February Freshman Breakout Games

(via Daimion Collins Instagram)

Death. Taxes. And a UK freshman under John Calipari finally hitting stride in February. It seems like every year there is a freshman that struggles for most of the season, appears to be fading out of the rotation, and then suddenly everything clicks for them.

With TyTy Washington being an immediate impact freshman, that leaves forwards Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins as this season's candidates for breakout freshmen. Before we look into what each of those players could do for this year's team, let's take a look back at some of the freshman coming out parties of the past.

February 2, 2010 - Darnell Dodson vs #25 Ole Miss

It is very easy to be overlooked on Kentucky with all of the talent on the roster in any given year. It was especially easy for Darnell Dodson to get overlooked, playing alongside superstars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, as well as other future NBA talents Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson.

While Dodson never was the star of the show, he demonstrated against a ranked SEC opponent just what he is capable of providing in his role for this team. On just 5 shot attempts, Dodson put up 14 points, 4 three pointers, 3 rebounds, an assist, and 0 turnovers. This performance came immediately after putting up 16 points and 7 rebounds against #21 Vanderbilt the game before.

Again, the fate of this team was ultimately going to lie in the hands of Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe, and Patterson. But as we know in sports, especially in basketball, nothing gets star players performing better than getting top production from their surrounding role players.

February 7, 2012 - Marquis Teague vs #7 Florida

This one may be cheating because Marquis Teague was already an established rotation player and starter. He also already had multiple good performances up to this point in the season, so this really wasn't a "coming out party".

However, this was the game that Marquis Teague proved he could be the point guard for a national championship team. The 2011-12 team was already stacked with wings and forwards, such as Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. They didn't need someone to be a high usage or volume scoring point guard, but rather a someone that could piece everything together and put their stars in a position to score.

And that's exactly what Teague did on the highest level. In a primetime game against a rival and top 10 opponent, Teague put up a double-double with 12 points on an efficient 6 shots, and most importantly, a season high 10 assists.

A point guard that can score on minimal shot attempts and create shots for the future 1st and 2nd overall picks in the 2012 NBA draft took what was already an elite team and put them on another level.

February 7, 2017 - Wenyen Gabriel vs LSU

Once again, we see the case of a 5 star freshman getting overlooked by superstars and future NBA lottery picks. The 2016-17 will forever be known as one of the most fun and electric backcourts of all time with De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, paired with big man Bam Adebayo.

On February 7 against LSU, Adebayo got in early foul trouble and wasn't able to play for multiple stretches of the game. In a high scoring shootout, we needed a third scorer to step up alongside Fox and Monk. Gabriel stepped right up to the task, putting up a team high 23 points on 7/11 shooting from the field, 3/6 from three, and 6/7 from the free throw line.

He also pulled down 8 rebounds and played great defense throughout the game, having to guard multiple positions. An athletic rebounder, complimentary scorer, and energy guy at the four was exactly the piece this roster needed going into March.

February 5, 2019 - EJ Montgomery vs South Carolina

The storyline of Kentucky's 2018-19 season was the emergence of Sophomore PJ Washington into an All-American and lottery draft pick caliber player. But outside of Washington and graduate transfer Reid Travis, the Cats really did not have much depth in the frontcourt.

Sophomore Nick Richards had not taken the leap we saw from his counterpart Washington (at least not yet), and EJ Montgomery was struggling to find his footing as a freshman.

That was until Kentucky hosted South Carolina in Rupp Arena on February 5. In what wound up being a 28 point blowout, the starters were given a lot of rest in the second half, allowing for some bench players to step up in extended minutes. EJ Montgomery took complete advantage of this opportunity, putting up season highs in both points (11) and rebounds (13) on an efficient 5/7 shooting. He also put up a steal, a block, and an assist in a very well-rounded effort.

The emergence of a back up big proved to be most crucial when star PJ Washington had a foot injury and missed the the first 2 games of the NCAA tournament, and had to come off the bench for the third. Montgomery started all three games in his place, all three leading to wins and an Elite 8 birth.

February 8, 2020 - Johnny Juzang vs Tennessee

Johnny Juzang, who from the start of the season was perceived as a 2-3 year college prospect, saw very few minutes, playing behind Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey, and Ashton Hagans. Limited minutes means limited opportunities to have an impact on the game or put up a high scoring performance.

But on February 8 in Thompson-Boling Arena, "Johnny Knoxville" made the absolute most of his limited opportunities, converting on each of his 4 shot attempts, including 3 three pointers. He also went 2/2 from the free throw line, so all 6 times Juzang shot the ball, it went through the hoop.

Unfortunately, we will never know what Johnny Juzang's emergence would have meant for this team in the tournament, as it was cancelled due to the pandemic. However, with the absence of Ashton Hagans, Juzang played a crucial part in the huge comeback in Gainesville in the final game of the season.

Daimion Collins potentially had one of these breakout performances last game against Alabama. He put up 10 points, 6 rebounds, and made all 6 of his free throws coming off the bench for Oscar Tshiebwe.

Collins's emergence could be one of the most important developments for this year's basketball team. As good as this Kentucky team is, we do not have a lob threat, a true rim protector, and sometimes can struggle in pick and roll defense. Collins's mold as an athletic and mobile "modern" big man creates the potential for him to fill all three of these holes.

Bryce Hopkins's versatility could also be used to provide depth off of the bench. With the injury to CJ Fredrick and the official announcement that Shaedon Sharpe will not play this season, Hopkins could very well be needed on the perimeter. He can also play the "stretch 4" if Keion Brooks and/or Jacob Toppin were to get into foul trouble.

If one, or both, of these freshman start tapping into their potential and can add to what is already a top 5 team in the country, Kentucky will have a great chance to hang up #9.


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