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How more Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery could combat slow starts

John Calipari is thinking about tweaking his starting lineup. He’s got two options on the bench that could provide an early spark for his team moving forward.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Georgia
EJ Montgomery has slowly started to make an impact during his time on the floor for Kentucky.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky’s still a ways away from being a true national title contender, but games like this past Tuesday night against Georgia show you how they can become one.

For one, Keldon Johnson, the team’s leading scorer, scored a grand total of zero points on six shot attempts. Second, Reid Travis really struggled down on the blocks against the Georgia bigs, limiting his impact.

And, the ‘Cats still won by 20 points.

That can happen when you have a point guard that has truly come into his own over the last handful of games (Ashton Hagans) and a pair of bigs off the bench that can not only provide energy up front like Travis and PJ Washington can, but can bang around against length with their size and can do the dirty work like extending possessions or starting fast-break opportunities off the glass.

It’s been brewing for Nick Richards ever since his quiet-but-solid performance in the win over North Carolina before Christmas.

The game’s starting to slow down for EJ Montgomery and it’s showing in his slight increase in playing time since a heavier load of minutes before the downtick throughout the earlier portion of December.

Kentucky coach John Calipari doesn’t want to change his starting lineups, but during his pre-Auburn game media availability, he noted how important the start of both halves are for teams.

“Hopefully it doesn’t continue any more,” Calipari said on his team’s notoriously slow starts. “My thing to these guys are, when you’re playing really good teams and they get you down, they’re not letting you get back in. They’re going to try – then you’ll make your run. Well, you’re exhausted and then they make a run and it’s back to what it was. So, the start of the game is important. First five minutes of both halves are important. Now, against Georgia the first five minutes of the second half is where we won the game. We went on a 9-0 run.”

The Georgia game brought two different Kentucky teams: one that allowed a handful of dunks in the first five minutes of play and the one where Hagans seemingly ended any thoughts of a Dawgs upset by himself virtually.

If push comes to shove and Calipari wants more out of his frontcourt to start games, he’s got two options on his bench in Montgomery and Richards and the Georgia game put that on display.

With Kentucky hanging on by two at 33-31 inside of the final minute of the second half, Hagans jacked up a triple from the top of the key, but watch Nick Richards all the way through this possession.

Notice how he doesn’t stop moving.

He tries to make himself available when Jemarl Baker has the ball on the left wing and then when Hagans shoots, he blocks out Nicolas Claxton and slams one home for the ‘Cats. Sometimes, the best offense can be a missed shot when your bigs can do this. It may not seem like a lot, but against the Auburn’s and the Tennessee's of the world, it is.

To be a good defensive team, you have to be able to help off the weak side of the floor in the half-court. Following his dunk on the other end, Richards comes off his man, and like Jimmy Dykes stated during the broadcast, he’s long, he can jump and he times his jumping better than anyone on Kentucky’s roster. This block and rebound snatch shows that.

When you play with confidence and energy, Calipari will reward you, no matter the talent starting in front of you. (Dig up those old Isaac Humphries and Marcus Lee highlights.)

I know what you’re thinking here, “He missed this ... ?”

Dykes also noted this during the broadcast and it showed here, even though Montgomery missed the shot. Kentucky’s bigs are so good on the left block. They all prefer to go over that left shoulder with the right hand.

What was good about this despite the miss was that Montgomery threw a nice twist in this possession, shimmy-shaking his way to a clean look with his natural left hand on the baseline off a good seal. (It’s not a Travis-level of seal, but it’s still effective.)

Kentucky dominated the paint on both ends of the floor. You want your talented bigs taking these shots. Plus, they’re, you know ... taking them. Aggressiveness will take Richards and Montgomery a long way in their own rights.

Dykes called Hagans a “gravity player” and I want to show you why he said that. Watch this screen-and-roll action that gets Montgomery two of the easiest points he’ll score.

Montgomery really doesn’t screen here, it’s more a rub if you will, but the next part is important. Middle penetration in any set against any defense is a win for the offense. Notice how confused Georgia’s defense was on Hagans’ drive into the lane.

Thanks for the circle, Jimmy Dykes.

Hagans makes the right play, kicking out to Montgomery, who also makes the right play by going right to the rim and finishing. It’s simple basketball and most importantly for Kentucky, good basketball.

This felt like the game-ending sequence right here.

Hagans caps the sequence with the dunk, but let’s count the ways Richards and Montgomery contributed here:

  1. Richards posts up and nails that patented right-handed hook in the middle of the lane
  2. Richards defends a post-up strongly
  3. Montgomery grabs the uncontested rebound
  4. Hagans misses a 3, Richards and Montgomery run all the way back with Richards blocking the shot and Montgomery grabbing the loose ball, then flinging it to Hagans for the slam

Sometimes, it’s not about the statistics. It’s about effort. Montgomery and Richards give a ton of effort in this sequence and it was a large reason this felt like the dagger with a shade under 10 minutes to play.

Confidence can take anybody to new heights. These two showed what confidence can do when your energy levels are high.

And then for good measure a little while later, Richards and Montgomery find themselves in the middle of the action again.

Richards sets a screen for Hagans, who once again gets middle penetration and finds Montgomery for the weakside lob that Cal’s teams always love to run in the half-court. Instead of Anthony Davis or Alex Poythress throwing it down, it’s the freshman Montgomery this time. (Hagans did a really good job lulling his defender to sleep with that left-to-right crossover, too. He ran him right into the Richards screen and erased him from the play.)

To be clear, inserting Montgomery and Richards for a senior leader and an emotion-driven sophomore leader isn’t going to solve all of Kentucky’s problems. It’s probably for the best that these two keep coming off the bench to provide a spark up front.

I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?

But, if Calipari does look to switch things up down the line if his team’s in a funk, he’s got options.

Both guys are playing with good energy as of late, despite neither one of them playing more than 15 minutes in a game since Nov. 28 against Monmouth when Montgomery played 26 minutes.