The Kentucky Wildcats had another nail-biter in Nashville Wednesday night, but luckily, they pulled out an 82-78 win over Vanderbilt after almost blowing a 17-point lead.
A big reason they didn’t? Jacob Toppin.
Toppin has been flirting with a breakout game as of late, and he finally had it against the Dores. He finished with 16 points on 5/9 shooting with four rebounds, two assists, and one block. He also shot 1/2 from three and was 5/5 from the free-throw line.
“What I said to the team after – a real team, a team – really doesn’t know who is going to have that big game. And whoever it is, everybody is ecstatic for. And they were ecstatic for him (Toppin) in that locker room,” head coach John Calipari said after the game.
“And that’s what I’m saying, we’re becoming a team. Instead of doing what I want to do, what does the team need me to do. And Jacob went in, looked good, we were able to put him on the point guard, which meant we could switch him to the big guy. And for Jacob, this is found money, this is money he found in the couch. Nice bit of change he picked up.”
On two separate occasions, Toppin went to the line in the final minute with Kentucky clinging to a one-point lead, then calmly drilled both free throws on those trips to hold off Vanderbilt. Depending on how this season plays out, we could be looking back at those as some of Kentucky’s most important free throws of the season.
“We’re still learning as a team. I think we’re getting better playing down the stretch. We still make a few mistakes that we need to fix. But with experience, we’re going to fix them. And I believe in this team. I believe this team is going in the right direction. And we’ve just got to keep pushing,” Toppin said after the game.
Over the course of the season, the sophomore big man has slowly become a bigger staple in this Kentucky rotation. Coming into the year from Rhode Island, he was known for his elite athleticism.
Well, at Kentucky, Toppin has been known for just about everything else as well.
In addition to his emergence on offense, John Calipari also trusts Toppin to be a lockdown defender for this team who can play the 3 and 4 spots effectively.
The most impressive thing as of late has been his offensive game, though. In Nashville, you saw Cal use him in a lot of pin-down curl action or flaring to the corner in off-ball movement. He has the length to finish over defenders in the paint with a floater, but also has the ability to hit the mid-range jumper if they wall him off in the lane.
Overall he has really developed a nice touch in the mid-range this season, and with work this summer, we should see that translate to behind the arc in the years to come. After failing to hit a three in his first 16 games, Toppin has now connected on three of his last four attempts from deep over the last three games. That included a key triple with four minutes left in Nashville that put the Cats up 67-60.
The 6-9 forward is even hitting long two-pointers that will also help stretch out defenses more and make life easier for guys like Isaiah Jackson and Olivier Sarr, who have combined for 22+ points in three-straight games after failing to do so in Kentucky’s previous seven games.
The Cats are obviously hoping to have a miracle finish to this season that gets that gets them into the Big Dance. But for this to happen, they needed someone to step up and have a bigger role going forward with Terrence Clarke unlikely to play again this season.
If Toppin can keep producing 8-10 points per game while playing good defense and rebounding well, he could be the spark this team needs to have a strong regular-season finish and make a run in the SEC Tournament.
More importantly, Toppin is starting to look a guy who can make a major impact next season and help ensure the struggles of this season don’t happen again in 2021-22.
It’s still so crazy to think he was planning on sitting out this season. For a guy who didn’t know if he was ready to make a big impact in Year 1 at Kentucky, he sure has shown everyone he’s a very important piece now and for the future of this program.
By the way he is trending, before his time in Lexington ends, Jacob Toppin is going to be a name all fans remember.