A&M to Test UK’s Physicality, Passing
Depth is not a strength of this Kentucky team, with John Calipari relying on an eight-man rotation and four players to play more than 30 minutes per game.
Opponents have come to identify an opportunity in that.
“Lately it’s been the strategy of all teams: get Kentucky in foul trouble,” associate head coach Kenny Payne said.
Particularly against the Wildcat frontcourt, the strategy – though UK has found ways to win anyway – has been an effective one. UK’s three top bigs in terms of points, rebounds and minutes played – Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina – all average at least 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes. Montgomery and Sestina have had the most difficulty avoiding fouls, averaging 5.0 and 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes respectively.
“I think the major thing is they get a little tired and then you see them relax a little bit,” Payne said, “and then they end up reacting to something and then they get their hand in and they’re not showing their hands defensively, or they’re not moving their feet.”
|Kentucky at Texas A&M|
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In UK’s last game, a win over Florida, each member of the trio picked up two fouls before halftime. That put Coach Cal in a pickle, what with his general rule of thumb of sitting any players who picks up two fouls before halftime until the second half.
There have been times, like Saturday, when Calipari simply has been unable to avoid breaking his own rule. And in fact, this team has the highest two-foul participation percentage (15.4%, 225th highest in the country) of any UK team since the one that started 38-0 in 2014-15. The stat, tracked by kenpom.com, measures the percentage of minutes that a starter with two fouls in the first half has been allowed to play.
“We do it by committee,” Payne said. “We try to go to a zone at times to leave a guy out there with two (fouls). It’s not one particular thing. We’re all racking our brains. Cal is racking his brain over, ‘How do I play a guy with two fouls without him getting his third in the first half?’ It’s just one of those things we have to deal with.”
UK’s coaching staff hopes to avoid the quandary in the next outing for the No. 8/9 Wildcats (22-5, 12-2 Southeastern Conference), but Texas A&M (14-12, 8-6 SEC) will have other ideas come 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
“They are very physical,” Payne said. “They’re a really good offensive rebounding team. They throw the ball to the post to a guy who is really good down there at drawing fouls and creating havoc. They’re a good team. They are capable of beating us.”
That post player is Josh Nebo, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound senior who ranks third nationally in free-throw rate. The Aggies have been able to overcome subpar shooting in large part by getting to the line, ranking eighth nationally in free throw rate as a team and scoring nearly a quarter of their points from the line.
“We just need to bring that physicality back,” Montgomery said, “but still try to limit our fouls and just bring that energy and just to go out there and compete.”
The Aggies’ other core strength is their ability to force opponent miscues. Texas A&M forces turnovers on 22.7% of its defensive possessions, placing it in the top 30 nationally.
“They throw a lot of junk defenses at you,” Payne said. “They throw different rotations and zones and presses. We have to be a really good passing team in this game. We have to be able to attack them and make good passes because from the day we started this season, we all talked about the better offensive teams are the better passing teams. Well, they’re not going to let you run plays. You’ve got to be able to spread the floor, drive the ball, move the ball and make good passes to each other and take good shots.”
That test is a timely one as well. A&M might not play an up-tempo game, but Buzz Williams is willing to apply pressure. For that reason, the Cats will have to improve on the decision-making they showed in the final minutes of games last week against LSU and Florida.
“They do, and they will probably throw some press at us and scramble the game up like we talked about before,” Payne said. “We have to make the adjustment and be – again, I go back to this – we’ve trained all this time for this time of the year.”
Incredibly, the trip to College Station, Texas, will tip off the final two weeks of the regular season. The Cats – winners of six straight, 10 of their last 11 and 14 of their last 16 – are playing better than they have all year. Now, it’s time to find another gear.
“Right now, we want to be playing our best basketball leading up into going into the tournament, going into the NCAA Tournament,” Payne said. “A lot of that offensively starts with passing. Making good passes, being a really good passing team, seeing each other, making extra passes and attacking defenses.”
Quickley Leads No. 10 Cats Past Gators
John Calipari praised Immanuel Quickley’s basketball savvy, but only after the Kentucky coach and an assistant first challenged the guard to shoot the ball — or else.
“I said, ‘If you don’t shoot open shots, I’m putting Johnny (Juzang) in because I know he will shoot every shot,” Calipari said.
Quickley got the message and responded with a career game that helped the No. 10/10 Wildcats earn another hard-fought victory. He scored a career-high 26 points, including 15 of Kentucky’s 17 during a decisive second-half stretch as the 10th-ranked Wildcats pushed past Florida 65-59 on Saturday night for their sixth consecutive win.
Quickley made 4 of 6 from 3-point range and 8 of 17 shots overall to surpass his previous high of 23 points at Auburn on Feb. 1. He scored all but four of his points in the second half. Tyrese Maxey had 13 points for first-place Kentucky (22-5, 12-2 Southeastern Conference), which leads No. 13 Auburn and LSU by two games and took a three-game lead over Florida (17-10, 9-5).
Kentucky’s leading scorer is on a 16-game run of double-digit scoring performances. Nonetheless, Quickley has taken some ribbing for failing to crack 25 points like teammates Maxey, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Ashton Hagans. Against Florida, he was all but threatened to shoot instead of passing, as he did with open looks in the first half.
“I don’t want to say who it was, but one of the coaches yelled at me with some pretty choice words,” Quickley said. “For lack of a better term, he said, ‘You need to score.’ So, that kind of got me. I didn’t think I was dribbling to pass, I thought I was just making plays. But it happens sometimes, coaches see one thing and a player sees another.”
A season-high Rupp Arena crowd of 20,489 — including former Kentucky star John Wall of the Washington Wizards — eventually saw bigger things for Quickley, with fans chanting “MVP! MVP!” at him. He is building a case to be considered for SEC Player of the Year.
“He was the best player on the floor,” Gators coach Mike White said of Quickley. “I thought he did a great job finding space, searching. Hit huge shots, and complemented that with terrific defense on the perimeter.”
Keyontae Johnson had 19 points and Kerry Blackshear Jr. scored 18 for the Gators, who had won their previous three games and five of six.
A back-and-forth game featuring 11 lead changes and 10 ties swung UK’s way midway through the second half thanks to Quickley, who knocked down three consecutive 3-pointers for a 50-44 lead with 11:20 remaining. The sophomore guard’s 3 with 1:34 left provided an eight-point cushion.
But Florida rallied within 61-59 on Scottie Lewis’ tip of his missed free throw with 19 seconds left. Maxey converted a 1-and-1, and Ashton Hagans made a steal that led to Quickley adding two free thows with 1.9 seconds left.
Florida outrebounded Kentucky 30-27 but committed 16 turnovers, leading to 20 points.
Hagans didn’t start after injuring his leg at LSU but entered the game early and finished with seven points, four assists and six turnovers in 34 minutes in his first appearance off the bench since Dec. 1, 2018.
“It was dangerous what I did with Ashton because if he got hit right on that spot, he’s probably out three games,” Calipari said. “Not real smart. But he said, ‘I can do this, I’ll play.'”
Of note …
• The two teams will meet in two weeks, on March 7 in Gainesville, Florida, to close out the regular season
• Quickley scored 22 of his points in the second half, including 20 of UK’s 28 points when the Wildcats fell behind 40-35 in the second half. He has been torrid in the second half in UK’s current six-game win streak, averaging 15.5 points in the second half of those games
• It was Quickely’s seventh 20-point game of the season, all coming in the last 15 games. It’s his fifth 20-point scoring game in the last nine games. It is his 16th consecutive game in double figures, most since Malik Monk had a 30-game streak during the 2016-17 season
• Kentucky held Florida to 59 points, improved to 184-7 (96.3%) in the Calipari era when keeping the opponent to 63 points or fewer
• UK made 10 of 10 free throws, including all four in the final 12 seconds with the game on the line. It is the 11th time in school history that Kentucky has made every free throw in a game (minimum 10 attempts). Ironically the last time it happened was against Florida, when the Cats made all 11 on Feb. 7, 2012. UK has made at least 75% at the line in 10 straight games
Cats Can Clinch a Share of Title by Week’s End
With four games to play in the regular season, Kentucky has put itself in position to win its 49th regular-season Southeastern Conference championship.
Just a week and a half ago, UK was in a three-way tie for first place. By week’s end — and technically even during the middle of this week if the Wildcats win Tuesday and Auburn and LSU lose their midweek games — they could clinch at least a share of the SEC title. Kentucky sits alone atop the standings with a two-game lead on Auburn and LSU and in control of its own destiny in the SEC race. If the Wildcats were to win both games this week, they would clinch at least a share of the title.
Kentucky’s path to the title won’t be easy. In addition to UK’s trip to College Station, Texas, on Tuesday — where the Wildcats have lost two of their last three games — Kentucky will host Auburn on Saturday, Tennessee next Tuesday and finish up at Florida on March 7.
UK was voted to win their sixth regular-season title under John Calipari by the league’s media members during the preseason.