Mark Story

People are missing the main reason to feel good about UK basketball in 2019-20

As usual in the spring, the focus of Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball has turned to John Calipari’s ever-churning roster.

The commitment to UK by California swingman Johnny Juzang has lifted Calipari’s 2019 recruiting class — which now includes four wing players, combo guard Tyrese Maxey and graduate transfer big man Nate Sestina — to the top of the rankings.

Still to be determined is whether Kentucky big men Nick Richards, a junior-to-be, and EJ Montgomery, a sophomore-to-be, will withdraw their names from the NBA Draft and return to school.

Also up in the air is whether UK will add class of 2019 star Jaden McDaniels, a reclassified class of 2020 high schooler or another graduate transfer.

Whatever happens, the best reason for hope in 2020 that UK can earn its first Final Four trip since 2015 has already occurred. The decisions by point guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley to stay in Lexington for their sophomore seasons were huge for Kentucky basketball.

To understand how much experienced point guards should mean to UK’s next basketball season, one need only look at the way Kentucky’s past three years have ended — with a Wildcats’ freshman point guard struggling as the Cats’ Final Four dreams were extinguished.

2017. One game after De’Aaron Fox lit up Lonzo Ball and UCLA for 39 points in the NCAA Tournament round of 16, the Kentucky frosh hit only 5-of-14 shots and battled foul trouble as UK fell 75-73 to North Carolina in the South Region finals.

De'Aaron Fox
A dejected De’Aaron Fox left the floor after North Carolina Kentucky 75-73 in the 2017 NCAA Tournament South Region finals. Jonathan Palmer

2018. In Kentucky’s opening NCAA Tournament wins over Davidson and Buffalo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 23 points, seven rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals. However, the freshman point guard saw his magic carpet ride grounded in the round of 16 by a physical Kansas State defense.

With KSU defenders “bodying” the slender Gilgeous-Alexander relentlessly, the Kentucky guard hit only 2-of-10 shots and turned the ball over five times as UK was upset 61-58 in the NCAA round of 16.

SGA vs K-State
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) made only 2-of-10 field-goal tries in UK's 61-58 loss to Kansas State in the 2018 NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

2019. In the Midwest Region finals, veteran Auburn point guard Jared Harper took over the game by scoring 26 points. Conversely, rookie UK lead guard Hagans had almost as many turnovers (seven) as points (10). Kentucky’s other freshman point guard, Quickley, provided scant relief, going 1-of-6 from three-point range.

As a result, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers upset Kentucky 77-71 in overtime to deny the Wildcats a trip to the Final Four.

Dejected Ashton Hagans
Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans, left, was part of a subdued UK locker room after the Wildcats' 77-71 overtime loss to Auburn in the 2019 NCAA Tournament Midwest Region finals. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Much as football quarterbacks tend to make big steps forward in their second seasons as starters, Hagans and Quickley should do the same as sophomore point guards.

A 6-foot-3, 192-pound product of Cartersville, Ga., Hagans had one of the more interesting freshman seasons at Kentucky in recent memory.

After reclassifying from the class of 2019, Hagans was not a big factor early last season. Through UK’s first 10 games, he averaged 3.5 points.

Starting with Hagans’ eight-steal, defensive tour de force vs. North Carolina Dec. 22, however, he became Kentucky’s best player for a stretch. Beginning with the 80-72 win over UNC, Hagans averaged 14.3 points, 4.3 steals and 4.3 assists over six games.

Alas, as defenders increasingly played off the jump shot-challenged Hagans, the UK point guard did not play with the same verve down the stretch. In Kentucky’s four NCAA Tournament games, Hagans made 1-of-7 three-point tries and had more turnovers (14) than assists (12).

Quickley, a 6-3, 185-pound product of Havre de Grace, Md., started seven of UK’s first eight games, then lost the point guard job to Hagans.

In mid-January, Quickley had back-to-back double figure scoring games against Texas A&M (10 points on 4-of-4 field-goal shooting) and Vanderbilt (12). He then went the rest of the season with only one more game above 10 points.

Immanuel Quickley
As a Kentucky Wildcats sophomore in 2019-20, Immanuel Quickley will look to improve on his 37.2 percent field-goal shooting last season. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

During the post-season, Quickley showed some flashes of what he can be. He had 12 points in UK’s win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.

With the Wildcats locked in a tense grind-fest against Houston in the NCAA tourney round of 16, Quickley hit two vital treys in what became a 62-58 Kentucky win.

Next year will be only the third time in the Calipari era that Kentucky has returned a sophomore point guard who played in games for UK the season before.

In 2014-15, Andrew Harrison helped lead Kentucky to wins in its first 38 games and a trip to the Final Four.

The following season, Tyler Ulis was chosen both SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

At the very least, Kentucky having Hagans and Quickley back in 2019-20 should make experienced point-guard play a NCAA Tournament advantage for the Cats for a change.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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