Photo by Vicky Graff
By LARRY VAUGHT
Before Kentucky played Alabama there was a prediction from coach John Calipari that 6-10 sophomore forward EJ Montgomery “may step up and be the monster we want.”
Against Alabama on Saturday, he went 4-for-6 from the field to score eight points, pulled off six defensive rebounds and blocked one shot in 25 minutes.
While that may not have been a monstrous performance for some players, it was the kind of effort that Calipari wanted to see from his sophomore after his recent struggles.
“He just wants me to go out there, not think, and have fun,” Montgomery said after the game. “That’s what I tried to do. Sometimes I just think too much. I try to be perfect. You can’t be perfect.”
Montgomery had 16 points against Alabama-Birmingham on Nov. 29 and 25 against Fairleigh Dickson on Dec. 7, but then the sophomore had just 21 points in the next six games. Montgomery did have 34 rebounds — the biggest reason his playing time didn’t drop significantly— in those six games where his scoring evaporated.
Averaging 7.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game midway of the season is not what Montgomery expected after opting to return to UK rather than keeping his name in the NBA draft. Most UK fans expected a major leap and so did SEC coaches who named to him the preseason all-SEC second team.
That looked possible when he came back from an early season ankle injury and made 12 of 16 shots against Fairleigh Dickson but he’s not matched that offensive form since then.
Calipari has insisted numerous times that Montgomery’s play could be pivotal to UK’s postseason chances. That and a lack of inside depth has given Montgomery more chances to keep playing than Nick Richards had last year when he struggled and Calipari had P.J. Washington and Reid Travis to play.
“I just want to go out there and compete. Just do the little things that I can be doing,” Montgomery said
Montgomery had just two points in UK’s road win at Georgia last week but did what he could by grabbing a team-high seven rebounds.
“He’s absolutely trying to do what we’re saying to do. He went after every ball and that’s what he is capable of doing,” Calipari said during his weekly radio show last week. “The hardest thing for him is to play rough and play extremely hard.”
He did both late in Kentucky’s overtime win over Louisville when he had four points, five rebounds and two blocks.
Calipari — and UK fans — have been frustrated by Montgomery’s conditioning. The coach noted before the season started that Montgomery had to get in better shape, a puzzling situation considering Montgomery hoped to improve his draft stock with a big sophomore season.
“Rebounding, running, diving, scrapping, tipping. So what, you missed a shot. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about the energy,” Calipari said. “You can defend, you can sprint the floor, you can make easy plays, you can work to get free, you can block out, you can dive, you can take a charge.
“That’s how you build your self esteem and your confidence. And then your offense is just another thing.”
Calipari wants Montgomery to be a player who can get 10 rebounds and block five shots consistently and know he can do it. It’s the same scenario he often used talking about Richards last season.
Richards didn’t do it then but this season he has seven double-doubles in 15 games after having one in 74 games his first two years at UK as he finally seems to be showing the promise Calipari insisted he had. Now the coach is trying to drag Montgomery to the same type standard.
“He’s capable of being great,” Calipari said. “He’s going to be fine. But for us to really be one of those teams, EJ’s got to be one of our standouts. He’s got to be. It may take him time and I’m good with that.”
Montgomery said after the Alabama win that he felt he was “breaking out of my shell” slowly but surely.
Teammates continue to remain confident that the best is yet to come based on what they see daily from Montgomery.
“He does a lot of different stuff that nobody gets to see,” sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley said. “We’ve just got to get him to loosen up a little bit in games. Just play free.”