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The Case for EJ Montgomery

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The key to Kentucky reaching its potential may be within its freshman big man.

Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

Kentucky coach John Calipari has decided to take a more direct approach with sophomore Nick Richards and freshman EJ Montgomery when it comes to playing time this season. In fact, he’s even provided the formula for success.

“What I want to do is I want to challenge Nick and EJ, whichever one is blocking shots and having a presence, you will play more. So if you want to play more, you do that,” said Calipari.

To avoid any confusion, here’s exactly what this team needs as it inches closer to a rough and touch SEC schedule in 2019. You might even call this an internal job posting for Richards and Montgomery, both soft-spoken, gentle giants that just might be a little too nice to get down and dirty in the paint.

National championship contender looking for an enforcer to protect the rim, block shots, rebound and play solid defense. Must have a chip on your should and be willing to mix things up and get physical. Cannot be timid or afraid of contact. Offensive ability is a plus.

The good news is that both players have flashed brief moments of greatness. Richards had 19 rebounds against Southern Illinois and Montgomery currently leads the team with 11 blocked shots.

Montgomery, 6-10, made his first start of the season against VMI and made his presence known early with a blocked shot on the visitor’s first possession. He finished with three blocks for the game and closed the first half with a thunderous dunk as the Cats held on for a 92-82 victory.

“I’ve just been putting in work every day, just trying to be on the court,” said Montgomery of his progress this season. “Just being a block shots guy, having energy and playing defense.”

Through six games, UK is averaging 84.5 points per game with four players scoring in double figures in Keldon Johnson (16.5), Reid Travis (13.7), PJ Washington (13.3) and Tyler Herro (10.0).

Richards, at 6-11, is currently last in minutes played among the nine-man rotation at 14.3 minutes per game with a stat line that includes 4.7 points, 4.5 rebounds (fifth on the team) and eight blocks (second to Montgomery).

Despite a 5-1 start and a much-improved offense, Calipari knows that UK’s defense is light years away from being able to complete on the big stage (UK gave up 118 points in the loss to Duke).

The Cats have been unable to stop dribble penetration and straight line drives which has resulted in numerous breakdowns and late weak side rotations. Add to the fact that opponents are shooting 43.4 percent from behind the three-point arc and some very real problems must be addressed soon.

“We’re not a very good team right now,” said Calipari after UK’s 77-62 win over Tennessee State. “We have no confidence defensively, which bleeds into your offense. Then have you no confidence offensively. You get beat three or four times, don’t think you’re going to be pounding your chest saying I’m great on offense.”

As UK continues with its nine-man rotation, look for defensive stops to get as many high fives from the bench as scoring plays. I also look for EJ Montgomery to soon emerge as that impact player on the defensive end that could be a game-changer for the Cats.

Here’s my three reasons why EJ Montgomery will take his game to the next level.

Basketball IQ: Montgomery has a high basketball IQ and often finds himself in the right place at the right time. He has great anticipation on both ends of the floor and is a real threat in transition, with or without the ball. Richards, who’s only been playing organized basketball since his freshman year of high school, is often a step behind and is still trying to learn the game. No knock on Richards, but Montgomery seems much more settled in and quickly gets into the flow of the game.

Lateral Movement: Montgomery has amazing lateral quickness and can cover a lot of ground on the defensive end. In fact, UK associate head coach Kenny Payne has been impressed with Montgomery’s athleticism and his ability to cover space from block to block as a help side defender. Of the two, Montgomery is also a better defender, especially on the perimeter where the Cats have struggled to defend much smaller teams from behind the three-point arc.

Offensive Ability: While any offensive production from Richards is an added bonus, Montgomery can actually hit the face-up jumper and has the ability to create his own shot. Montgomery is also a solid passer and has a much better understanding of UK’s motion offense tendencies and can score with either hand. Richards, although much improved, is really only capable of lob dunks and offensive stick backs under the basket. With more minutes, Montgomery can easily average a double-double in points and rebounds. While both have great potential, we’ve reached the point where productivity wins the battle. And nobody has been better (per minutes played) than EJ Montgomery.

The Cats are back in action on Wednesday night at Rupp Arena against Monmouth.