ESPN college basketball color commentator and Young Jeezy enthusiast Jay Bilas called Saturday night’s blue-blooded matchup between No. 9 Kansas and No. 8 Kentucky “a mid-term exam.”
“These two teams are building towards March and I’m not sure anyone is building faster than Kentucky,” Bilas added.
The Duke, Seton Hall and Alabama losses seem so long ago in the past that it’s almost comical to think about this Kentucky team losing lately. They’re arguably the hottest team in the nation, winning six games in a row and adding wins to their resume such as North Carolina (in Chicago), Louisville and Auburn both on the road, and now Mississippi State and Kansas at home with some huge conference matchups coming in the final month-plus of the regular season.
There’s plenty of reasons why the ‘Cats all of a sudden look like the national title contender many thought they would be coming out of the Bahamas trip and of those literal big reasons why? Senior forward Reid Travis. It helps passing a big exam when you have an experienced senior’s assistance.
Numerous times throughout this season, I’ve likened the Stanford transfer to The Juggernaut. For non-comic book nerds, The Juggernaut is one of the most dominant and strongest entities in Marvel Comics.
His abilities include: “Superhuman strength and durability” and “Virtually unstoppable momentum”.
That sounds about right, right?
Travis was big on a bigger stage on Saturday night against the Jayhawks, scoring a team-high 18 points while grabbing 12 rebounds (seven on the offensive glass) in a 71-63 victory for Kentucky. He grabbed 24.4 percent (!) of the offensive rebound chances he had while on the floor and had a 138 offensive rating with a 98 defensive rating for the contest. The ‘Cats were just a different team with him on the floor and it was clear for all to see.
What made Travis so effective? It wasn’t just bullying All-Big XII and Wooden Award candidate Dedric Lawson around down low. Let’s dive into Travis’ great night, starting with the play that woke the ‘Cats up early.
Kentucky was down 10 at this point about halfway through the first half and things were getting ugly quickly. This was right after the ‘Cats committed a turnover to make it three turnovers and 0-for-7 shooting from the field in their last 10 offensive possessions.
This circle set was really going nowhere because Travis had to make a post catch further away from the right block than he wanted to and with Quentin Grimes coming down to “help” in a way, he had to kick the ball back out to Keldon Johnson.
Travis re-posted, but with Dedric Lawson (who was outstanding for Kansas) sitting right in the middle of the lane, Travis had to move the ball to PJ Washington. Washington put up a tough floater and Travis did the rest.
“That was an older player who seemed like he had had enough,” Bilas said after Travis earned a three-point play to stop the bleeding.
He really had had enough. You can tell in the post-play reaction that he was frustrated. Shortly after, the ‘Cats were awake.
PJ Washington is really, really good when he’s engaged and it seemed like this defense-to-offense sequence got him going a bit, too.
This was one of Kentucky’s best plays of the night. Washington gets the deflection and then catches a pretty lob from Ashton Hagans on the other end to fire up Rupp Arena and help the ‘Cats claw their back into the game.
Here’s the thing that’s small, but large on this play, too: watch how quickly Reid Travis finds Hagans to start the break.
Bilas said numerous times during the broadcast early on in this game that Kentucky’s best offense was in transition or a missed shot. You’ve already seen one example of a missed shot, now check them out in transition and how fast they move. Don’t blink.
There’s been plenty of examples as to how strong Reid Travis is (and we’ll get into that in a little while), and this was another display of that.
Washington sees Marcus Garrett coming over in the lane to help and kicks out to Hagans, but watch Travis’ movement here. He sees the kickout and immediately using his giant frame to establish great post position and just bullies Lawson on his way to one of his easiest buckets on the night. That’s just too easy.
One of the worst things you can do against Kentucky is throwing a lazy pass in the vicinity of Ashton Hagans because more often than not, the national defensive player of the year candidate is going to make you pay and that’s exactly what he did here to the Jayhawks.
Grimes looks to penetrate the lane, but throws a bad pass to Lagerald Vick in the corner and Hagans starts the break off the steal. Once again, watch Travis’ movement here.
Notice how Travis gets himself a little wider to create more space when he runs the break to give a slot for Hagans to deliver a good pass for the easy deuce, plus a foul. That’s simple basketball, but effective basketball. In big games like this, it’s the little things that make the big differences.
If this doesn’t show how dominant Travis was on Saturday, then nothing will.
Travis gets the pass into the post on the right block again and looks to go baseline on Lawson. He runs out of real estate and with Garrett and Devon Dotson technically over to help on his other shoulder, Travis make a tough (but good) pass to Johnson in the corner. The ‘Cats reverse the ball, Jemarl Baker Jr. misses the long two off a good fake and Travis virtually takes on the whole Kansas lineup for the bucket plus the foul. That’s just wanting it more than everyone else.
His PJ Washington impression was well done, too.
I give it an 8.9 on the PJ Scale to be quite honest. pic.twitter.com/UfrozBeSz4— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) January 29, 2019
Travis was such a schoolyard bully on Saturday night at times and here’s yet another example of how he was.
He set a “screen” that actually worked for Hagans to drive middle and find Washington in the corner. Washington misses the 3, but just watch Travis work. There was nothing Lawson could do. That’s just a senior being a senior to force a Bill Self timeout.
Do you think PJ liked what Reid was doing?
When your boy got the digits and you're more hype than he is: pic.twitter.com/OEPaBAcwem— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) January 29, 2019
Along with another post-up chance that Travis beat Lawson on, there were a couple of late-game plays that didn’t result in points, but showed his impact.
EJ Montgomery has to start making these perimeter chances he’s been getting in conference play, but just watch Travis on these next two possessions.
The ‘Cats went to a standard high ball screen late in the shot clocks down the stretch of this game and usually, it was Travis and his good screen-setting that helped make a difference.
He sets the screen, pops out for an open look for 3 for a Hagans passing option, but Montgomery was wide open on the left wing. Watch Travis, knowing that Montgomery’s going to shoot. He crashes the glass and almost gets another possession for the ‘Cats in a six-point game that they probably could’ve put away sooner.
Remember, the little things.
If people ask you about Reid Travis, just show them this possession.
Travis finds Hagans, who initially hesitates to shoot the 3 off a great cross-court find, but the effort again to keep the possession alive from Travis. Effort plays down the stretch are what you want to see from your team and Travis made a few of them.
"If that didn't go in, that probably would've been a Reid Travis offensive rebound." -Bilas— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) January 29, 2019
'Cats go to the late-shot clock ball screen w/Travis again & what a find from Hagans.
Keldon Johnson always wants the big shots. Keldon Johnson can hit the big shots. (Early) onions. pic.twitter.com/LrKOV61wgQ
And then of course, who set the high ball screen on the dagger make from Johnson? Take a wild guess.
The ‘Cats will have their hands full with Vanderbilt again on Tuesday night, but with Reid Travis playing like this, they can beat anyone.
This team is once again a title-caliber bunch after those early slip-ups and Travis is one of the key reasons why they could cut down the nets not only in Nashville, but in Minneapolis too, which just so happens to be Travis’ hometown.