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1 takeaway from each Wildcat as new season approaches

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The regular season begins soon, and there was a lot to take from the Cats’ first exhibition game.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Following a sopping slapping of Missouri at Kroger Field Saturday, Kentucky fans were treated to their first helping of basketball action Sunday evening as the guys suited up for a bash with the reigning NAIA national champion Georgetown Tigers.

The short trip down Newtown Pike wasn’t made without intent to win as former Western Kentucky Hilltopper Jake Ohmer asserted himself as the class of the court, leading the game in scoring at 25 points. Luckily, Kentucky was able to scrape together enough positive production from its loaded backcourt to help push the Cats to victory.

Aside from Ohmer, the Tigers got 36 gritty minutes from Jacob Conway, who finished 1-10 from the field and even contributed two fouls and two turnovers. Eljay Cowherd also made his presence felt during his 24 minutes, missing all 10 of his shots in addition to committing just two fouls and turning the ball over on only three occasions. His namesake Colin would have been a better option at power forward.

All the commotion from Georgetown shouldn’t distract from a solid Kentucky performance, though. Here are my takeaways for each player after their first time on the wooden pitch against an actual opponent.

Immanuel Quickley should assert himself

Judging by the 25-point Blue/White outburst and tonight’s blistering performance from beyond the arc, IQ has taken a leap since last Spring. His three-point stroke is considerably better, he’s smarter and more comfortable with the ball in his hands and has flashed a few intricate finishing moves at the rim. Now, let’s up the usage. Put the ball in his hands.

With Ashton, IQ, and Ty on the perimeter, those are three strong ball-handlers who can create off the dribble and hit jumpers now (Ashton, is it for real?). There are plenty of minutes to go around for those three but while on the court, together or not, they should be the ones in control.

Rather than having Immanuel play entry pass patty cake with EJ Montgomery--the preamble for a botched one-footer--run a pick and roll or just let Immanuel take his dude off the bounce. He’s ready to carry a heavy scoring load for an elite program. Now the touches just need to increase.

Ashton Hagans is locked in

Jumping passing lanes, stripping hopeless nobodies in a Josh Allen manner and a slew of successful jumpers, even from three: this is the new Ashton Hagans, the No. 0 version of the sophomore Georgian. I’m sure we’ll get fed some corny story for Ashton changing his number to zero like I spoke to Ashton and he says he has zero distractions this year. He deleted twitter from his iPad and has started eating kale burgers! That’s right in Holly Rowe’s wheelhouse.

Hagans looks like the same kid who roughed up Coby White but without the freshman knuckleheadedness or disgusting jumper. He also leads now and holds himself and others responsible. This is mature Ashton Hagans who defends 94 feet for 40 minutes and makes threes and good decisions on offense. Welcome to the show.

Tyrese Maxey is UK’s best player

The jumpy smiler is unbelievable on the break and in the halfcourt, a terrific shooter from mid-range, three and the charity stripe, and a sticky defensive bulldog. I think he’s the only player on the team who can create his own shot no matter what. He’s gonna be the guy I think we’ll look to during the postseason when we can’t muster a bucket and the season is in jeopardy. This year’s version of PJ Washington or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Tyler Ulis or De’Aaron Fox. Bookmark this conversation for later.

Johnny Juzang ‘s future is uncertain

Among veteran stars Quickley and Hagans and the freshman forward talent of Keion Brooks and Kahlil Whitney, Johnny J. probably won’t earn very many minutes as a freshman. With the added tidbit that Calipari loves defense almost as much as his hair, and that Juzang is a poor defender, I can see his relationship with the coaching staff being strained, quite frankly. If you want a super negative prediction I think could come to fruition: Juzang following in fellow Californian Jemarl Baker’s footsteps. I hope we dig out a nice little role for him this year and possibly next, even though Boston, Fletch, T-Clarke, and possibly Cade will be in line to split minutes on the perimeter.

Kahlil Whitney is explosive but unsettled

Aside from maybe Maxey, Whitney is the best athlete on the team. I even discovered a comparison I’ve fallen in love with: Kahlil Whitney is Kawhi without a jumper. A sturdy athlete with an incredible frame and just a lot of power. But man, his jumper is a disaster. Aside from that, there’s so much to love, like his aggressive defense, active rebounding and ability to bully smaller wings in the paint. Even without the jumper, Whitney boasts a dicey combination of speed and power. There’s a way to use a 6-6 multi-forward athletic gem, I’m sure of it. And I’m also sure that John Calipari will figure it out. Until then, his raw explosiveness will have to do, and even that dominated basketball Demogorgon Jake Ohmer on the block, goodness gracious.

Keion Brooks flashes potential

An unexpected choice for sure, especially since it left blue-chippers Maxey and Whitney on the pine.

But Brooks has the highest ceiling of any forward on the roster in my opinion. Higher than Whitney, Richards, Montgomery, Sestina and yes, even baseball player Ben Jordan. The lanky freshman can shoot, create a tiny bit off the dribble (not with any control yet), rebound, defend and not make fifteen mental miscues per minute.

With some serious development this year and over next summer, I think a sophomore Brooks could establish himself as a bonafide first-rounder in 2021. Whether he has the patience remains to be seen. He might jump ship this year if he turns in good numbers (...or if he doesn’t, as Kentucky generally goes) but I truly believe Brooks is a year and a half away from being a college basketball player worthy of All-American whispers.

Nate Sestina is currently UK’s best big

Big Nate continued his excellent play, knocking down threes, diving hard towards the basket and playing brute defense. Don’t stop yourself from using the Reid Travis comparison. I’ll allow it. We ran back the Travis formula after it worked beautifully last season. Yeah! Strangely, grabbing big smart veterans who’ve done it at the college level really helps our youth-laden team.

EJ Montgomery seems lost on offense

EJ swatted shots and wrestled away several rebounds defensively and played very well on that end of the court in what must have been a tall order stopping the lethal Cowherd-Conway duo.

On offense, the poor dude couldn’t buy a one-footer if Jordan Belfort was selling it to him like a penny stock. Evan against the abbreviated Georgetown frontline, the extra space to work and get his shot off paid off nary a cent. Even the atrociously disinterested girls who sat next to my friends and me shared their disgruntlement at the continued Montgomery misses. An eventual made jump hook from less than four inches from the hoop led to a moment of real wisdom from one of the girls. “Do that every time” she scoffed after finally being entertained.

But what if EJ could do that every time? PJ Washington earned his keep last year with that same shot, although he made one or two. For EJ, that shot will probably define his season. If he hits it, great! We have our Kevin McHale for 2020. If not, well, he better not slip defensively or on the glass because his minutes will vanish with the velocity of my car keys the moment I need to leave the house.

Nick Richards shows promise before injury

With UK’s thin frontcourt, they’ll have no choice but to play Richards for extended minutes, and he looks like he’s ready to step up. For about a half of action vs. Georgetown, Richard was very active and defended the rim very well, which was a big reason why Georgetown was getting all of its offense from perimeter shots.

But then the injury happened, and the Big Blue Nation was horrified as he was writhing in pain. After going-down grasping his ankle area on what seemed like a non-contact injury, my mind flashed back five months to the Western Conference Finals when Kevin Durant went down against Houston with a non-contact lower leg injury. His ailment proved severe and likely led to his torn Achilles in the Finals. Nick seems to have avoided all the severe ones and might be out a couple weeks or so.