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Kentucky Appears to Have Once Again Turned a Corner

© Dale Zanine | USATSI

© Dale Zanine | USATSI

Two of my favorite sports movies of all-time are “Major League” and “Major League II,” the fictional movies from the late 80’s/early 90’s about how a Cleveland Indians owner tries to put together the worst team possible, so that she can eventually move them out of the city.

For those who haven’t seen the movies… spoiler alert!!!!… it doesn’t work! In the first movie the Indians make a surprise run to the playoffs. In the sequel, they make it to the World Series.

Of all the scenes in those two movies, one of my favorites comes late in Major League II, when it becomes obvious that the team is again going to do the unexpected and win big. As Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) comes out of the bullpen in “Major League II,” his signature song “Wild Thing” blares, as the owner, Rachel Phelps drops a classic line.

She says: “Oh no. Not that damn song again!”

Great line. Great movie!

Of course, you’re probably all wondering why I’m bringing up a random line, from a random movie in the middle of college hoops season?

Well, it’s because of this: As I watched Kentucky mount its comeback Tuesday night against Georgia, I couldn’t help but think of that scene. As the Wildcats continued to make one big play after another, after they again appeared to figure things out in front of our eyes and pick up a big SEC road win, I couldn’t help but see fans from a bunch of other fan-bases sitting at home, and thinking what Rachel Phelps said in Major League II.

“Oh no, here we go again.”

Ok, so that’s not the exact line from the movie, but that image – the image of everyone who routinely waits for Kentucky’s downfall one season after the other – sitting at home, shaking their heads and saying “here we go again” isn’t hard to imagine. Here comes Kentucky turning a corner after struggling early. Here comes Kentucky looking like a team that will eventually compete for an SEC regular season and postseason title. And here comes Kentucky looking once again, like they will be a factor come March.

Looking at it in the big picture, it really is amazing that after all these years, after seven Sweet 16’s, eight Elite Eight’s and four Final Four’s in a decade, that we still doubt John Calipari when stuff goes wrong early. And yes, to be abundantly clear, I include myself in that group. I had my own doubts after the Evansville game. Doubts that of course now look stupid. I’m sure many of you did as well, whether it was after Evansville, Utah, Ohio State or somewhere in between.

Of course, when I was saying those things, I failed to remember the important thing when it comes to Kentucky hoops: John Calipari has one of, if not the hardest jobs in college basketball.

Understand that everyone focuses on the simple fact that he has basically a new roster every single season, but what they fail to mention is that even when he has returning players, they come back in completely different roles and with completely different expectations than the previous season. Think about how different PJ Washington’s role was in 2018 compared to a season ago. Think about what was expected of Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley last year as opposed to this one.

And then extrapolate that out for every single player, every single season over the course of a decade.

Do that and you’ll realize that early season lumps are inevitable, as everyone in the program takes a little while to figure things out. The coaches have to figure out who the players are they can count on, and in what roles. Players have to figure out what coaches want from them, and how to play with a bunch of guys that they’ve never played with before.

That’s also what makes a night like Tuesday in Athens so cool. It’s almost like you could see it all come together in real time in front of our eyes, see the whole team collectively look at each other and say “We can do this.” As I tweeted after the game Tuesday I was at the Kentucky-Ohio State back on December 21st. And honestly, I’m not sure the Wildcats could have won a game as tough as Georgia, even two weeks ago. Only there they were picking up a nice road win in conference, in what was another hostile environment, in another opponent’s biggest game of the season.

Looking at the big picture, so many guys have stepped up the last few weeks it really is hard to single out just one or two. Tyrese Maxey has become the go-to scorer this team has needed (but we weren’t sure they had) and is averaging 17 points per game over his last five games. Ashton Hagans has become the floor-general/leader that many envisioned when he arrived at Kentucky as a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Not only is he second on the team in scoring, but he is actually eighth nationally in assists. I was more optimistic on Hagans than most coming into the preseason. But admittedly, I didn’t see him playing this well.

Still, while those two seem to be getting most of the headlines, the two who have really stood out to me are Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley. Each arrived at Kentucky with big hype. Each took their own path to not only playing time, but in the role that they have now fallen into. And you know how I said earlier about “watching the team grow in front of our eyes?” It’s pretty cool to see these two guys grow individually as basketball players as well.

Starting with Richards, I mean what can you say about this guy that hasn’t already been said? This was a kid who played with zero confidence each of the last two seasons, yet has quietly evolved into – and I’m not exaggerating when I say this – one of the most dangerous two-way big men in the country. After showing flashes early he has put it together late, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds his last three games, and by the end of the year he could go down as one of John Calipari’s biggest success stories. Some will call this a “hot take” but I truly believe if he continues to play the way he has the last few games, he could end up as a first round NBA Draft pick. There just aren’t that many guys his size who can run, shoot and defend like him. Even if he isn’t a first rounder, he appears to have an obvious NBA future. Something few could have said a couple months ago.

© Dale Zanine | USATSI

Then there is Quickley, whose development has been equally as impressive. What people don’t factor in enough with Quickley is how much his role has changed, not just since he committed to Kentucky, but since he got to campus. Remember, he initially committed as a point guard, the guy we all thought would handle the ball and run the offense. Since he got to school though he has moved off the ball and fluctuated between the starting lineup and sixth man, and has grown to thrive in that new role. He is averaging 18 points per game in his last three and has hit 53 percent from beyond the arc during that stretch as well. If he keeps playing somewhere close to that level, there’s no telling where he may be by March.

And speaking of March, there’s no telling where this team may be by then either.

Now look, to be abundantly clear – since I’m sure someone will tell me I’m over-reacting – I’m not saying that this Georgia win alone is going to propel Kentucky to some insane new stratosphere. I’m not saying that beating a fringe NCAA Tournament team on the road means Kentucky is going to go undefeated the rest of the way, or that they are now the national title favorite (as if one even exists this season). Again, I’m not saying that at all. Kentucky is going to lose some games over the next few weeks. It will happen to everyone.

Instead what I am saying is that over a five-month season, one with 30+ games you really do hope for two things from your program.

The first, are signs of progress. That your team is improving and getting better as time is going on. Tuesday night seemed to prove that this team is taking steps in the right direction. It’s something that a lot of other schools can’t say (look at Ohio State’s downfall the last few weeks as an example of the opposite).

And the second thing is that, if you’re at a place like Kentucky (or Duke or North Carolina or Michigan State or Kansas or Louisville) that your team is not only getting better, but has the potential to peak at the right time and win it all in March.

If everything goes as planned, that’s exactly where the Wildcats will be in two months.

And if Kentucky does have big success in March, Tuesday night’s win in Athens will be a big reason why.

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.”

8 Comments for Kentucky Appears to Have Once Again Turned a Corner

  1. notFromhere
    8:17 pm January 8, 2020 Permalink

    Why? Why do people always have to say things like this? How about we wait and see.

    Thinking you have turned a corner stunts your growth as a person and player. Need to stay hungry

  2. UKLugo
    9:35 pm January 8, 2020 Permalink

    Anything is possible with those three incredible guards.

  3. Rixter
    10:11 pm January 8, 2020 Permalink

    8 Elite Eights, but only 7 Sweet 16’s? That’s some fuzzy math, Aaron.
    And it sounds like you’re saying on other teams, guys don’t take on more important roles as they get older? Only UK’s returnees?

  4. stringmusic78
    9:03 am January 9, 2020 Permalink

    This is premature. Richards is looking more consistent which is huge but to truly turn the corner there will need to be consistent production from the wing… looking at you Whitney and Brooks. That is with the assumption that EJ continues to give us 6 ppg 5 rpg. He basically has played himself into a back-up role when Richards or Sestina need a sub. Consistent big time performances from Whitney and Brooks and this team will have truly “turned the corner”.

  5. Indy_Sam
    10:33 am January 9, 2020 Permalink

    Well said Aaron! I’m feeling confident about the momentum of the team and see many opportunities for continued progress. I like my team!

  6. bigblue2284
    11:04 am January 9, 2020 Permalink

    It’s the coaching that has changed. We are bringing more ball pressure and double teams, this has created more turnovers and fast break scoring. We are also passing the ball much better and looking for shooters. Of course this isn’t meant to discount the impact an emerging Nick Richards has had, without him we would be in big trouble. I thought Nick would never be what we needed him to be, I was badly mistaken. Good for Nick I’m happy for him as a player and person.

  7. Megan
    2:09 pm January 9, 2020 Permalink

    If Kentucky has once again turned a corner, doesn’t that mean they’re heading in the opposite direction, back where they came from, but maybe a block over?

  8. Looother
    7:36 pm January 9, 2020 Permalink

    Another excellent post, Aaron. Can’t agree, though, that “John Calipari has one of, if not the hardest jobs in college basketball.” My sources say that 99% of existing D1 college coaches would gladly trade places with him…