The Kentucky Wildcats are (finally) finding their groove.
After a few underwhelming performances earlier in the year, UK pulled off its third 20-plus point victory in four games with an 83-52 win over Fairleigh Dickinson.
There was plenty to like about the victory, but what are the key takeaways from Kentucky’s performance?
Fairleigh Dickinson is not a good team
Before we say anything else about this game, it must be stated that the level of competition was Fairleigh low.
Sitting at 2-5 going into the game with losses to DePaul, Fordham, Army, Lafayette, and Notre Dame, it’s no secret the Knights are short on talent. And they proved that against a team full of it in Kentucky.
With just two players over 6-foot-8 on the roster, it was expected of UK to dominate in the frontcourt. They did just that, with EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards combining for 37 points and 19 rebounds by themselves. They also out-rebounded the Knights by a total of 41-32.
As a whole, the Cats were faster, bigger, stronger, and more talented, and the box score proved that.
EJ Montgomery with back-to-back career games
With that caveat aside, EJ Montgomery deserves the game ball after putting up a career-high 25 points on 12-16 shooting to go with nine rebounds, one block, and one steal. At halftime alone, Montgomery finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, a block, and a steal.
In fact, it was the second consecutive career-high in points for Montgomery, with the 6-foot-11 forward managing 16 points and eight rebounds against UAB last week.
Against the Knights on Saturday afternoon, Montgomery was able to get wherever he wanted and scored at will, doing it all from the inside, mid-range, and in transition.
Montgomery is not a polished prospect yet, but these last two games for the sophomore forward were massive and necessary for the program moving forward.
For Kentucky to make a serious postseason run this year, they needed Montgomery to take a serious step forward on the floor. And after a slow start, he is finally starting to show that he is capable of making that jump.
Keion Brooks Jr. was the perfect spark off the bench
Montgomery was the star of the show, but freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr. wasn’t far behind.
Finishing with a career-high 15 points (6-11 shooting and 1-2 from three) to go with five rebounds, one block, and one steal, Brooks was as confident as he’s ever been in a Kentucky uniform.
From the second he was put in the game, Brooks was looking for his shot, sinking a floater to get things going and following it up with attempts from all three levels of the floor. Whether it was a floater from the right elbow, his go-to mid-range jumper, an open three on the perimeter, or cleanup work around the basket, the freshman wing was unafraid to let it fly.
He missed a few easy finishes at the rim, but outside of that, Brooks was terrific.
Nick Richards continues to thrive
If you ask John Calipari, sophomore center Nick Richards had a ho-hum performance against Fairleigh Dickinson.
“I didn’t think Nick played particularly well,” he said. “I told him, “You got arrogant today.” Hungry and humble. Hungry and humble. You start getting arrogant and what happens is all the — he’s invested in his positive, his own self-esteem. He invested in it and it can be taken away, not by me but by himself, and reverting back and playing in a way that you played a year ago when I couldn’t keep you in games, I couldn’t keep you in. You’re not doing that stuff and you reverted today.”
For a player that broke the double-digit point barrier just nine times out of 74 possible games through the 2018-19 season, though, Calipari being unimpressed by an outing of 12 points (5-7 shooting), ten rebounds, and two blocks for Richards is a testament to how far he’s come as a player.
He got beat at the rim at times and missed out on a few rebound opportunities, but if Richards’ 12-and-10 outing is him “reverting,” I can’t help but take that as a positive sign of continued success for the junior big man.
Ashton Hagans is commanding the offense
On the surface, Ashton Hagans’ stat line of 11 points (7-7 FT), 11 assists, two rebounds, and two steals was impressive, but his continued ability to run the offense and set the pace was the biggest takeaway of his performance.
After rebounds and forced turnover, Hagans pushed the ball ahead and forced the Knights to respond in transition. He didn’t need to look to the sideline for a play or guidance, he trusted his instincts and ran the offense himself, similar to what we’ve seen out of Kentucky’s best lead guards over the last decade.
In the process, he’s not turning the ball over, passing at an elite level, and setting his teammates up for success. And in not-so-surprising news, as Kentucky’s assist numbers have gone up this year, so have their margins of victory.
Other players have had better individual games, but Hagans is looking better and better every time he steps on the floor.
Three point struggles
While there was a lot to be impressed with in Kentucky’s blowout victory, the team’s struggles and inconsistency from three remain a head-scratcher.
On the day, the Wildcats finished 2-11 from three, good for a whopping 18.2%.
Individually, Tyrese Maxey finished the day 0-3 from deep, with Johnny Juzang also going 0-2 and EJ Montgomery going 0-1. The lone makes came from Immanuel Quickley (1-3) and Keion Brooks (1-2).
Calipari raved about his team being one of the best 3-point shooting groups he has had since he’s been at Kentucky, but up to this point, they’ve struggled.
The open shots are there, they just aren’t falling.
Johnny Juzang has his first career start
In a bit of a surprise leading up to tip-off, freshman guard Johnny Juzang saw his first career start at Kentucky.
Why? He “fought.”
“[He] fought,” Calipari said after the game. “How about the biggest play of the game? The biggest play of the game was we’re struggling — I’ve got to call timeout, like what are you doing? … [We] take two bad shots and let them get seven points in a row on a 7-0 run. … We go down, Johnny, drive, misses the shot, but grabs it, and lay it is back in, gets fouled, makes two free throws, he stopped the bleeding, and it wasn’t like he did anything but fight. And that’s what he’s been doing in practice. … He deserved it, he really did.”
Juzang finished the day with four points on 1-5 shooting to go with three rebounds, one assist, and two steals in 23 minutes.
The shots need to start falling, but the former four-star recruit is slowly, but surely finding success in his time on the floor.