After a gritty performance on Saturday against Georgia Tech, all signs now point to freshman Keion Brooks scratching and clawing his way into UK Coach John Calipari’s “fight and finish” lineup.
Coming off the bench, the 6-foot-7 freshman fought for every rebound, had a key blocked shot and hit double figures for the second straight game as Kentucky beat Georgia Tech 67-53 at Rupp Arena. Brooks finished with 10 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes of action.
Brooks performance now begs the question of who should start in the four spot - Brooks or junior big man EJ Montgomery who disappeared against the Yellow Jackets, going scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting after coming off back-to-back games with career scoring highs.
With Calipari now leaning toward a three-guard lineup of Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey, it’s now just a matter of who should join Nick Richards in the stating lineup. Montgomery has started four of six games while battling injuries and Nate Sestina, who is expected back soon, has started all six games he’s played this season. Of the nine scholarship players on the roster, Brooks is the only player without a start.
“The last couple of games you’re seeing a different player who’s now fighting for his position and fighting on rebounds,” said Calipari of Brooks during his post-game show with Tom Leach. “Offensively, you’re seeing the stuff that he can do. I’m proud of him because it’s hard. They’re all fighting for time.”
On the defensive end, Brooks also stepped up against Georgia Tech with a blocked shot in the paint that changed the momentum as the Cats went from a 26-25 deficit to a six point advantage (36-30) at halftime. Kentucky never trailed again after the blocked shot.
“Keion fought like crazy which means you leave him in the game,” said Calipari. “It’s not about missed shots, made shots...Will you fight? Will you stay in front of people? No. 5 (Moses Wright) drove by everybody except Keion. How about that block down there that basically changed the game. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Brooks also looked sharp against Georgia Tech’s zone defense and seems more comfortable in his expanded role within the half-court offense.
“That’s where he’s really good,” said Calipari of playing Brooks in the middle of UK’s zone offense. “Sometimes you want to put Ashton around there to get him to drive, but there are other times, you’re just saying ‘Look, let him (Brooks) or EJ get in there and let them make basketball plays.’ We tried to go to EJ early and then when Keion got it going...he just has a great feel for the game.”
For the season, Montgomery is averaging 22.3 minutes and has a stat line of 9.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Brooks is playing 18.5 minutes a game and averages 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds. The odd man out right now is Kahlil Whitney, who continues to struggle offensively despite staring seven of nine games. Whitney scored just two points on Saturday in just under seven minutes of action.
The Wildcats now hit the road to face Utah and No. 3-ranked Ohio State in Las Vegas before wrapping up the calendar year at home against Louisville on December 28th.