While Auburn is coming off a big ROAD win, their 1st of the season, last night against Texas A&M, it’s time to turn the page and look ahead to Saturday and what a game this is going to be.
Saturday is a game that we’ve all been looking forward since the schedule was released back in August. Bill Walton has referred to this game as an “event for the ages.” Saturday’s game with the Wildcats is the first of two matchups this season, the sequel taking place Saturday February 23 in Lexington. Kentucky comes into Saturday’s matchup winners of 3 straight after their SEC opening loss to Alabama and their defense has been spectacular, giving up less than 50 in back-to-back games. For a Kentucky perspective of Saturday’s showcase, Jason Marcum from Kentucky’s A Sea of Blue joins me today to answer some questions about the Cats. My thanks to Jason for taking the time to answer my questions! Jason’s answers are in bold below.
1. Over the last decade or so, College basketball has become all about the One-and Dones, something we saw primarily started by Kentucky. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the rule (I’d rather players go straight to the NBA or stay at least 2 years), but how has that rule shaped Kentucky’s program the last 10 or so years? Is it harder for Kentucky fans to get invested in a group of players that you already know in advance are only going to be there for 1 year?
“Kentucky has thrived with one and dones for much of John Calipari’s tenure, and it was a big reason why Kentucky made the Final Four in four of five years while winning a national title. But Calipari was the only major head coach that was heavily focused on it early on, as teams like Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and North Carolina were mostly comprised of multi-year players with an occasional one and done.”
“However, those schools quickly began focusing harder on one and dones, and they’ve all gotten their fair share over the years. That’s led to a decrease in Kentucky’s ability to land all the major players they want in each class, as they’ve only landed one top-five recruit in the last five classes if you include this year, and that one guy was Skal Labissiere.”
“That’s led to Calipari recruiting more multi-year guys and even graduate transfers. That’s led to Kentucky taking a step back, as they’ve not reached the Final Four since 2015 and have just one Elite Eight berth over the last four years. That’s still great, but it is a decrease from the level Calipari had Kentucky at over his first five years.”
“Even so, Kentucky still has several players each year that either enter the NBA Draft when they clearly need another year or transfer. That has made it harder for Kentucky fans to stay patient since they’re losing guys after one or two years when they’re not ready for the pros. Still, Kentucky has typically finished the SEC slate strong and gone into the NCAA Tournament as a legitimate Final Four contender, and this year should be no different.”
2. Kentucky has had their ups and downs so far this year but they seem to have their rhythm, especially on the defensive end. With so many newcomers, growing pains are obviously to be expected, but how would you access this season so far?
“It looked like Kentucky was going to be an up-tempo team that scored a lot of points and won games by scoring 80-90 points every game. However, Calipari realized that this team simply doesn’t have the horses to run that hard for an entire season, so he’s now heavily focused on becoming a defensive team that wins games like Virginia. They still can get hot and score 80+ points, but they’re at a point where they’d rather win games by holding opponents to 60ish points. Their personnel is more suited to do that with Ashton Hagans running the show, as he’s become one of the best defenders in all of college basketball.”
“Overall, it’s been a good season with some unexpected round bumps and needed a midseason revamp to become a legit Final Four team. Guys are buying into their roles now and accepting that winning games will require them to take a backseat in scoring here and there.“
3. One big addition that was highly publicized was the addition of Reid Travis, the grad transfer from Stanford, but he has struggled so far in SEC play, averaging just over 7 points a game. What’s been the reason for his struggles so far and do you think the lofty expectations placed upon him have affected his play?
“Travis thrived in the Pac-12 because it’s simply become a shell of what it once was. The kind of bigs he went against game in and game out there were simply not as athletic and talented as the kind of guys he’s facing every night in the SEC. Even the bad teams like Vanderbilt and Georgia have better bigs than 90% of what the Pac-12 had, so it’s causing him a lot of grief when he’s trying to score in the paint.”
“He’s still a tremendous rebounder that brings a level of intensity and work ethic that’s helped this team make big strides since the summer. He’s still a vital member of this team, but it has become clear that Kentucky needs guys like Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery (former Auburn commit) to step up when it comes to post scoring and blocking shots.”
4. Keldon Johnson is a guy that played well early in the season when a lot of guys seemed to be trying to find themselves and has emerged as the team’s leading scorer so far this year. He was scoreless Tuesday night against Georgia and yet the team still won by 20. Despite not scoring on Tuesday, how important has Johnson been to this team?
“Johnson was their best player early on, but he was surprisingly bad on defense, even though his work ethic is as good as you’ll see in a freshman. He’s truly committed to becoming the best version of himself. I think what’s happened is because Calipari is hammering defense now, Johnson has been working harder to become a better defender, and he’s made nice strides there, but I do think it’s caused his offense to dip. He’s still very important to this team’s title hopes, and by March, I think he’ll be a more complete player who can lock guys down and score 15+ points a game. That’s what this Kentucky team needs to become a true title contender.”
5. Throughout non-conference play, Kentucky seemed to struggle to find a capable point guard. Quade Green transferred to Washington and from there, the playing time at that position seemed to rotate mostly between Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. But over the past 5-6 games, Hagans has emerged as that guy, highlighted by his 8 steals game against North Carolina and then scoring a career-high 23 points in his home state on Tuesday night. Talk about his importance on this team and how his emergence has made Kentucky more dangerous?
“Once Green transferred, that allowed roles to be defined, mainly Ashton Hagans as the top point guard with Immanuel Quickley coming off the bench to give Hagans a breather or play shooting guard. Green was a good scorer, but he really left a lot to be desired on defense, though it’s hard to guard guys who are 6-3+ when you’re 5-11 and playing off the ball. Kentucky wanted him to be more of a shooting guard than point guard, and he just couldn’t handle it.”
“Hagans, on the other hand, is an elite defender that’s actually helping his offense with as many steals and runout layups he gets. Quickley is also a better defender and as good of a shooter as Green. Now, Hagans’ offense is starting to really come around, as he’s hitting jumpers and learning how to ward off defenders while driving to the rim. He was putting a clinic on against Georgia, who has three legitimate bigs they play together and make it very hard to get to the rim.”
“If Hagans keeps improving, he’ll become the not to mention the latest Calipari point guard to be a lottery pick. He’s beginning to put himself in the same class as guys like De’Aaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Brandon Knight.”
6. If you had to pick one player on the team that Auburn fans should be aware of Saturday, who would that be?
“Hagans, no doubt. He’s the key to this Kentucky team. If he’s not on the floor, Kentucky’s defense takes a big hit, and Quickley isn’t running the offense as effectively.”
7. I’m being honest when I say if the game Saturday was in Lexington, I’d probably pick the Cats to win. But with this game being played in Auburn and Kentucky losing their last 2 games here in Auburn, how do you see this game playing out? Do you have score prediction?
“With all do respect to both teams, some really good Kentucky teams have lost or struggled mightily to win in Auburn against lesser Tigers team than this year’s version. Heck, the Wall/Cousins came very close to losing to an Auburn team that went 15-17 under Tony Barbee (barf).”
“Regardless of how much talent he has, Bruce Pearl is one of the hardest coaches in college basketball to beat in his own arena. And it just so happens this year’s Auburn team, while they’re had some struggles, is top to bottom one of the most talented teams he’s ever had. And the thing about that is players really seem to live up to their potential when they’re playing Kentucky.”
“While the Cats are playing well, I think Auburn at home bringing their A game is too much for just about any college team to beat. I’m going with the Tigers to win 71-66.”
Thanks again Jason! Ironically, we have almost identical scores for this game on
Saturday. We’ll see how it plays out.