March Madness is Almost Here!
As we enter the month of March, we start to get into the most exciting time period for a college basketball fan. Starting with the conference tournament, then merging into the NCAA Tournament, March Madness is a holiday for most hoop fans.
Kentucky fans are certainly no exception. With the amount of tournament success that Kentucky has had under coach John Calipari, Wildcat fans look forward to this time of the year tremendously. Coach Cal usually has his squad at their highest potential by the time the tournament comes around. With only a couple games left in the regular season, Kentucky has found who their go-to players are. We know who impacts the game the most, and who needs to step it up a bit more.
In this piece, I will be ranking the scholarship players on our roster in order of their impact and importance to the team as we enter March Madness. Kentucky’s success hinges on the play of a few stars, so let’s rank them for the fun of it!
Tier 1: Most Important
#1: Nick Richards, Center – 14 PPG, 8 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 66% FG
Some people may disagree with this, but I believe Nick Richards is the most important player on the team heading into this month. A lot of Kentucky’s success is reliant on how he plays. The gameplan often revolves around feeding him in the post. He either scores, or makes a good pass back out to a guard to initiate a play. He does the little things as well, like setting good screens and grabbing rebounds.
As a 7 footer, he disrupts the paint on defense and forces teams to have to shoot the long ball. He’s a premier shot blocker and his imposing presence has been bothering opponents all season. Nick is tied for 2nd on the team in points per game, and leads the team in rebounds and blocks. If Nick plays well, Kentucky usually wins. That will likely be the case in March Madness.
#2: Immanuel Quickley, Combo Guard – 16.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.9APG, 42% FG, 42% 3PT, 92% FT
Immanuel Quickley has emerged as one of the most prolific scorers in the SEC. His 16 PPG leads the team, and he’s an elite three point shooter as well. His reliability to knock down free throws has helped Kentucky a ton in close game situations. Immanuel is a player who makes very few mistakes, and it one of the more efficient players on the team. He doesn’t turn the ball over or take bad shots. He’s also a great rebounder from the guard position, and a good on-ball defender.
Quickley’s red-hot scoring in SEC play has been a major factor in Kentucky’s success, and he is a front runner to win SEC POTY. Guard-play is very important in the tournament, so Immanuel Quickley will need to keep playing well if we want to make a run.
Tier 2: Must Play Well
#3: Ashton Hagans, Point Guard – 11.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 6.4 APG, 2.0 SPG, 40% FG
Some may argue that Tyrese Maxey should be in the #3 spot, but I personally believe that Hagans’ impact is a little bit higher. As the primary ball-handler, the offense flows through the sophomore guard. His decision making is questionable at times, but he’s a great playmaker. His ability to score is a little inconsistent, but he’s capable of putting up big scoring nights. Ashton is the best on-ball defender in the country, and is always poking the ball loose or disrupting the ball-handler in some way.
His 2 SPG lead the team, and his rebounding is solid for a PG as well. Additionally, Hagans is a vocal leader and experienced player, so that will go a long way in the tournament. When Hagans plays poorly, Quickley and Maxey usually pick up the slack.However, we still need Hagans to ball out in March Madness if we want to see another championship.
#4: Tyrese Maxey, Combo Guard – 14 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3 APG, 43% FG
Tyrese Maxey is a dynamic freshman who has elite scoring potential. As a pure scorer, Maxey can put the ball in the basket from anywhere on the floor. He’s got fantastic speed, and he usually blows by defenders with his lethal acceleration. Maxey is also one of the best finishers I’ve seen at Kentucky, with an innate ability to finish layups from awkward angles. Maxey loves to shoot the ball as well, and has a reliable three point and mid-range jump shot. He excells at other things also, flaunting great playmaking and rebounding ability. He takes questionable shots at times, but has easily been one of our more consistent scorers. Tyrese is a pesky defender, and has no problem guarding opposing teams’ best guy.
Maxey has also shown a tendency to be very clutch, knocking down a bunch of late-game daggers to help earn the victory. That clutch gene is an extremely important skill to have in the tournament. He is a projected top 10 pick in the upcoming draft, and has the most skill/talent of anyone on the team.
Tier 3: Inconsistent, but Still Important
#5: EJ Montgomery, Power Forward – 6.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 57% FG
Montgomery struggled for most of the season, being a bit of an eyesore on the court. Committing senseless fouls, disappearing on offense, and getting toasted on the defensive end. Expectations were high for the former McDonald’s All-American coming into his sophomore season. However, as SEC play has gone on, there has been an obvious improvement on EJ’s end. He still isn’t scoring at will, but his 7-9 points per game were just what we needed from him. He’s starting to get big time rebounds and has upped his physicality and aggression by a ton. He’s also been a bit of a rim-protector as of late, which is much needed from a 6’10 Forward.
EJ is an extremely skilled player but has yet to put all the pieces together. I think EJ will have a good game or two in the tournament, but if he’s able to be reliable and do the little things, he’ll be an important part of our attempt to navigate the insanity of March Madness.
#6: Nate Sestina, Power Forward – 5.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 45% FG, 40% 3PT
Nate Sestina was playing for a team that is barely considered D1 last season. This year, he finds himself playing for the most storied program in college basketball. That pressure has gotten to Sestina, as he has struggled to find a groove this year. Big Nate is a guy who has had a couple big games, but has been a bit of a liability on the court for most of the year. Nate is one of the best three-point shooters on the team, and works best when utilized in pick-and-pop situations. When he gets open, Nate generally knocks down the three ball.
He had a big game earlier in the year against Ohio State where he hit 5 three pointers. Against LSU, he had three deep balls go down. Those were two of Nate’s best games in a UK uniform, and it was because he was getting open for three. He’s pretty good at grabbing tough rebounds, but is a complete mess on the defensive end. He’s a bit too slow and sluggish to defend very well at this level, and teams tend to make it a point to switch him off onto guards and attack him. He also suffers from the refs calling him for every ticky-tack foul in the book, so that doesn’t help. If Sestina can come in, knock down a couple threes, and grab a few rebounds, he will be doing exactly what is needed from him.
Tier 4: Doesn’t Contribute Much, Could Break Out
#7: Keion Brooks, Forward/Wing – 4.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1 APG, 45% 3PT
Keion Brooks is a bit of a swiss army knife for Kentucky. He’s a great rebounder, and has a killer mid-range jump shot. Brooks is oozing with potential, but hasn’t yet found his groove here in his freshman season. Keion reminds me a lot of PJ Washington, as a guy who can do a lot of things well on the floor. He’s a decent rebounder as well, and has been an on-and-off shot blocker.
Brooks hasn’t had many standout games this season, but there’s been a lot of match-ups where he has been very important and has contributed solid bench minutes. Brooks may not blow anyone’s minds in the tournament, but I think he has the potential to be a surprise contributor in the big dance.
#8: Johnny Juzang, Wing/Guard – 2.5 PPG, 2 RPG, 34% FG, 27% 3PT
I have waited for a long time to see Juzang break out this season, and it didn’t really happen. He had a really solid game against Tennessee earlier in conference play, but he’s been a no-show for the most part. Johnny is a great jump shooter, with an obvious ability to score the basketball. He’s a long wing as well, which makes him a decent defender and rebounder. He has struggled with confidence issues, but I think he has a ton of potential.
If Juzang can just knock down a couple shots per game, we’ll be getting what we need out of him. However, any player with this type of natural scoring talent is always a guy who can just get hot out of nowhere and contribute big points. I think Johnny has that ability for sure.
Kentucky is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, and has shown a great will to win. Despite a few bumps in the road, this has been an extremely successful season. If all goes well, Kentucky has the opportunity to head into march with a 2 seed. I’m not sure how the SEC tournament will go, but with the momentum Kentucky has I think it’s safe to say they’re the favorites to win the conference.
All of Kentucky’s players are important, but some more than others. If we can get solid contributions from at least 6 of our 8 guys, I think this team has as good a chance as anyone to win it all this season. It’s been a wild and dramatic year of college basketball, and anyone could win it. Get ready for March Madness!
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