Coach Cal’s Cats now facing much tougher competition
For the first time in over a month, Kentucky will finally face a big-name opponent by the name of Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena. Both schools are beginning a two-game series with next season’s match-up taking place at State Farm Arena (formerly Phillips Arena) in downtown Atlanta.
After going through a series of seven straight home games against the so-called cupcakes, the Rupp Arena crowd of around 20,000 should be much more enthusiastic this weekend as they will watch UK fight against a better-known foe. And the No. 8 Wildcats, now 7-1 with a five-game winning streak, shouldn’t have problems with the Yellow Jackets from Atlanta, either.
In its last outing, Georgia Tech couldn’t do much against its ACC opponent, Syracuse, last Saturday as it was dropped by a whopping score of 97-63. The Yellow Jackets, coached by former John Calipari assistant Josh Pastner, are now 4-3, including two wins over North Carolina State (in overtime) and Nebraska.
But Georgia Tech, a former longtime member of the SEC, still has a couple of standouts to watch out for.
Six-foot-10 senior James Banks III can dominate on the glass, providing a valuable test for UK’s big men Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery. Going into this week’s action, Banks is currently No. 1 in Atlantic Coast Conference (No. 3 in the nation) with an average of 4 blocked shots per game. He is also ranked No. 5 in the ACC in rebounding with 8.43 caroms.
Another threat from Tech is 6-5 sophomore Michael Devoe who is deadly from the perimeter, hitting ACC-leading 52.9 percent (18 of 34) in three-point field goals. Devoe is No. 2 in ACC scoring with 21.4 points, just behind Louisville’s Jordan Nwora.
And Georgia Tech – which recently appealed NCAA’s four-year probation, including no post-season play in 2019-20 season, for major NCAA rules violations in men’s hoops program – features its head coach with a very fascinating background.
As you may recall, the 43-year-old Pastner, who spent one year as an assistant with Calipari at Memphis, was set to follow his boss to Kentucky in 2009 before the university offered him the head coaching position. A former player for Lute Olson at Arizona during the late 1990s, Pastner had a successful seven-year run as the Tigers coach with four NCAA tournament appearances before arriving at Georgia Tech in 2016.
It is interesting to note that Pastner earned his bachelor’s degree in Family Studies in only 2.5 years at Arizona. How many people can say that? He even earned his master’s degree in just one year.
In addition, Pastner once applied for the Los Angeles Clippers’ head coaching job at the age of 19, according to his school’s official athletics website. Earlier, when he was 13, he published his scouting report which provided data on local high school talent in the Houston area.
A two-time conference Coach of the Year (Conference USA and ACC), Pastner has never had alcohol, coffee or soda to drink. He also doesn’t use a curse word very often, if any.
Moments after Kentucky’s 83-52 win over Fairleigh Dickinson last weekend, Calipari said Pastner will have his Georgia Tech team ready for Saturday’s 5 p.m. (ET) matchup. Then the Wildcats, who defeated then-No. 1 Michigan State 69-62 in the season opener, will face Utah, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 1 Louisville in three consecutive weeks before opening the SEC schedule with a home date with Missouri in early January.
While saying the Cats have made the strides they need to make, Coach Cal said the team still has some work to do. “Fight and finish. That’s all I’m focused on right now,” he said.
UK sophomore EJ Montgomery, a 6-10, 228-pounder from Fort Pierce, Fla., is on a hot streak. He gunned in a career-high scoring mark for the second consecutive contest with 25 points last Saturday to go along with nine rebounds, behind Nick Richards’ game-high 10 rebounds. In the previous game (against UAB), Montgomery scored 16 points.
“I’ve been working on my shot for a very long time,” said Montgomery of his improved performance. “I just continue to work on it, so I’m getting more confident, and shooting in the games and getting repetitions in practice. Just things like that.”
Montgomery was asked about the upcoming competition.
“The main focus has been ‘fight and finish,’” he said. “We just have to get better every day in practice.”
With a tougher schedule down the road, it’s sure going to be an exciting December to follow the Wildcats.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder 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.