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Jamie Vaught: Despite early season setbacks, Cats rebound, make basketball in Kentucky fun again


UK Basketball is fun again.

After that ugly season-opening loss to Duke in Indianapolis back on Election Day in early November, the Big Blue Nation suffered a horrible spell for nearly two months. The rabid fans had seen the Wildcats, a preseason No. 2 team behind Kansas, fall from grace. Kentucky was no longer a serious Final Four contender.

Three days later, UK bounced back and defeated Missouri Valley Conference foe Southern Illinois 71-59 in its home opener. Still no one was impressed.

Then the Wildcats won six straight matchups, beating a handful of nobodies like North Dakota, VMI, Winthrop, Tennessee State, Monmouth and UNC Greensboro. No one was excited, though. Not even UK’s 7-1 record.

Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans lays in a shot against Kansas at Rupp Arena Jan. 26. The Cats topped the Jayhawks 71-63, spurring talk of a final four run. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)

Kentucky still had to beat somebody worthy. A more respectable opponent, Seton Hall of the Big East, was up next. Guess what? The Wildcats dropped an overtime thriller to the Pirates 84-83 at famed Madison Square Garden despite a double-double performance by PJ Washington (29 points and 12 rebounds). The loss put UK’s mark at 7-2.

Then sophomore point guard Quade Green decided to leave the program. People began to wonder. At that point, the nervous Big Blue Nation was getting pretty restless with a panic button close by. The Wildcats hadn’t beaten anybody really good yet. But Coach Cal keeps telling the fans be patient, and the team is going through a learning process and will get better.

Then Utah Utes of the Pac-12 invaded Lexington for a mid-December date. A nice — not great — test for Kentucky. As it turned out, the Wildcats whipped Utah 88-61.

It was a step in the right direction. But UK had three straight tough matchups coming up on the road, facing North Carolina (in Chicago), Louisville and Alabama during the holidays.

Guess what? Then-No. 19 Kentucky surprised No. 9 Tar Heels 80-72 with defensive specialist Ashton Hagans’ eight steals which tied a school record. It was its first signature win of the 2018-19 campaign. The critics began to take UK somewhat seriously. Another step in the right direction.

One week later, the Wildcats surprised the critics again by overcoming a formidable U of L squad 71-58 before a hostile crowd at KFC Yum! Center.

And UK Basketball has started to become fun again. Just like the old days when we had many wonderful seasons.

Fast forward to a recent showdown between No. 12 Kentucky and No. 14 Auburn. And the Cats survived with a narrow 82-80 victory on the road in front of SEC icon and Tiger great Charles Barkley.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Kentucky is better than last year when the Wildcats finished its 26-11 season with a Sweet Sixteen loss to Kansas State.

“I think they are playing with a purpose,” said Pearl after the game. “They value possessions more, they get good looks and they have a good inside-outside game. I know Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans and EJ Montgomery well. They have real character. There’s a real will to win there. They would rather win and score less. Those kids are built like champions.”

Then Kentucky stopped another Top 25 team in Mississippi State last week by a score of 76-55.

Mississippi State coach Ben Howland was impressed with Kentucky’s recent efficient performance.

“It really helps to have a fifth year in Reid (Travis). There is a lot of experience between him and PJ Washington. For him be a sophomore and be as good as he is. They have two really experienced guys up there,” said Howland. “Nick Richards is back for his sophomore year, it’s just something that hasn’t always happened because these guys sometimes leave early. I think those three guys really anchor their front line.

“I think their perimeter players, those three freshman are really good. They have Ashton (Hagans) who is 19 years old and he’s mature. I think Tyler (Herro) is fantastic.. Those guys did a really good job and I think Immanuel (Quickley) give them good depth coming in. He’s a real high-level guard. They don’t drop out when he comes in the game.

“So, they’ve got good depth and they are playing with a lot of poise. Part of it is their schedule, they have played a tough schedule early. Think about where they were during the first game of the year versus Duke. It’s credit to John (Calipari) and his staff – Hall of fame coach.”

And ESPN’s College GameDay came to Lexington this past weekend with then-No. 8 Kentucky putting on a very nice demonstration against Kansas. The Wildcats roared past the No. 9 Jayhawks 71-63 before a boisterous Rupp Arena crowd of 24,387, its largest of the year with three UK standouts – PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson — posting double-doubles.

Now a Final Four contender, Kentucky is 5-1 against teams who are or were ranked in Associated Press Top 25. The squad is now getting respect with very impressive wins for its NCAA Tournament resume.

UK, who faces Florida on Saturday in Gainesville, improved its winning streak to seven games after a dominating victory over hapless Vanderbilt in Nashville Tuesday night. However, we certainly don’t expect the 17-3 Wildcats to sweep the remaining SEC schedule. The conference is plenty tough with seven teams in Top 39 of NCAA’s new NET rankings (as of January 29). And Tennessee is No. 1 in this week’s AP poll as well.

Needless to say, UK Basketball is sure fun again. Don’t you agree?

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.


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