I thought, on paper, that Kentucky did not matchup well with LSU. While I think the Wildcats will go further in the NCAA Tournament and have a better team overall, I expected them to struggle with a hungry LSU team in Baton Rouge. Instead, you saw a team that truly controlled the game from start to nearly finish. The UK guards controlled the tempo, the big men controlled the glass, and LSU never seemed to get into a rhythm. LSU is one of the few teams in the league that can match UK athlete for athlete, have a superior guard in Skylar Mays, rebound the ball at the same level as UK, plus a good home court advantage. But none of that mattered as UK could have, and should have, won this game by 10 or more points. The late game struggles have to be a concern but the Cats still pulled out the biggest win of the season and now sit in the drivers seat for the SEC crown.
But here is the bigger point: all of the issues that have plagued the Cats throughout this season seem to be slowly fading away. And once again, like the suckers we continue to be as fans, this UK team that struggled so much early are now shaping up to be a legitimate Final Four contender. Consider these facts:
- Nick Richards was a complete no-show multiple times this season when facing players of similar size. It was obvious against Ohio State and Utah. Foul troubles and physicality limited him to being a complete non-factor. Now we have seen Richards thoroughly dominate games against Reggie Perry of Mississippi State and the big men of LSU. Is there a game left that UK could play where we would expect anything less than 15 and 8 from Richards?
- The role players for UK, namely EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina, seem to have found their grove. Is it early to say this for Sestina? Maybe. But those guys are not just empty jerseys when they come on the floor now. I have been especially encouraged about Montgomery recently and feel he will play a major role in a big win at some point in the tournament.
- Is it just me or is Tyrese Maxey settled in to his best self on this team? He doesn’t seem to try and be the star any longer. He is quite productive, seems to be the guy that gets the ball late in the shot clock, and makes big plays multiple times a game. If he isn’t forcing things, trying to be the best player on the floor, it turns out he is often the best player on the floor. And I get the sense there is a comfort in his role now.
I like to think I’ve been ahead of the curve on being a fan of a John Calipari team. Because after 2014, I realized that we are just wasting energy every single year claiming UK teams suck and the program is on a slide, only to be made to look like fools come February and March. This is certainly not one of Cal’s best teams. I think it is certainly worse than 2010, 2012, 2015, 2017, and 2019. It is probably more in the 2011 or 2018 range but one of those teams went to the Final Four and the other the Sweet 16.
I think the pieces are falling into place for this team to make a run. And in a season of weakness from college basketball, a team that would normally be considered a Sweet 16 team could legitimately make the Final Four or better. And it really required a group of guys to figure out where they should be on this team. It was clear early that wasn’t happening. But team chemistry is high with this group and now you are seeing the fruits of that labor early in the year. Consider me on board with this group moving forward and their potential.