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3 Wildcats to watch for vs. North Carolina

Kentucky will need some special performances to beat the Tar Heels.

Tennessee State v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

But if you’re Kentucky Coach John Calipari, you revel in the fact that each new game brings an opportunity to change the narrative. This time, the Cats are fighting for respect throughout college basketball after opening the season with a humiliating loss to the Duke Blue Devils.

The next big chance comes on Saturday as the Kentucky Wildcats square off against the North Carolina Tar Heels under the spotlight in Chicago’s United Center as part of the CBS Sports Classic. Both teams are 8-2 on the season and the Tar Heels are still flying high after recently beating the No. 4 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs team that gave Duke it’s only loss of the year.

“I think there’s some people in our orbit who have not gotten over that first game yet,” said Calipari. “They haven’t. We all have. I just ask you this question, when we beat Kansas by 50 that year did they ever get over that game? You get over it. You keep playing. You keep going. But, in our orbit that seems to stand out. Well, let me just tell you something. This team we’re playing is going to try and do the same thing to us. You’re either going to fight, be willing passers to make the game easy for us, make the game as hard as you can for them and they may score anyway and just move on to the next play.”

Calipari, always one to offer a quick history lesson, was making reference to UK’s 72-40 win over Kansas in the 2014 Champions Classic in Indianapolis. The Jayhawks bounced back from that devastating loss to win 27 games that season and capture its 11th straight Big 12 Conference title.

Let’s hope the Cats can follow that same path to redemption after plummeting from No. 2 in the preseason rankings to No. 19 in the most recent AP Poll. To get over the hump, Calipari says this must become a “player-driven team” that can take ownership of each performance.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’re getting better, but until they are empowered they’re not going to be what we’re all looking for them to be,” said Calipari. “I’m telling you, we’re still – yesterday was a coach-driven practice. It can’t. At some point it has to be player driven. We’re trying some things, we’re doing some things, we’re moving some people around. There’s stuff I like that we’re doing.”

To beat the No. 9 ranked Tar Heels, the Cats will need to get physical in the paint, hit open shots and take advantage of scoring opportunities in the open court. All the more reason for EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro and PJ Washington to come up big in the Windy City.

Here’s a look at how each player has the ability to impact Saturday’s game:

EJ Montgomery

Montgomery has been a mystery this season as he’s battled for playing time with Nick Richards. But now it looks like one of Calipari’s offensive “tweaks” might just land the 6-foot-10 freshman out on the perimeter more as the Cats have limited depth at the 3 spot. This would allow multiple “bigs” to be on the court at the same time and give new life to Richards who has struggled to find his place this season.

“It just gives us a longer team,” Calipari said of possibly inserting Montgomery at the 3. “It gives us somebody with length. He went in again and got two quick offensive rebounds last game, but the game got a little rough. Talking to him about that, sustaining when you feel – making yourself uncomfortable so you can play when you’re uncomfortable. In other words, you’re a little winded. They’re playing a little more physical than you’re used to, but you’ve got to be able to play through that. Young players, it’s hard for them.”

Montgomery certainly has the athleticism and court vision to play out on the floor and is a solid shooter from the perimeter.

“I’m comfortable (playing the 3),” said Montgomery. “It’s a lot faster. I have to play guards and I’m just learning every day…it’s a bigger challenge. They (guards) definitely don’t stop moving and keep running around. You gotta be in shape to guard a guard.”

Playing Montgomery and Richards together just might be the answer to a North Carolina team that’s one of the best rebounding teams in the nation.

Tyler Herro

Considered a pure shooter as a 5-star recruit out of Wisconsin, Tyler Herro has struggled from behind the three-point line (28% on the season). To make matters worse, he’s a dismal 1-for-12 in UK’s losses to Duke and Seton Hall, a game in which he was 0-for-6. The bottom line is that Herro has to hit shots for this team to be a contender in March.

“I’m hard on myself…just trying to make every shot,” said Herro after the Cats recent win over Utah. “I’m competitive. I don’t like losing and I just want the best out of myself and the team every time we come out.”

Without question, Herro is his biggest critic and often puts too much pressure on himself in the search for perfection. He’s also tried to make some slight adjustments to his shot this season with an emphasis on a quicker release.

In the end, the 6-foot-5 freshman just needs to get into the flow of the game and be that same guy that averaged 32.9 points per game and shot 43.5 percent from behind the third-point arc in high school. If Herro (and Keldon Johnson) can knock down shots early, the Cats will be in much better position to focus on defensive adjustments against an explosive North Carolina offense.

PJ Washington

After having a monster game against Seton Hall (29 points, 12 rebounds), Washington responded with a modest performance (9 points, 4 rebounds) in 31 minutes of action against Utah. It’s that inconsistency that seems to be the only thing stopping the 6-foot-7 sophomore from being a special player on the national stage.

Despite some memorable single game performances this year, the sophomore post player has surprisingly only scored in double figures in 4 of UK’s 10 games. The good news is that he leads the team in rebounding (8.3 per game) and has been unstoppable at times with a running, one-handed jump hook that’s almost impossible to defend. Another surprising twist is that Washington is among the team’s best three-point shooters, connecting on 8-of-17 (47%).

If Washington is fully engaged and getting shot opportunities, he could be a difference-maker again on Saturday.