The Utah Valley Wolverines were a stiff opponent for the reeling Kentucky Wildcats, particularly once they decided to cease missing shots midway through the second half.
TJ Washington led the Wolverines’ second-half outburst with a stretch of three consecutive 30-foot catapults. When he opened the game with an immediate missed Hail Mary heave, I chuckled; this is cute.
But that kid is addicted to 30-foot heaves the way Mike McD is addicted to poker, and he had his own Teddy KGB moment after splashing three consecutive threes from the vicinity of the logo.
He added two more down the stretch, giving him FIVE 30-footers. Add him to the Elston Turner Unconscious Rupp Performance club. (Bubba Parnham is vice-president and he returns in a few weeks, with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets this time around).
But behind a robust outing from junior Nick Richards and a gritty final half from Ashton Hagans, Kentucky prevailed over Mark Madsen’s club in what became a must-win.
Here are some battle notes on each of our soldiers, ranked by performance of course:
1. Ashton Hagans
Up by four with just under six minutes remaining, trying to avoid another home-court debacle at the hands of a laughably inferior foe, John Calipari chose his worst outside shooter (and a not-so-stellar finisher around the rim at that) to take the two technical free throws.
“No doubt in my mind,” Cal said after the game.
The 6-3 sophomore guard wasn’t perfect, but to use a Cal-ism, he battled!!!! Like everyone else, I wanted throw myself off the second level balcony after a few atrocious passes and botched layups. But the dude is a warrior.
Bum leg and all, Hagans took over in the second half, barking at disengaged teammates (there was a scream or seven at Maxey) and taking it to the hoop nonstop.
Following the Evansville fiasco, I thought Kentucky needed someone who would pull a Travis Ford and shout during a timeout, “I don’t care if we have to play another game, we aren’t leaving this gym without a win,” like T-Ford did during the under-16 timeout vs. LSU in ‘94.
PJ Washington and Reid Travis filled that role last year. By the end of last season, when in peril, PJ delivered on repeated bully-ball post-ups, played exceptional defense and the pair of forwards swallowed the glass.
Versus Utah Valley, that guy was Hagans. Ashton played poorly for most of the night, but he shrugged off collective Rupp Arena groans from the first half and attacked the basket until he scored.
Whatever it took. Fouls, offensive rebounds, the once-a-season elegant Nick Richards alley-oop. Ashton was the guy Monday night.
With Tyrese Maxey disappearing for most of the second half and Immanuel Quickley out with some strange chest injury, Ashton refused to lose. That’s our best player right now. All that’s left to tack on to this performance is some consistency moving forward.
2. Nick Richards
My guy, my guy, my favorite human being on the planet came through again!
Another 20-point, 10-rebound performance. He came out clapping on defense when switched onto Utah Valley’s best player! And then he converted an and-one at the other end immediately after.
Cal even called him “the best shooter on the team” due to his brilliance in the mid-range as of late. (Still not a single three made in his career, but Nick would have been a beast on those George Mikan teams sixty years ago). He’s a beast in Lexington now and I cannot smile wider.
He dunked like four times! And he hit the glass in the first half before, as Cal noted, his legs gave up on him after having to absorb more of EJ Montgomery’s vacant minutes.
When you watch his face, read his emotions or listen to him talk, you can just tell he’s putting the game of basketball together. During his little press conference, Nick explained how he and Ashton could see lobs and pick-and-rolls developing after playing with each other for a year. They actually trust each other and are growing comfortable with their yin and yang on the basketball court!
I’m sure a lot of Nick’s development is due to his finally-increased minutes-load. Up 14 minutes per game from last season and without EJ, Nick has nearly an endless leash. He knows he doesn’t have to be perfect, that he can drop a pass or miss a layup and he won’t be pulled in favor of a Pac-12 Player of the Year or the future 12th pick in the NBA draft.
The margin for error has expanded, and incidentally, so has Nick’s confidence. Confidence is more important than talent, always. And that’s why Nick Richards is in the two-spot after Monday’s game.
(And he appeared on the video board at halftime to promote his girlfriend and UK Volleyball star Leah Edmond. Like, that’s cool. How many five-stars would gush about their girlfriend on the jumbotron during the middle of the game?)
3. Tyrese Maxey
Tyrese was unable to string together a scoring spurt, but that didn’t stop the freshman from drawing fouls on drives to the hoop, pounding the defensive glass and locking in defensively when he needed to.
But he did let his poor shooting impact him in the other facets of the game at times, leaving his hands at his sides on defense after turning the ball over and standing idle on offense when he wasn’t in rhythm. All fixable, attitude-based things. A missed shot isn’t the end of the world, as evidenced by Kentucky’s abstinence from beyond the arc.
In his postgame interview, Calipari brought up former NBA player Sam Cassell, saying that “he wasn’t afraid to miss the game-winner.” That’s an awesome quote. Tyrese wasn’t afraid to miss against Michigan State because he probably thought he wouldn’t (HE’S INVINCIBLE BABY, A PTP’ER!).
A flurry of missed shots and a loss to Evansville later...Maxey doesn’t exude the same confidence. He hesitated a few times when open, froze when he needed to make a quick decision after breaking past his man in the half court and got down on himself after bad plays.
It’s OK, Nick Richards was the same way for his first two years. But he never had a performance like Maxey had against MSU and that’s a hell of a confidence-inflator.
The talent to be a top-10 pick is clearly present, but the maturity of living with imperfection isn’t quite there yet. That goes for literally every single player on the team to some extent, maybe aside from Ashton.
4. Nate Sestina
Big Nate just didn’t have it defensively for most of the game, which he credited to his poor lateral quickness in his postgame presser. He explained how moving laterally has always been a weakness.
“It’s all about me taking it on as a personal thing,” Nate explained. “I have to do a better job or it’s gonna kill me and it’s gonna kill the team.”
You know what’s just awesome to have? Players who care about nothing other than their team and their team triumphing as a whole rather than themselves as individuals. Nate wove every single comment about his game or his performance Monday into a broad, team-oriented picture.
I’ll explain his approach like this and why I love it so much: When another player says “Oh, well I gotta work on my lateral quickness,” it’s usually because the player wants to flourish personally or improve his NBA portfolio. “If I don’t improve this, coach won’t let me play” or, “oh, wow I fell on draft boards and they’re saying THIS about me?”
But Nate believes he must perfect his side-to-side defensive movement solely so he can relieve his teammates who are abandoning their guy to help off the dude Nate let by. That kills the team.
To most players, they’re scared of being killed in mock drafts or by coach Cal or, who knows, maybe this article. We would be the best team in the country if everyone held Nate’s philosophy.
But they don’t and watching Kentucky’s “kids,” as Cal says, grow into team-over-everything players is my favorite thing about basketball. Nate’s there.
That’s because he’s a senior who earned a dream spot at Kentucky though three years of Patriot League rock fights. Kentucky needs to turn their several Jesus Shuttlesworth’s into Nate Sestina’s attitude-wise.
5. Johnny Juzang
I looooved watching the smooth, sweet-stroking Californian relax like he's back at Malibu Beach while he’s on the basketball court.
Never trying to do too much and letting everything come to him. Perfect. He doesn’t force it, drives at the rim with control when he has a lane, makes the right pass when he doesn’t.
And he moves so fluently in every spot on the floor. He breaks out to the wing off defensive rebounds, constantly moves without the ball and he even crashed the offensive glass, got fouled and connected on both free throws late.
He embodied every Cal-ism Monday night, despite not showing up on the stat sheet very often. But that doesn’t matter. Cal said he was “SO proud” of Johnny J.
6. Keion Brooks
Mid-range king, horrific-looking three-point shooter, superb athlete, below average defender and rebounder.
Keion’s game is messier than The Big Lebowski’s plot, but there’s some diamond in that rough. Like the baseline drive and vicious one-hand slam and his zone-disabling mid-range jumpers.
He also loses his man off the ball on defense and just doesn’t know how to play off his teammates yet. Like, at all.
With his athleticism, motor and ability to create his own shot (underrated), Keion has the tools to be a modern forward. It’s all upstairs for Mr. Brooks, but hopefully he’ll receive ample tutelage from Big Nate along the way.
7. Kahlil Whitney
I forgot Kahlil Whitney existed until his finger was shifted out of place on a rebound late in the second half. Guy goes up, lands with a freakishly misshapen hand, pops everything back in place and sprints down to play defense.
Love the effort.
Aside from that bizarre pair of possessions, Kahlil was nearly silent. I’ve hesitated pontificating on Whitney so far and I still won’t...because I still do not understand him.
Not in a bad way. He’s a gifted athlete built like a young Kawhi, but he needs to figure out what he’s best at RIGHT NOW and play through those skills. SO, his mid-range jumper, rebounding motor and defensive competitiveness.
Bring 100% intensity/focus to those three specific skills and he’d be a positive impact on the floor. Everything else will come, but Kahlil has to be patient, and he has been. His maturity given his sporadic role—particularly on offense—is impressive.