Mark Story

For 2019-20, has UK basketball fixed one of its main NCAA tourney vulnerabilities?

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In its past three NCAA Tournament losses, Kentucky men’s basketball has seen the same frustrating script play out all three times.

During the games in which UK’s Final Four dreams were denied, John Calipari’s Wildcats have watched their freshmen point guards wilt under March Madness heat.

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 freshman made only five of 14 shots and battled foul trouble as UK fell 75-73 to North Carolina in the South Region finals.

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, against Kansas State in the round of 16, KSU defenders “bodied” the slender Gilgeous-Alexander relentlessly; the Kentucky guard hit only two of 10 shots and turned the ball over five times as UK was upset 61-58.

2019. In the Midwest Region finals, Auburn junior point guard Jared Harper played with a veteran’s moxie, rifling in 26 points. Conversely, rookie UK lead guard Ashton Hagans had almost as many turnovers (seven) as points (10). Kentucky’s other freshman point guard, Immanuel Quickley, went 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.

Veteran Auburn point guard Jared Harper (1) outplayed Kentucky freshman Ashton Hagans last season in the Tigers’ 77-71 overtime victory over the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament round of eight. Alex Slitz

Based on that prologue, the biggest reason for optimism that UK can make its first Final Four trip since 2015 at the end of the 2019-20 season is basic:

Assuming everyone stays healthy, Calipari will not have to rely on a first-year point guard in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

That was assured when Hagans, a 6-foot-3, 198-pound sophomore from Cartersville, Ga., and Quickley, a 6-3, 188-pound sophomore from Havre de Grace, Md., elected to return to UK for a second season of college hoops.

Having “seasoned” point guards should be a boon for Kentucky when NCAA Tournament time rolls back around in March 2020.

“It will be big,” Quickley said. “We know what to expect, opponents-wise. (We know) things we’ll see throughout a college season, the adversity, the ups and downs throughout the season. We’ll be able to share with the younger guys our experience.”

After reclassifying from the class of 2019, Hagans struggled early in his initial college season in 2018-19. Through UK’s first 10 games, Hagans averaged only 3.5 points.

“I was just trying to play my role, see where I fit in with the team we had,” Hagans said.

Starting with Hagans’ eight-steal, defensive tour de force vs. North Carolina on Dec. 22, however, he became Kentucky’s best player for a brief stint. Beginning with that 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 could not maintain his pace.

In Kentucky’s four NCAA Tournament games, Hagans made one of seven three-point tries and had more turnovers (14) than assists (12).

Calipari said Hagans has absorbed the correct lessons from his up-and-down freshman season. “He’s got a different way about him,” Calipari said.

Quickley started seven of UK’s first eight games in 2018-19, 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.

During the postseason, Quickley delivered some clutch production. He had 12 points in UK’s win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. With the Wildcats locked in a grind-it-out, stress test against Houston in the NCAA tourney round of 16, Quickley hit two vital treys in what became a 62-58 Kentucky win.

Entering 2019-20, “Immanuel (Quickley) is not even the same player,” Calipari said.

Immanuel Quickley.JPG
Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley (5) had 25 points in UK’s annual Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage. Mark Mahan

This 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.

The track record of how that scenario plays out for Kentucky is pretty strong.

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 after producing, arguably, the best single season ever by a UK point guard.

For the coming season, Kentucky backers would settle for some consistently positive point-guard play under March Madness pressure.

UK bringing experienced guards into the 2019-20 season “can only help us in the long run,” Hagans said.

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.