Kentucky got off to a bit of a slow start falling behind early, but they regained the lead before halftime, 36-30, and never looked back. It was a good one for Coach Cal against his former assistants and, later, successor at Memphis.
Another change in the starting lineup
John Calipari finally decided to go with his best starting five in this one. That group included Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, and Nick Richards.
Quickley’s return to the starting lineup was also accompanied by a new hair style (thanks, Drew).
Immanuel Quickley with the new hair style. I know I bring the hard hitting journalism to my followers ♂️ pic.twitter.com/9eEqNobtim— Big Blue Drew (@BigBlueDrew33) December 14, 2019
While this change might be partly due to Tech’s zone defense, it also happens to be the best lineup the Cats have put on the floor this year in terms of production.
This starting lineup also includes five guys who all average double figures in the scoring column.
Kahlil Whitney might get some more starts this season, especially against a team like the Louisville Cardinals so he can guard Jordan Nwora, but these five might be the starters for the majority of the rest of the season.
Bubba Parham’s return
You may remember Parham’s epic performance in Rupp Arena last season, except he was a member of the VMI Keydets basketball team.
The man splashed 10 threes on his way to 35 points and a real scare for Kentucky fans. The Cats ended up winning 92-82, but Parham continued the legend that opponents simply play out of their minds in Lexington.
He transferred to Georgia Tech this offseason after two years at VMI. While he hasn’t had a great season, especially to his standards through his first two seasons, you know he came in confident for this one.
He looked like he was going to be lights out to start the game, making his first three shots on his way to eight points. However, Parham was slowed down in a big way after that with Hagans in his grill.
EJ reverted after a great performance last week
After a career night last Saturday — 25 points and nine rebounds — Montgomery reverted tonight.
EJ has been solid so far this season, but last weekend looked like the icing on the cake for his marked improvement.
Tonight, however, EJ struggled to get anything going. After looking confident as ever, he looked timid on offense this time around.
He didn’t take many shots, which could be due to the zone, but he also didn’t finish when he did. And the biggest problem is that he didn’t rebound or defend all too well, either.
Kentucky doesn’t need Montgomery to put up 25 points and nine rebounds per game. But they do need something. And they got nothing tonight.
Hagans is the key to beating the zone, and everything else for that matter
Hagans is the floor general first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be incredibly valuable in other ways on the offensive end.
We’ve seen it multiple times so far this season, and it continued today, that Hagans is the key to beating zone defenses.
Most teams rely on shooting to beat the zone, but that’s hard when you don’t shoot well. The Cats have instead found a new way to attack and it’s through Hagans.
Sometimes, Kentucky will put Hagans on the baseline and he’ll run it until he gets open and can attack the basket and either shoot or find another open man. Other times, he’ll go right to the middle and pass out of it to help space the floor.
For awhile, Hagans tried to avoid contact at the rim and slither his way up for a layup. That’s not how he played in high school and that’s why he struggled to finish around the rim early on in his career. Now, he takes it right at the defender and welcomes the contact.
He has quickly ascended as one of the best point guards in the country. Couple his offense and playmaking ability with his defense and it’s easy to understand why. He does everything on the court, and he does it well.
Keion Brooks is hard to keep off the floor
I love watching Brooks play. Yes, Whitney is a dynamic athlete and can make a ridiculous dunk from time to time while playing solid defense, but Brooks is simply better and I love watching him play.
He hustles, he plays hard, and he is learning how to use his body. Whitney is extremely athletic, and while Brooks looks awkward at times, he’s actually got some really good bounce, too.
Not to mention, Brooks has a sweet stroke. It doesn’t yet stretch all the way to the three-point line at times, but he’s money from the midrange.
There was a lot of talk this preseason about Calipari going small and playing Whitney at the four if Nick or EJ struggled. While those two have played well, it’s actually Brooks that has earned the time as the small-ball four.
Just look at this help defense on the big man.
Keion Brooks rejection at the rim. pic.twitter.com/ZLbhXtz2g7— Not Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton2) December 14, 2019
Brooks is extremely versatile and he’s coming along very quickly, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him work himself into the NBA Draft. But if he stays another season, KBJ is going to be really, really special.
Maxey is better when he’s not forcing it
Look, the shots just aren’t falling right now for the guy who was predicted by many to be Kentucky’s leading scorer.
After an insane 26-point debut against the Michigan State Spartans in the first game of the season, Maxey has quickly come back down to earth.
The problem has been that Maxey DOES have the potential to go off on any given night. So, in an effort to see whether tonight is the night or not, he’s been forcing shot after shot — a lot of them bad shots. And they’re just not falling right now.
However, he’s finally starting to realize that he can contribute in a bunch of ways even when he’s not scoring.
He’s really coming along as a distributor, which will be important for his future in the NBA as a point guard. He’s defending, he’s rebounding, and he’s flat out hustling on every single play.
If there’s one thing that’s worse than jacking shots that aren’t falling, it’s slouching and feeling sorry for yourself. He’s not doing that. Instead, he’s getting better every game and he’s making his teammates around him better as well.
Add another to the W column and enjoy it now because the next month is going to be tough.
As long as Kentucky continues to get better each time out, there’s not a team in the country that the Cats can’t compete with.
Just take it one at a time.