After a slow start to the season with numerous lackluster performances, the Kentucky Wildcats have turned things around in a major way. They've rattled off victories against four teams ranked in the top 25, and following a 21-point beatdown at home against No. 22 Mississippi State, they're finding their groove at the perfect time.
So what's working for the 15-3 (5-1 in the SEC) Wildcats?
From the top of the roster to the bottom, we're starting to see consistency and balance shine through. Five different players have led the team in scoring throughout the season, with each of them accomplishing that feat at least twice. Six different players have led the team in rebounds, while four have led the team in assists. They're attacking opponentson both ends of the floor in different ways with various weapons, and teams just don't know how to stop it.
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said the pressure got to his team and they just weren't able to handle it. The Wildcats overwhelmed them.
“I thought they really pressured us and we didn’t handle that pressure very well," he said after the game. "We should be able to handle that better than we did. I thought in the first half we were penetrating, which was what we needed to do. They were so spaced out. We have to attack the basket. We were getting in there and not jump stopping. We were getting sped up. You have to stop and slow down."
As far as specific players go, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have obviously been major scoring threats throughout the year, Ashton Hagans is a terror on defense, PJ Washington and Reid Travis have each been forces on the inside, and Immanuel Quickley's shot is coming on. Heck, even Jemarl Baker has his 3-and-D role carved out for him in limited minutes. The roles are there.
With Kentucky centers Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery, however, it's been more of a struggle in terms of consistency and finding their respective grooves. They've each had flashes of brilliance, but never enough to truly dominate on either end of the floor.
Against the Bulldogs last night, though, they both had small breakthroughs that the team believes could absolutely change the entire landscape of the season moving forward.
They just need to be able to replicate that on a game-to-game basis.
Richards finished with eight points, six rebounds, and a block off the bench, while Montgomery added five points, two rebounds, one steal, and one block. Neither had earth-shattering numbers, but their big moments came in crucial times of the game.
After a few missed gimmes and an ugly turnover early, Montgomery had a momentum-shifting block on one end, which led to a massive dunk on the other for Richards with 12:51 remaining. Kentucky's three point lead turned to five, which then turned to 14 at the 7:32 mark. It was the turning point of the game.
"I mean, did you see him block that shot?" Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the victory. "It changed the game.
If we had another big guy in, and he just acted like, well, it's not my man and didn't block that shot and that ball goes in, we could have lost the game.
"That changed the game. Those kind of plays, one, they make it so guards won't drive in there, but two, they changed the game because you get breakouts down the other end. And he and Nick are able to do that for us."
And then for good measure, Montgomery sank a three-pointer from the left elbow with just 2:50 remaining in the second half, his first make from deep of the season. He has fallen in love with taking long twos, and though they look solid coming off his hands, the 6-foot-11 freshman is never able to make them fall. With his first made three in the books, Calipari wonders if this is what he needed to finally break through.
"I told him, "It's the first one he made all year. It's good that you made one finally." I keep telling him, he's going to break through and everybody is going to say, oh, my gosh, who is this guy,"
Kentucky guard Tyler Herro said Montgomery's improved play isn't a surprise, as the entire team has seen it in practice. But when it finally happened out on the floor on Tuesday evening, it was a game-changer.
"EJ has been making great shots throughout the season, he works hard every day at practice," Herro said. "EJ's play today changed the game today, he sparked us a little bit. (Once he finds his rhythm) he's going to be another great contribution for us, but he's already playing really well. For him to come in and make plays like that, it's big."
When asked if Montgomery was the difference-maker in taking this team to the next level, Kentucky point guard Hagans said it isn't just him with that potential impact. He said they're going to need Richards' continued development, as well.
Once that happens, Hagans believes things are going to get scary.
"Not just EJ, we're going to need Nick too," he said. "When Nick get in, it's great, he's just great on the court. EJ also. EJ is going to get it going when the season goes along, and once he gets it going, we're going to be one hell of a team."