After losing back-to-back games at South Carolina and at home to Florida, Kentucky bounced back Tuesday night with a 78-65 victory over Mississippi State in Rupp Arena, moving the Wildcats’ record to 15-5 overall with a 5-3 mark in the SEC.
11 regular season games remain for this young Kentucky team, including a tough test on Saturday when the Wildcats will face off against 7th-ranked West Virginia in Morgantown as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Mountaineers, who started the season 15-1, have dropped three of their last four games, including an 82-73 road loss at TCU on Monday.
Saturday’s game will be against one of Kentucky’s most talented opponents in the most hostile of environments, as West Virginia will host College Gameday at the WVU Coliseum. Kentucky has not played the Mountaineers at their home venue since 1970, and there is no doubt that West Virginia will use their home crowd to their advantage come Saturday at 7 p.m.
Beyond the matchup with West Virginia, Kentucky has 10 more regular season games remaining. The Cats will face each team in the top half of the SEC once, including tough tests including #22 Tennessee at home on February 6, at #19 Auburn on Feb 14, at Arkansas on Feb 20, and at #20 Florida to close out the regular season on March 3.
The road to the NCAA Tournament will be a tough one, and Kentucky has to find more efficient ways of getting to the basket in this 11-game stretch. The Cats have failed to score 70 points or more in just five games this season, and in those five games, their record is 1-4. Three of those four losses have come in the last six games. In games where Kentucky has scored 70-plus, its record is 14-1.
With that, let’s take a look at a stock report to see which Wildcats are playing well and which ones need to step up in order for Kentucky to keep improving in the win column…
Knox continues to lead the Wildcats in scoring with 14.6 points per game and is third in rebounding, averaging 5.7 boards. While Knox hit a bit of a scoring starting with the Louisville game that continued against Georgia and Tennessee, he has bounced back nicely, averaging 16.2 points in his last five games. I’d still like to see Knox be a bit more aggressive not only with the ball in his hands, but also in calling for the ball when the Cats are in need of a bucket down the stretch.
Even prior to Quade Green’s brief injury, Gilgeous-Alexander had established himself as the go-to point guard for the Cats. Gilgeous-Alexander leads the team in assists, steals, free throw percentage, and 3-point field goal percentage. He’s also third on the team in points per game, and he has been the guy you want creating offense in late in the game. At 6’6”, also gives him a huge advantage over Green, because he is bigger than most point guards he defends and, overall, he has to be considered one of Kentucky’s best defenders.
NBADraft. net projects Gilgeous-Alexander as a lottery pick, going 11th to the Utah Jazz. When you’re projected as a lottery pick, Coach Calipari obviously has never been one to hold players back. I think he goes.
In the new year we have seen Washington turn a corner in terms of his consistency as a scorer. Through the first 13 games (all in 2017) Washington averaged 10 points per game, but has bumped that average up to 13.5 a game through his last seven, including 22 on Tuesday night against Mississippi State. He averages 5.2 rebounds per game, which is less than you want from your starting power forward, so hopefully we see that figure improve in the last 11 games of the season.
There isn’t a ton of demand in the NBA for a 6’7” power forward. It’s tough to think scouts would see Washington as a swing forward in the NBA because of his lack of an outside shot. I think we continue to see improvement and consistency in his scoring, but if his rebounding doesn’t improve, I envision Washington returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season.
Vanderbilt makes the “stock up” list mainly because he’s finally been cleared to play for the Cats after missing the first 17 games due to injury. In just three games, he is averaging six rebounds per game, which is enough to lead the team in that category. He is only averaging 12.6 minutes so far, which has limited him in his ability to score a ton of points.
Vanderbilt has just 12 total points in those three games, but his quickness in transition has been encouraging, especially for a 6’9” forward. He went 1-for-7 from the field on Tuesday night, and it’s evident that he needs to work on getting his quickness under control. That said, he has tremendous upside and I expect his minutes to increase moving forward.
Vanderbilt is projected as the 15th overall pick by NBADraft.net, which I found a bit surprising given his limited minutes. Clearly scouts see his upside, so let’s just hope he can harness that energy and get some points on the board in the remaining games. At this point, I’d say he leaves for the NBA after the season.
Green’s back injury has definitely been frustrating for the freshman point guard. After sitting out three games earlier this month, he has only put up six total points and zero assists in his two games back, and is averaging just 18.5 minutes. Defense has been a concern all year for Green, but we can only hope he continues to recover and can get back to contributing on the opposite side of the ball. He is still averaging 9.8 points and 3.1 assists.
You have to think Green will return for his sophomore season, and one can only hope that defense will be a focal point for the young point guard between now and then.
Richards has been the Wildcats’ starting big man for the entire season, but is averaging just 17.2 minutes per game, a figure we can only expect to see decrease as Vanderbilt gets closer to being 100 percent. While Richards is listed at 6’11”, four inches taller than PJ Washington, he is also listed at 240 lbs., which is only four pounds more than Washington. And by my judgement, Washington has been a far more physical presence inside, especially on the offensive side of the ball. It seems like Richards has missed several open dunks this season and lacks the physicality to box out against most of the big men he has guarded. While his field goal percentage at .642 leads the team, he’s taken the seventh-most field goals of anyone on the team. For Richards to continue to get minutes, he has to put an emphasis on getting tougher down the stretch.
Richards was not listed in either round of NBA Draft projections by NBADraft.net, and unless his play improves dramatically, I think we can expect to see him back in blue and white for the 2018-19 season.
Gabriel hasn’t done anything to hurt his status since my last stock report, but he also hasn’t done anything to improve his status since then, which is why I kept him in the “stock down” category. Unlike many of Kentucky’s freshman, the sophomore’s play has been quite consistent throughout this season. I love his hustle and he does seem to possess leadership in his play, as the Cats’ most experienced returnee from a year ago. He provides a spark off the bench, his effort is never questioned, he gets rebounds, and he has shown he can knock down a three when left open.
I don’t see Gabriel getting drafted after this season, but he is a huge asset to this team, so I certainly hope he returns to Kentucky for his junior year.
Averaging 12.7 points per game, Diallo is second on the team in the scoring category, but he has trended basically the opposite of Washington in the last seven games. Diallo averaged nearly 15 a game through the first 13 games, but has been limited to only 8.4 points in the seven games of 2018. The 6’5” freshman has only hit four threes in 16 attempts in 2018, compared to 12-of-34 from behind the arc in 13 games in 2017.
Diallo is listed as the 16th overall pick in the NBADraft.net projections. I expect him to leave Kentucky after this season, but hopefully he gets out of this scoring slump sooner than later.