EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — You know what? I think this Kentucky basketball team is going to be OK.
That’s what I’ve decided after watching the young Wildcats win four games and lose one over the past 12 days. After seeing them throttle Louisville, come from behind to beat Georgia, repeat that feat in their first true road game with a flu-riddled roster at LSU, collapse at Tennessee and finally hold off Texas A&M with just seven available scholarship players on Tuesday night.
I think Kentucky is going to be OK, and by Kentucky standards that of course means a team that come March will be a serious threat to make the Final Four. Now, that’s partially because it’s clear there is no juggernaut out there this season and every team in America has at least one bizarre loss.
But it’s also because, little by by little, I see some pieces falling into place for the Cats.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the 6-foot-6 guard with a 7-foot wingspan who is a matchup nightmare but somehow signed with and played several games for Kentucky before anyone realized he was a star, announced his arrival against the Cardinals and Bulldogs. He is a terrific defender who has suddenly discovered he can get to the rack any time he wants, and that is a development that has been delightful to watch.
PJ Washington, the 6-foot-7 forward with a 7-3 wingspan and 43-inch vertical who stumbled out of the gate and struggled with what he needs to be for this team, finally figured it out over the last three games and has become a holy terror in the paint. He has emerged as Kentucky’s tough guy and earned the right to lead, Calipari said after another big game against the Aggies.
You could now make an argument that Washington and Gilgeous-Alexander are the Cats’ best players — and they’re not the two sure-fire NBA first-round picks on the team. That would guard Hamidou Diallo and forward Kevin Knox, who’ve been in a recent slump but appeared to shrug it off against A&M.
Knox, who absolutely must play better (or any) defense, rediscovered his shooting stroke: 5 of 5 from the field, 2 of 2 from deep, 15 points in 25 minutes. Diallo, who was hit hard by the flu and played (poorly) through it the previous two games, returned to attack mode: 10 straight points in the second half and 18 for the game Tuesday.
By my count, that adds up to Kentucky’s four best players all rising to the challenge against the Aggies, who just two weeks ago were the No. 5 team in the country. Does that sound at least a little bit like a team starting to put things together?
To quickly recap: In the last 12 days, the Cats beat their rival by 29 points, had two come-from-behind conference wins, one of them on the road with three players battling the flu, and beat a totally desperate Texas A&M team without their starting point guard or really any bench to speak of.
Yes, the second half of the Tennessee game was ugly, but it feels like a throw-away to me. Consider that Kentucky played one of its best halves of the season to build an eight-point lead at intermission, on the road against a ranked opponent, before its two best players that night — Washington (cramps) and Wenyen Gabriel (fouls) — were glued to the bench for the final 12 minutes. Diallo didn’t practice between the LSU game and trip to Knoxville and said he still felt awful from the flu.
Still, it is reasonable to worry about the development of freshman 7-footer Nick Richards, who even Calipari admits has taken a step back. Over these otherwise encouraging last five games, Richards averaged just 14 minutes, 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds.
“It’s all based on toughness,” Calipari said Tuesday, “staying engaged.”
He’s been hammering that point to his team of all freshmen and sophomores, and some of them are starting to listen. These Wildcats will need Richards to get back on track to meet their potential, and they’ll need Knox to address his own issues.
A couple of ball fakes, drives and finishes against A&M were positive signs that he’s listening when Calipari pleads for him to stop settling for jump shots. Now it’s time to work on his defense and rebounding — to toughen up, in other words.
But see, that’s where the biggest piece of all comes into the picture. Five-star freshman Jarred Vanderbilt has finally started practicing with the Wildcats in the last week and Calipari talked Tuesday night like his game debut could be soon.
Kentucky’s coach has called Vanderbilt, a muscled-up, 6-foot-9 forward who has been sidelined all season with a foot injury, alternately a point-forward, the team’s most versatile player and its best shot blocker. So if Knox won’t get with the program, Vanderbilt might give the Cats another very good option.
“I never remembered him being as physically strong as he is,” Calipari said. “He changed up practice. It was physical.”
So let me add all this up real quick and … yep, I really do think this Kentucky basketball team is going to be OK.