Five reasons behind Kentucky basketball’s five-game win streak:
1. Ashton Hagans at point guard. The best John Calipari teams feature a strong point guard. That has been true from John Wall in Cal’s first season to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last season. In fact, it wasn’t until SGA emerged as the point that the Cats took off a season ago. Same this year with Hagans, a pickpocket on defense and a burgeoning distributor on offense. The rise of the Georgia native has lifted his teammates, as well. It all starts with the point.
2. Players settling into their roles. With Hagans established as the leader of the band, the rest of the players have fallen into place. Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro are UK’s wings. Reid Travis and PJ Washington are UK’s bigs. Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery spell the bigs off the bench. Jemarl Baker and his trusty three-pointer can spell the wings. And Immanuel Quickiey can spell Hagans at the point.
“You don’t have a lot of drop-off there,” said Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland after his Bulldogs were battered by the Cats 76-55 on Tuesday.
3. Better team defense. Kentucky has jumped all the way to No. 11 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. That shouldn’t be too surprising. Mississippi State shot just 31.1 percent, including just 3-of-20 from three-point range, against the Cats on Tuesday. Georgia shot 30.4 percent last week. Vanderbilt shot 36.2 percent in the game before that. In fact, four of UK’s last seven opponents have been held below 40 percent from the floor.
The efficiency ranking is also huge. Over the last two years, five of the eight Final Four teams were ranked 11th or better in defensive efficiency. National champ Villanova finished No. 11 in that category last season. National runner-up Michigan was No. 3 in defensive efficiency.
After Tuesday’s game, sophomore forward PJ Washington said the Cats have gone from just guarding their own man at the beginning of the season to “now we’re playing each other’s man and we’re playing two spots over every time. We’re just talking and rotating.”
4. Balance on offense. UK’s top four scorers are all within a couple points per game of each other. Keldon Johnson leads the way at 14.6 points, followed by Tyler Herro at 13.7, Reid Travis at 12.6 and PJ Washington at 12.3. And it’s not a stretch to say that a different Cat has led the way each game of the current win streak.
Herro scored 21 points in the win over Texas A&M. Johnson and Hagans each scored 15 in the victory over Vanderbilt. Hagans torched his home-state Bulldogs for 23 points in the win at Georgia. Johnson went from zero points at Georgia to 20 at Auburn. Herro also scored 20. And Washington poured in 21 points against Mississippi State.
Instead of having one go-to guy, the Cats have spread the responsibility around. It’s difficult for opponents to focus on one player. And somewhere in the near future, expect to see Travis have a big night.
5. Confidence connection. You try having your doors blown off in the season opener by Duke and see what that does to your confidence. It has taken awhile for the Cats to wobble back. The Dec. 22 win over North Carolina was a start. The win at Louisville provided the next step up the ladder. After the setback at Alabama in the conference opener, this team has played with much more poise and purpose.
Purpose was the word Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl used after Kentucky held off his Tigers 82-80. Pearl contended UK 2018-19 is superior to UK 2017-18. Howland pointed to having a grad transfer such as Travis along with holdovers Washington and Nick Richards adding stability. With back-to-back wins over ranked teams — No. 14 Auburn away and No. 22 MSU at home — this is a team with a strong belief in itself.
And there’s still plenty of room for growth. Said Calipari on Tuesday: “We’re just starting to climb to where we need to go.”
No. 9 Kansas at No. 8 Kentucky
6 p.m. Saturday in SEC/Big 12 Challenge (ESPN)