Kentucky basketball: No. 1 again, the 'Cats might just stay for a while
As expected, when the college basketball AP Poll dropped Monday, Kentucky was back on top. For the Wildcats, it had been just shy of 3 years since they were last No. 1 in the nation. The last time Kentucky spent more than 2 weeks atop the polls was the 2014-15 season when the Wildcats had a 38-0 regular season. There’s more good news for Big Blue Nation — in 5 of Kentucky’s 7 NCAA title seasons since the AP Poll came into existence, the Wildcats spent a good deal of the season ranked No. 1. This current Kentucky squad could also stay at the top for a while.
It’s hardly a secret that March Madness is a guard-dominated activity. Consider Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team that came one call from the NCAA title game. That team was no great shakes in the post, and then promptly lost their best post player ahead of their deep NCAA run. Didn’t matter. Their guards carried the Tigers.
Last year, P.J. Washington was a standout for Kentucky, but trying to run UK’s offense through the post was a difficult and deliberate process. A smart defensive team could force the ball out of Washington’s hands, or at least delay possessions deep into the shot clock. It’s the kind of thing that creates 62-58 games.
This season, Kentucky’s offense is flowing through the guards. Freshman Tyrese Maxey was a conscienceless scoring machine in UK’s opening win over then-No. 1 Michigan State. He was happy taking a back-seat role in an easy win over Eastern Kentucky in the next game. Maxey can score, pass, or simply play his role and let UK’s other guards shine.
Sophomore Ashton Hagans is the defensive standout who can get to the rim, and has shown a significantly improved shooting touch. Fellow sophomore Immanuel Quickley, often over his head last season, has been glue guy always ready with solid defense, a more consistent shooting touch, and a reliable ability to get to the foul line. Fellow wings Kahlil Whitney and Johnny Juzang will likely add depth.
Kentucky is short-staffed in the frontcourt, but when junior Nick Richards can avoid silly fouls and mental mistakes, he’s as talented as any big man in the country. Sophomore E.J. Montgomery is still lithe and lean, sometimes looking more like a baby deer than a power forward, but sometimes picking up key rebounds and dunks. Senior transfer Nate Sestina helps out both inside and on the outside, and freshman Keion Brooks is a high-energy guy.
Challenges for UK are the lack of frontcourt depth, potential rebounding issues, and a team still struggling with outside shooting (which is where Juzang, at this point 0-for-the young season, stands to help). But Kentucky is dialed in defensively, holding its first 2 opponents to a combined 31.7% shooting, as well as 22% from 3-point range — another thing that bodes well for March.
For the short term, Kentucky is also likely to hang on to the top spot because of its schedule.
Not until Dec. 14th, when Georgia Tech comes to Rupp Arena, will Kentucky face a foe known to casual college basketball followers.
Not until a week after that, when Ohio State meets UK in Las Vegas, will the Cats play a ranked team.
Of course, the following week brings the annual in-state grudge match with Louisville. But for at least this next month, No. 1 should be pretty secure for Kentucky. How long the Wildcats can hang on to the spot after that … well, that’s when things will get interesting.