The Kentucky Wildcats opened up the 2019-2020 season with an exciting 69-62 win over the No. 1 Michigan State Spartans. Led in scoring by freshman Tyrese Maxey, who put up an impressive 26 points in his debut, defense was the story of the day for the young Wildcats.
The first half was riddled with whistles as it seemed like there was a foul every 20-30 seconds. But both teams seemed to settle in the second half and put some offensive sets together that should give both fan bases something to look forward to.
This was an outstanding start to the season, and we have a lot to talk about. Here are five things you need to know from the season opener.
Defensive rotations are very impressive
Yes, Michigan State looked lost on offense. But a lot of that had to do with Kentucky’s defensive efforts. John Calipari has always talked about not only help defense, but helping the helper. And tonight, Kentucky put on a clinic in both.
Just by the eyeball test, you could tell how active this team was defensively. If someone got beat, a teammate was there to help. If they double-teamed on a screen, the other three guys rotated to cover the open man. It was absolutely a thing of beauty. And if they are this bought-in to Calipari’s defensive philosophy already, this will be a scary group by the end of the season.
Rebounding is a problem
Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery played better than expected after watching the two exhibition games in Rupp Arena, but there has to be more production on the glass. Between Kentucky’s two returning big men and Nate Sestina, they only pulled in 12 rebounds as a group. That is unacceptable, and it will certainly come back to bite the Wildcats down the road if this issue is not corrected.
Maxey needs to score
After being fairly unimpressive in the two exhibition games, Tyrese Maxey came to play in Madison Square Garden. Coming off the bench, he was able to get buckets around the basket and make shots from the outside, capping it off with a 30-footer with a minute left in the game. Not a bad debut on one of the biggest stages in the country against the top team in college basketball.
For a large part of the game, Kentucky had trouble finding points. That makes it even more important for Maxey to find his rhythm and produce on the scoreboard. I am not saying he has to lead the team in scoring every game for them to win, but he does have to be a scoring threat in order to create opportunities for others.
Hagans has a ways to go
In the first half of the game, Hagans looked like a potential defensive player of the year candidate. He contained player of the year candidate Cassius Winston, and he led a group that played incredible defense throughout the game.
However, he also regressed to his late-2019 season self in the second half, making lots of mistakes with the ball. Missing easy shot opportunities and turning the ball over at crucial points in the game could cost him minutes this season, especially with Maxey’s talent and the improvement of Immanuel Quickley. Hagans needs to be better for the team to be successful, but also to remain as the primary point guard and leader of this team.
The Kentucky Wildcats are sure to be the No. 1 team in the country when the next set of polls come out. This is the first time a Kentucky team has been ranked as the top team in the AP since November of 2016. And looking at the schedule moving forward, they should be able to hold the ranking for quite some time.
The next major challenge comes as the Wildcats will face Ohio State in Las Vegas on December 21st, and then they will host Louisville a week later. If they are somehow able to clear that slate, they could spend as many as eight weeks as the top team in the land.
Now let’s talk about the game!