Kentucky Basketball: Cats energy, hustle keys to victory over Michigan in London

Kentucky Wildcats guard Cason Wallace (Credit: Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports)
Kentucky Wildcats guard Cason Wallace (Credit: Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports) /

73. 528. Final. 69. 485

The Kentucky Basketball squad traveled across the pond to take on the former Fab Five member-led Michigan Wolverines coached by Juwan Howard and the Wildcats escaped the trip with their first significant victory of the season 73-69 behind the story of the night being the energy and hustle of the Big Blue.

Even though Kentucky (6-2) was successful in the end, an honest assessment leaves the Big Blue Nation still pondering over the continuing growing pains that the Wildcats are facing.

For example, over the course of the game, we still witness flashes of a stagnant and confused offensive, though limited in comparison to previous big games, and there were still various instances of forced passes, lazy turnovers, and reckless shots.

Tshiebwe was a beast in notching his Southeastern Conference-leading fourth double-double of the season and 44th of his career, going for 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.

If Kentucky plans on making a deep March run, then they are going to have to clean up some of these fundamentalist errors and become more disciplined as a unit. However, it’s a big win for John Calipari’s squad, and there are plenty of positives to take away as the Wildcats head back to the States.

The Wildcats had five players in double-figure scoring including 11 points and seven assists by Sahvir Wheeler, and Antonio Reeves 11 points off three from behind the arc.

Here are a quick three.

No. 1 Kentucky basketball finally showed hustle and energy

The story of the Cats thus far has definitely been their inability to perform and come away victorious in big-time games, including falling 88-72 to Gonzaga last week and Michigan State.

Most of the BBN would agree in saying that when the big moments come around Kentucky seems to appear complacent and lackluster.  That was not the case against the Wolverines (5-3) as the Cats capitalized on several second-chance opportunities, made defensive stand-after-stand rotating, made necessary switches, and just overall maintained a positive energy throughout the game.  Despite the presence of the 7’1 Hunter Dickinson, Kentucky out-rebounded the Wolverines 46-33, also bringing down 12 offensive boards to Michigan’s seven.

No. 2 Jacob Toppin stepping up to the plate in the second half

Another story for the Cats over their “rough start” has been the lack of production offensively from anyone other than Oscar Tshiebwe.  This short season has been filled with the plunder of possessions ending in forced entry passes to the big man when it seems no one else has a solution or a plan.

However, against Michigan, the overall production seemed to be distributed more evenly as five Wildcat players ended the game with double-digit scoring, and the highlight of the game appeared to be Jacob Toppin coming into his own as he displayed glimpses of domination talent around the rim.  Toppin finished the game with 14 points 5 boards and 1 assist, as his scoring provided Kentucky with the necessary spark to finish out the game on numerous occasions.

Toppin didn’t get the start in the second half instead it was Daimion Collins and Toppin appeared to get the message Calipari must have delivered. He netted 10 of his points in the second half.

Toppin’s work on his jumper off the dribble was apparent tonight as he stroked the mid-range game very efficiently and his late-game alley-oop finish almost brought the house down.   It will be interesting to see his development over the course of the rest of the season and whether or not his scoring ability will be able to detract some of the attention away from our returning Player of the Year in Tshiebwe,

No. 3 Cason Wallace accepting his role as the guy in a BIG MOMENT

It’s safe to categorize this entire game as a BIG MOMENT for the Wildcats as they have failed to produce a big win over a big team up to this point in the season.

It’s also safe to say that, outside of Tshiebwe, several of the Kentucky players, especially the younger guys, have shown the tendency to shy away from the big moments in a game, or at least produce in the big moments.  However, that was not the case against Michigan, particularly with the rising freshman star Cason Wallace.

Over the course of the year, Wallace has shown his incredible defensive ability racking up steal after steal and multi-steal games.  Wallace has also shown his special athleticism as he has gone up strong against multiple defenders and finished with emphatic dunks.

However,  the moment that will likely stick out to the majority of fans in the Big Blue Nation in this win was Wallace’s dagger three-pointer late in the second half with Kentucky holding a 68-66 lead that essentially sealed the Wolverines’ fate.  Outside of that crucial shot, the freshman finished the game with 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists, an impressive stat line, and all the proof needed to ensure that Wallace is contributing in big moments for his team.

If this Kentucky basketball teams want to be considered multidimensional against the competition for the remainder of the season, various players stepping up as Wallace did tonight is what it’s going to take.

Next up for the Wildcats is a lunchtime 1 PM tip on Saturday, December 10th as they host the Bulldogs of Yale with the game on the SEC Network.