Following yet another victory against a top-25 opponent in Mississippi State on Tuesday evening, the Kentucky Wildcats are easily considered one of the top teams in all of college basketball. Sitting at 15-3 on the year (5-1 in SEC play) with five consecutive victories, the Wildcats are ranked No. 8 in the latest AP Poll and KenPom rankings.
As of today, Kentucky has four victories over teams currently ranked in the top 25 in North Carolina (11), Auburn (16), MSU (22) and Louisville (23), with three of those wins coming away from home. They also have matchups with Kansas (9), at Mississippi State (22), LSU (25), Tennessee (1), Auburn (16), at Tennessee (1), and at Ole Miss (20) left on the schedule before we even get to the SEC Tournament.
If the Cats can keep trekking forward and rack up victories against the conference’s best, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better resume in the nation than Kentucky’s when Selection Sunday rolls around.
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said it best last night: the Wildcats have the depth, experience, and talent to be a dangerous, dangerous team come March.
He started with the Kentucky frontcourt.
“It really helps to have a fifth year in Reid (Travis),” he said. “There is a lot of experience between him and PJ Washington. For him to be a sophomore and be as good as he is, they have two really experienced guys up there. Nick Richards is back for his sophomore year, it’s just something that hasn’t always happened because these guys sometimes leave early. I think those three guys really anchor their front line.”
And he continued with the Wildcat backcourt, saying Kentucky head coach John Calipari deserves a lot of credit for what he has been able to get out of this group so early in conference play.
“I think their perimeter players, those three freshmen are really good,” Howland said. “They have Ashton (Hagans) who is 19 years old and he’s mature. I think Tyler (Herro) is fantastic, he really hurt us early tonight. … Those guys did a really good job and I think Immanuel (Quickley) give them good depth coming in. He’s a real high level guard. They don’t drop out when he comes in the game. So, they’ve got good depth and they are playing with a lot of poise.
“Part of it is their schedule, they have played a tough schedule early. Think about where they were during the first game of the year versus Duke. It’s credit to John (Calipari) and his staff – Hall of fame coach.”
After the game, Calipari said that while a 21-point victory against a ranked Mississippi State team and a 5-1 start in the SEC certainly feels spectacular, he needs his team to continue to have that same hunger every night for them to reach their goal of contending for a national championship.
“They are getting better,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to keep an eye on being humble and being hungry. Not, you know, getting carried away, because we’re just — we’re just beginning the climb of where we need to go. … They are engaged. We had a coach come in the gym the other day and watch us practice and said, man, are they engaged. They are really locked into what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do as a team.”
When asked about keeping that focus and hunger in such a tough stretch of games, Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans said that competitive spirit kicks in while playing against tough opponents. He says he’s confident in his team’s mindset moving forward.
“Coming off a tough win at Auburn against a great team, we just came in knowing we had to play another really tough team (in Mississippi State),” he said. “And then we know we have another tough team coming in here on Saturday. We just have to keep listening to what the coaches have going on at practice, keep the gameplan going. We’re looking a lot better on the defensive end, and that’s really all it is.”
For Hagans, he says it’s a fantastic feeling to have a group of teammates that understands their roles and gives it their all from tip-off to final buzzer.
“It feels good going out there knowing I’ve got my guys with me. We always go out there and try to fight the whole 40 minutes. I feel like this entire team is getting better, everybody is playing their role that coach has given us. We’ll see how the season goes from here,” the defensive standout said with a grin.
Calipari says a big part of that fight has to do with Hagans himself leading the way. When he goes about his business and fights the way he does on each possession, his teammates follow his lead. As a result, the wins are coming at a rapid pace and the chemistry is the best it’s been since the season began.
“I thought Ashton (Hagans), when you’re on the ball, playing like he plays, it bleeds into everybody else,” he said. “If your guy at the point is getting beat on a dribble and can’t control the guy a little bit, you’re in jeopardy. That’s why when we recruit point guards, if we have a guy, I tell them: How are we going to start our defense if he can’t stay in front of the ball? The stats don’t matter to me; can he do it. Last year, Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) did it, and now Ashton does it.”
Kentucky guard Tyler Herro says growth and maturity has been a major reason for his team’s consistent success here in the heat of conference play. As the game has slowed down for the newcomers, productivity has picked up.
“I think the game is slowing down for everybody,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, I think we were all really young, but we’re starting to mature a lot more. We’re really getting better game to game.”
They can prove it on Saturday by knocking off No. 9 Kansas at Rupp Arena when College GameDay comes to town.