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Top performers from Kentucky’s win over Fairleigh Dickinson

The confidence-boosting win Kentucky needed heading into a tough December stretch.

Montgomery Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Basketball improved to 7-1 on the young year after a thorough 83-52 beatdown of Northeast Conference juggernaut Fairleigh Dickinson.

Not since the 91-49 victory over Eastern Kentucky have the Cats looked remotely capable of winning the national championship. Saturday provided a reminder that Final Four glory is still a possibility. From tip to final horn, Kentucky dominated the now-2-6 Knights. Here are the best five performers:

5. Kahlil Whitney

Still a major work in progress in any one-on-one scenario, Whitney thrived complementarity Saturday, finishing several eye-popping dunks—off the oop and putbacks—continued his sturdy defensive play and didn’t commit a single turnover. Adds up to a productive day for Kahlil, something that’s evaded him in most contests so far.

4. Nick Richards

An “average” output for Nick nowadays reads 12 points, 10 boards, 2 blocks, 5/7 from the field and 2/2 from the charity stripe. He just cleans up the paint—vacuuming rebounds, swatting shots from short people, sneaking around for lob or dive-to-dunk attempts. His transition from abhorrent liability to literal game-changer (ICYMI, he might be the best player on the team) is accepted theory by now but I still haven’t reached the “ahh cool (and slight head-shake)” level of whatever when I read such stat lines.

They still surprise me, even after repeated games played with a junior year pizzaz and remarkable per-game numbers. Save for Maxey’s dazzling MSU 26-pointer, Nick Richards is the leading scorer for Kentucky! It was a winding, brow-furrowing path from his freshman year misery to the confident, hulking swashbuckler turning in double-double’s every night, but folks, we have arrived. Nick is legit.

3. Keion Brooks Jr.

Keion contributed a career-high 15 points on the way to his best performance yet as a wildcat. He slid his foot a millimeter behind the three-point line on his long jumpers, snatched rebounds away from overmatched Knights and finished buckets with his usual creative athleticism, but actually above 50%. He also cut a few of the boneheaded body-thrusts and vision-less passes he’s typically good for six times a game.

Keion is a ball of energy and channeled his godly bodily basketball gifts into almost exclusively positive Saturday, and that was a first on the year. Boat load of potential for this kid as he continues to fine the edges of a tantalizing skillset.

2. Ashton Hagans

I love controlling point guards. And it isn’t terrible when they’re able to defend, either. Hagans is the mastermind behind a vastly-improved Kentucky offense over the past couple games, managing the savory pick-and-rolls between he and Nick, finding the hot hands (it’s a game of roulette) and attacking the basket with intent to finish or get fouled (7-7 from the line).

Like Keion, Ashton’s curbing his past bad habits—turning the ball over, foot-on-the-line twos, thoughtless passes—and he’s engineering a hazy group of mostly-young scorers into an offense finding its identity...while still crushing the nobodies. 11 points and 11 more assists for Ashton, who is climbing into All-American territory with his ability to handle the offense.

1. EJ Montgomery

Okay. 25 points, 9 rebounds for EJ. I’ll give you a minute to scrape your jaw off the floor. what a performance by the other Georgian sophomore. Aggressive, looking for his shot from tip to finish, Montgomery’s outburst was unsurprising after seeing the loaded intensity he came out with almost immediately. As soon as he caught the ball in the mid-paint, EJ looked to shoot: mid-range jumpers were sniped, layups finished and a few dunks slammed into the dizzied heads of Fairleigh Dickinson.

I hope this isn’t his version of Nick Richards’ 25-15 outing vs. IPFW his freshman year. His shoulder-slumped posture and half-frown uneasiness melded into shiny smiles and broad aggression the more he ripped apart the Knights’ inside defense. A confidence-inspiring day from EJ, for him, fans, and of course. John Calipari.