johnny Juzang.
The key to a successful postseason revolves around those two players playing at the level they did against Georgia and Arkansas every single night.
“We’re going to hold each other accountable,” Brooks said following the second win over Georgia. “We can’t always rely on Cal to basically bail us out or save us. We gotta do it amongst ourselves. The better teams that travel far in the tournament and have good success throughout March, they’re player-driven. They’re teams that don’t rely on their head coach to bail them out or save them every time something goes wrong.”
Lately, Kentucky has been excelling behind that mantra. Play within your strengths. Play through your teammates. Hold each other accountable. Don’t look to the coaches for every answer.
Following a 10-point, seven-rebound outing against the Razorbacks that saw Brooks shoot 3-4 from the floor while adding one steal and one block, the freshman posted eight points, five rebounds, and one block against the Bulldogs. You’d have to go back to early December to find back-to-back games where Brooks put up those types of numbers – and one of the opponents was Farleigh Dickinson.
Brooks’ role has never been truly defined until recently. His minutes and production were wildly sporadic and he could never put together three or four possessions in a row of positive basketball. That’s all beginning to change at the perfect time. Brooks said following the game that his “Level of physicality has picked up,” and it’s showing on the film.
“I love the fact that Keion has stepped in now and been that third big,” Calipari said in the post-game press conference. “And it’s what I told them. I said, ‘Look, if someone’s playing well, they’re staying in and you have to accept it. When you get your chance, go in there and perform’.”
Brooks is essentially a “tweener”; At 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds, he doesn’t fit the typical mold of the guard or forward archetype. Channeling his inner Tom Crean, Brooks doesn’t see himself as anything other than a basketball player.
“I never thought of myself as being a guard or big or whatever. I’m a basketball player,” Brooks continued” I’m going to go out there and try to make plays that I know I can make to help our team win… I just want to go out there and make the right play every single time down the floor.”
Juzang has quietly followed in Brooks’ footsteps, breaking out for the first time all season in the previous two outings.
The freshman added five points and one rebound against Arkansas then posted six points, three rebounds, and one assist against Georgia. Similar to Brooks, you’d have to go back to early December to find those kinds of numbers from Juzang.
“How about Johnny Juzang today?” Calipari said following the Georgia win on Tuesday. “I mean, terrific. He just has a nose for the ball. The kid makes the plays, he makes baskets, he did good.”
Brooks and Juzang provide the key for making a deep postseason run. Despite a poor game from Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky’s bench was able to help overcome some of that lost production. If that can become an every-game thing, the Wildcats will be dangerous.
Two games aren’t quite enough of a sample size to know if this newfound success is here to stay. But the attitude around the players is changing. They are beginning to believe in themselves and the coaches are preaching that message at every chance.
“We’re on the road, we’re in a hostile environment [against Arkansas], Coach Cal has gotten thrown out of the game,” Brooks later added. “So at that point, things weren’t really going our way and for him to tell me that he has the belief and faith in me to stay in the game and I’m gonna rock with you no matter what, you just want to go out and play hard for him and you teammates to help them get a ‘W‘.”
It’s that injection of confidence that can turn an 18-year old with unlimited potential into a wrecking ball. If it continues, it changes the course of Kentucky’s season. Teams that can go eight or nine players deep with real production from those bench few players are hard to eliminate in the tournament.