After the humbling Duke handed Kentucky in Indianapolis to open the season this past Tuesday, Wildcats head coach John Calipari and his staff looked to shake things up a bit heading into Friday’s contest in the home opener against 20-win Southern Illinois.
Instead of starting Ashton Hagans at point guard like the ‘Cats did against Duke, Calipari looked to Immanuel Quickley, one of the first pieces that came into place for this year’s bunch, to take the starting reigns.
Friday wasn’t pretty for much of the night for the ‘Cats, but Quickley was a real bright spot, scoring 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting, grabbing four rebounds and forcing a pair of steals in 31 minutes with a plus-minus of +12, second to only Nick Richards and his 19-rebound performance that logged him a +14.
The analytical numbers liked Quickley’s performance too, registering a 78.8 Floor%, meaning it’s the percentage of a player’s possessions on which at least one point is scored. Quickley’s 11.9 percent usage trailed Quade Green’s 12.4 and Keldon Johnson’s 16.1 percent, but his 7.7 Net Pts rating (a formula used for points produced minus points allowed) was the best on the roster by 1.7 points ahead of EJ Montgomery, who played 14 less minutes than Quickley.
This was one of my personal favorite possessions for Kentucky on Friday because it was one of the shortest and cleanest.
Like all of Calipari’s teams, they’re at their best when they run, and when nobody’s putting the ball on the floor until they’re on their offensive side of the court, good things can happen like this. Good, quick, crisp passes and an easy bucket, plus the foul. That’s simple, yet effective basketball; something that should be on the mind of all of these young guys as they bounce back from the opening loss.
Speaking of simple basketball, Calipari has to like his new point guard grabbing an errant shot off the glass and going coast-to-coast to finish the left hand like he’s De’Aaron Fox or something. Quickley doesn’t exactly live up to his name with the pace on this transition possession, but he keeps it simple: bring it up off the glass, make a quick decision to get around a potential ball-stopping big man with the crossover and finish at the rim with ease.
One of the better quotes from the post-game coverage was from Quickley about the growing pains that Kentucky is going through, specifically on the defensive end.
Here’s Quickley speaking to The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker about the early-season struggles that the ‘Cats have had:
“I think high school is a lot different from college,” Quickley said, specifically addressing how guys like him, Johnson and Hagans, who came in with reputations as elite defenders, have struggled so mightily at that. “High school, you just lock down your man and that’s it. But in college, it’s rotation, it’s crackdowns, it’s help the helper, help the helper’s helper, all that kind of stuff. So college is way different from high school, and we’re all still learning (but) I do know what this team has and I do know this team can still be special. We’ve got a lot of pieces.”
One of Quickley’s two steals on the night came on a possession where he showed the good with the bad and I personally thought it summed up the learning curve the young ‘Cats are going through on that end of the floor.
Just follow Quickley on this play. He starts on the ball and when the ball goes from the post to the weak side of the floor, he sags deep into the painted area, completely losing his man. When the ball finds his man again, he attempts to closes out on a potential shot and his man gets past him with a ball fake.
What happens next was important for Quickley and the ‘Cats. Instead of giving up on the possession, he gets back into the play, follows the ball and gets his hands on a pass to the open shooter in the left corner to force the turnover.
Stuff like this possession will be a common trend, especially in the early going for the ‘Cats. But, it’s a process. As good as the ‘Cats looked in the Bahamas, this season was never going to be this easy.
The good news is two guards stepped up when the ‘Cats needed them to. Quickley was fantastic on Friday night and Quade Green hit some big shots that he almost became accustomed to hitting during the regular season a year ago.