A 1-1 start to the year doesn’t sound irrational, considering the Kentucky Wildcats opened their season against the fourth-ranked Duke Blue Devils. However, the manor in which their 1-1 start came brought along jitters for more than just the team.
Sluggish efforts on defense, along with multiple unforced miscues on the offensive end was an unfamiliar scene for Big Blue Nation in regards to a team with such talent.
However, Wednesday night’s 96-58 win over the North Dakota Fighting Hawks shed light on what could very well be a positive turn early in the Kentucky Wildcats’ season.
Herro & Washington Bounce Back
No one struggled more through the team’s first two games than PJ Washington and Tyler Herro. In what was a highly-anticipated matchup between Washington & Zion Williamson, the sophomore posted just eight points before fouling out. He didn’t improve much against in Kentucky’s second game, scoring only three points & committing five turnovers.
Although Herro managed to score 14 points in the team’s opener, it took him 11 shots to do so. In his second game, he was then held scoreless by missing six shots.
Both bounced back in style, though, with Herro scoring 18 points & five steals while Washington netted a game-high 25 points & seven rebounds on Wednesday night, including 4/5 from deep. This is the PJ Washington 2.0 we’ve been waiting for that can impact this team in a variety of ways.
The two should be focal points in Kentucky’s offense going forward, therefore efficiency from both players will be significant.
Jemarl Baker Sighting
No, Baker didn’t even take a step on to the hardwood during regulation. However, he did participate in team warm ups and the layup line. Baker’s ability to consistently shoot from behind the arc will not only lift pressure off guards like Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro, but also open up the floor for the rest of the Wildcats.
While his debut wasn’t made on Wednesday night, it certainly seems to be getting warmer barring any setbacks, though John Calipari did say in the pregame radio that Baker hasn’t been practicing since the Blue-White Game.
It’s still a mystery what’s truly keeping him sidelined (it’s been called ‘knee swelling’ by the school), but it doesn’t seem bad enough to keep him out much longer.
Defense Finally Clicking
Kentucky forced 13 first-half turnovers and 20 for the game. They also held the Fighting Hawks to just 33.3% from the field in the first half and only let up as the pace picked up for both teams in the second half.
After giving up 118 points to Duke in the season opener, the Wildcats followed up their poor outing by allowing just 59 to Southern Illinois. The trend continued on Wednesday as North Dakota didn’t break 60 either.
With their offense beginning to consistently flow, putting forth the extra effort on defense should allow for even more high-percentage shots as the games go on. And seeing more turnovers forced have been a talking point for Calipari, so he had to enjoy this effort.
Be Patient With EJ Montgomery
Montgomery entered the season not only as the team’s top-recruit but also drawing Anthony Davis-like comparisons. While his talent and build can relate to the All-NBA superstar (and former NCAA champion), Montgomery will need time to develop.
His eight points & six rebounds in the season opener, followed by 10 points & seven rebounds against SIU are positive signs through just two games. However, on Wednesday he posted just six points & six rebounds.
Games like Wednesday’s should be common early on, as his craft and ability to take over games will likely come full-circle later in the season. Although, when they do, Montgomery could very well blossom into one of the best players John Calipari has ever had the benefit of coaching.
Where is Big Blue Nation?
Less than 30 minutes to Wednesday night’s tip-off, most of Rupp Arena was vacant. The trend was even worse than Friday night’s home-opener.
While the inclement weather and 9 P.M. start may have influenced the lack of attendance, the country’s tenth-ranked team hasn’t received the usual sell-out crowds to start the season.
Kentucky’s next action comes on Sunday night against the Virginia Military Institute Keydets. Tip-off is set for 6 P.M. EDT.