Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 76-48 smackdown of South Carolina on Tuesday in Rupp Arena:
1. EJ’s coming
After earning praise for his performance at Florida in which the freshman forward grabbed three key rebounds, EJ Montgomery followed up nicely, scoring 11 points and snatching 13 rebounds as the Cats took down the Gamecocks.
Montgomery had five offensive rebounds as UK smashed the visitors 50-27 on the glass overall. The 6-foot-10 Florida native had seven rebounds in the first half. He also hit a three-pointer with 16 seconds left to push him into double-digits scoring and secure the double-double. “Coach (John) Calipari ran a play for me,” he said afterward when asked if he knew he was close to the distinction.
Obviously skilled, this is almost the perfect time for Montgomery to progress into a consistent contributor. Early on, his problem was dealing with and playing through contact in the college game. But after months of banging in practice against PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Nick Richards, Montgomery is now a more physical player. “It has definitely helped,” said Washington.
When asked about Montgomery, Calipari praised Montgomery, but quickly threw in some praise for Travis and the job he did on South Carolina star Chris Silva, who got into foul trouble early on. Travis finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, but he helped hold Silva to just four points and four rebounds in 15 minutes.
Afterward, Calipari made sure to make a point of telling the media that Travis was hooked up to an IV in the locker room — that’s how hard he played. Even when Calipari was leaving the podium, he asked his staff if Travis was still on the IV.
2. Physical, not physical?
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin was first to the press conference podium after the game and he got there in a hurry. And his message was clear. Despite what you might think, his team is not a physical team. It couldn’t box out for rebounds. It couldn’t hold its position under the basket. It couldn’t set screens on offense. It didn’t fight through screens on defense. Against physical teams, “we don’t answer the bell,” said Martin.
Then when Calipari came to the podium, the UK coach talked about how proud he was of his team’s effort against a really physical team like South Carolina. It’s always battle when you play the Gamecocks, he said. That’s just the way it is. Or was it?
Here’s what we know for sure: Kentucky is on a defensive role. The Cats held South Carolina to 35.8 percent shooting for the game, including 27.6 percent in the second half. The Gamecocks were eight of 29 from the floor over the final 20 minutes. They were 1-for-10 from three-point range during that stretch. And for the Kentucky defense, that’s just more of the same.
That makes five straight opponents and seven of the last eight that Kentucky has held under 40 percent shooting. South Carolina managed just 0.689 points per possession, the fifth straight foe to reach the magic 1.0 PPP mark. That 0.689 was UK’s best defensive showing in that category since holding Monmouth to 0.641 back on Nov. 28. It was the lowest number for an SEC team against UK since Missouri’s 0.599 on Jan. 13, 2015.
That’s impressive. And according to the players, defense has become fun for this team. The players are engaged, communicating and helping each other on the defensive end. That no doubt helps a team become more physical.
3. Hungry and humble
That, said Calipari, is his message now. No arrogance. No letting up. Stay hungry. Keep playing defense. Keep rebounding. Keep getting better.
During his press conference, Martin said something interesting. “At this point of the season, you are what you’re going to be.”
If that’s the case, this Kentucky team is in pretty good shape. It has won nine straight games. Its players appear to know and play within their roles. Most nights, a different player steps up and plays well. And PJ Washington, who led the way with 20 points, appears to have become that consistent scorer and performer that a team can rely on as it navigates its way through February in preparation for March.
“I’ve got to keep the guys in the right frame of mind,” Calipari said. “My job now is hungry yet humble. We don’t need anybody arrogant right now. We need to be humble and we need to be hungry in what we’re trying to do.”