Two nights ago, Kentucky head coach John Calipari had an epiphany. And though it may sound simple on the surface, it actually might have been exactly what the Wildcats needed to go into Auburn Arena and take home a victory in a hostile environment.
“I woke up and I said, ‘For us to win, Keldon (Johnson) and Tyler (Herro) are going to have to score baskets,” he said.
Kentucky’s two leading scorers on the season need the ball in their hands more and make more shots. Novel concept, right?
But it wasn’t just about getting shots up for the pair of Wildcat freshmen. It had to do with running packages for each of them, specifically down the stretch when the team needs to hit a big shot. Calipari decided that either Johnson or Herro simply had to be the go-to options.
“We came up with some stuff to run specifically to Keldon, packages that we’ve been working on,” he said. “The other thing we did is ask ourselves who we would go to if we need a shot late. Who we would run to, and what are we running?”
And what ended up happening? Herro and Johnson combined for 13 of Kentucky’s final 14 points, giving the Wildcats just enough to take home the gritty victory over No. 14 Auburn on the road.
Calipari said that he was happy both Herro and Johnson are demanding the ball now and looking for their own shot. The development is coming.
“Yeah, I am seeing (Herro’s development),” he said. “He wanted the ball, wanted it to come to him. I like the fact that Keldon [Johnson] was telling me he wanted it too.”
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl also had high praise for the Kentucky duo, saying the Tigers had no answers for each of them on the defensive end of the floor.
“I thought that obviously Keldon Johnson and Herro had big nights for them,” said Pearl. “I think they looked right over our guards. They just looked right over the top of our guards and made shots and was able to get to the rim. We weren’t able to put up enough pressure to be able to extend them far enough away from the basket where that was a factor.
“Tyler Herro was an elite high school player; could have gone anywhere in the country,” he continued. “He’s a big-time athlete. I mean, he’s a big kid. So, no, I mean — I think Keldon and Tyler’s ability at guard, at 6-6, 6-7, whatever they are, was a factor.”
Pearl went as far as to say this Kentucky team, led by Johnson and Herro, is better than last year’s group.
“Kentucky played well,” he said. “They’re good. They’re good. Definitely. They’re better than last year’s team. And I think they’re going to have a really good year.”
He followed up on those comments later, saying this group is “built like champions.”
“There’s a real will to win there,” Pearl said. “They would rather win and score less than maybe just put up their numbers. Those kids are built — they’re built, really, like champions.”
Calipari said that he understands they’ll make mistakes on both ends of the floor, just like Herro did by fouling Bryce Brown from behind the 3-point line down the stretch. Kentucky’s 14-point lead slipped to 11, which ended up being part of an 11-0 run to cut the lead to just three.
“This is a work in progress, this is a new team that has never played together so it’s a disadvantage that we have, but sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “They don’t know that they aren’t supposed to come in here and win, be up seventeen, they’re just playing.
“The problem is that once the game gets going they revert, and start playing like it’s a high school game. For example, that Tyler foul on Bryce Brown, fouling him, and I asked why he’d do that when we’re ready to bury them? So that’s the kind of stuff where we just have to tighten the ship up.”
On the day, Herro finished with 20 points on 6-12 shooting to go with three rebounds, four assists, and one steal.
As for Johnson, the star forward out of South Hill, VA also added 20 points (7-11 shooting, 2-5 from three), along with three rebounds. This comes just one game after his zero-point, 0-6 performance against Georgia on Tuesday evening.
As the great Rex Chapman always says, great players never have two bad games in a row, and Johnson proved why he falls in that category.