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Kentucky Emerging As True National Title Contender

John Calipari has Kentucky rolling. The Wildcats have now won eight straight after Saturdays 65-54 win AT Florida. Playing in Gainesville is no easy task and it might just be their most impressive of the season. If you’re a Kentucky fan or have followed closely since Calipari took over, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the team is getting better as the season progresses. Dependent on Freshmen nearly every year, Calipari teams generally hit their stride in February. To me, this season is different. This team is over a month ahead of schedule and picking up steam. With road wins in Auburn and Florida, along with home victories against Mississippi State and Kansas, this Kentucky team has strung together one of the more impressive two weeks runs in the Calipari regular season era.

Three months ago, the entire college basketball world was ready to crown Duke National Champions after they bullied the Cats for forty minutes. Duke could do nothing wrong while Kentucky was overwhelmed by the Blue Devils the entire game. Many wrote the Kentucky obituary just two halves into the 2018-2019 season, while praising Coach K for his ability to recruit one-and-done Freshmen, the same one-and-done Freshman John Calipari had been so successful at getting to Kentucky. Although, national media harped that John Calipari was ruining College Basketball when McDonald’s All-Americans were arriving in Lexington in droves. Those same talking heads, like Rick Pitino’s little sister, Pat Forde, can’t praise Coach K fast enough.

Fast forward three months and the sky is not falling in Kentucky.

John Calipari, not new to this game, never flinched. He’s been here before, he will be here again. Instead, he has transformed this Kentucky team into tough competitors who don’t quit. Every player has stepped up to do their job. The transfer of Quade Green allowed the emergence of Ashton Hagans who has blossomed into a super star and potential first round pick in this June’s NBA draft. It is rare for a player to dominate a basketball game on the defensive side of the ball, but that’s exactly what Hagans has done and it’s contagious.

Kentucky has risen to the occasion and picked each other up when shots may not be falling. Tyler Herro is a prime example of someone who had to find other ways to impact a game when shots weren’t falling. Coming in with a reputation as a light out three-point shooter, he has been streaky. Young players often put their head down, but instead, he improved every other aspect of his game. He followed the lead of Hagans and became a defensive menace making life for a ball

handler miserable. Instead of settling for jump shots he’s getting to the basket, finishing at the rim and finding open teammates. This has given him the confidence to step up and hit big time shots which we saw from beginning to end Saturday in The Swamp.

When you have two Freshmen working this hard and playing this tough, it’s only a matter of time until it rubs off. Much like the 2011-2012 Kentucky team led by two freshmaen dogs, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, they brought an intensity every night that caught on with Terrance Jones and Darius Miller. This is a tough Kentucky team built to win. Outstanding perimeter defenders in Hagans, Herro and Keldon Johnson, while P.J. Washington and Reid Travis are willing to go chest-to-chest with anyone in the country down low.

I knew Kentucky would be a pretty good basketball team come March, but I admit I did not expect to hit our stride in January. However, thing’s don’t get any easier in February. If you thought at then No. 14 Auburn, followed by home victories against then No. 22 Mississippi State and No. 9 Kansas was a hell of a stretch, Kentucky is now staring down the barrel of another three-game gauntlet of top 25 teams, including No. 1 Tennessee.

Written by Billy Gamboe

Billy Gamboe is a contributor to The Schpiel.

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