Until freshman Kevin Knox’s phenomenal 34-point, seven-rebound effort in Kentucky’s stunning upset of then-No. 7 West Virginia last Saturday night, the Wildcats were in danger of not having a SEC Freshman (or Newcomer) of the Year only for the second time during coach John Calipari’s nine-year tenure at UK.
As you’ll recall, the previous SEC Freshman (or Newcomer) of the Year award winners from Kentucky have been DeMarcus Cousins (coaches) and John Wall (Associated Press) for the 2009-10 season, Terrence Jones (2010-11), Anthony Davis (2011-12), Nerlens Noel (2012-13), Julius Randle (2013-14), Karl-Anthony Towns (2014-15) and Malik Monk (2016-17). And three of the freshmen – Wall, Davis and Monk -- also captured the league’s Player of the Year honors at the same time.
LSU’s Ben Simmons won the rookie award in 2016, and later was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Before his outburst against the physical Mountaineers, Knox had been struggling somewhat several weeks ago before bouncing back with more consistent play in recent games and was a leading candidate for the Freshman of the Year honors along with sensational guards Collin Sexton of Alabama and Tremont Waters of LSU as well as UK’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Going into this week’s action, the 6-3 Sexton is currently third in the conference in scoring, averaging 18.5 points, behind seniors No. 1 Yante Maten (19.6 points) of Georgia and No. 2 Jaylen Barford (18.8 points) of Arkansas. The former McDonald’s All-American set a Crimson Tide freshman scoring record with 40 points – the highest point total by an SEC player so far this season -- against then-No. 14 Minnesota back in November. He was the first Alabama player to score 40 in a game since All-American Reggie King poured in 43 points in 1979.
Waters, a 5-11 guard who had 39 points against Marquette in November, is currently No. 12 on the SEC scoring list with a 15.2-point average while No. 2 in assists with a 5.8 average, just behind Florida senior Chris Chiozza, who averages 6.1 assists. Waters also leads the conference with 2.3 steals per game.
Gilgeous-Alexander, a 6-6 guard from Canada, is leading Kentucky in steals (36) and assists (92), and is third on the team with a 11.8-point average. He also has the best shooting percentage in three-point field goals (11 of 27 for 40.7 percent) among the Wildcats. He also ranks No. 5 in the conference with 4.4 assists and No.3 in steals with 1.7.
In addition, the UK standout is seeing tons of action along with Waters and Knox as all three are averaging at least 31 minutes a game. They are the only rookies ranked in SEC’s top 20 in minutes played.
Another rookie to watch out for is 6-11, 234-pound Daniel Gafford of Arkansas who recently was named the SEC freshman of the week for the second time after averaging 14.5 points and 10 rebounds against Florida and Ole Miss. He is also among SEC’s leaders in rebounding and blocked shots. While Gafford only played 14 minutes last Saturday, he became a hero after tipping in a game-winning basket with 15 seconds remaining to lead the Razorbacks to a 66-65 win over Oklahoma State.
Big men Jontay Porter of Missouri and Abdul Ado of Mississippi State are the other freshmen to follow as they are among the conference leaders in rebounding and blocked shots. Porter is the younger brother of injured rookie star Michael Porter, who is still a Top 5 prospect in the 2018 NBA Draft despite a back injury which sidelined him for the entire 2017-18 campaign.
Another consideration is 6-5 guard John Petty of Alabama, who is second on the team with 11.8 points. He also has gunned in 60 of 155 three-pointers for 38.7 percent. He recently set a new school record by hitting 10 three-pointers for a team-high 30 points against Alabama A&M.
Speaking of Knox, the 6-9 forward from Tampa, Florida, now has climbed to No. 10 in SEC scoring with a 15.5-point average. Last week, he also had a good performance in Kentucky’s 78-65 victory over Mississippi State, making 19 points, including hitting all four of his three-pointers.
“It was good. I needed this game,” said Knox after the UK-MSU contest. “Last couple of days I’ve really just been working on my jump shot. Just getting extra shots before and after practice. Basically, just getting around to five winning shots before and after practice. So, it paid off and it was good to see the ball go through the rim.
“I was a little shaky the last couple of games. I wasn’t really hitting shots. So, nothing from the three- point line so it was good to see I made a couple. Hopefully I just keep working, keep putting in extra shots, and they keep going in.”
On his 35-minute performance against West Virginia, Knox said, “Just staying aggressive. I mixed the game up, went to the basket, got to the free-throw line, hit some big shots. They were on me about driving the basketball, and then sometimes when they didn't close out I hit the shot. So, I just kept playing aggressive, kept doing what they asked me to and it went well for me.”
Knox’s 34 points were the most by a Wildcat this season, and most by a Kentucky performer since De’Aaron Fox pumped in 39 points against the UCLA Bruins in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Needless to say, it certainly was a memorable night for Knox, who finished with 11 of 17 field goals, including 5 of 8 three-pointers. He also hit 7 of 8 free throws.
With SEC’s 18-game schedule arriving at midpoint this weekend, Knox – considered UK’s highest-ranking pro prospect according to recent NBA mock drafts -- has really solidified his candidacy for the Freshman of the Year honors. If he (or perhaps another Wildcat) wins it, it would mark the eighth time in Calipari’s nine years that a UK player has captured the annual award.
If Knox continues to play well and dominate on the hardwood floor, it’s very likely we’ll see the SEC Freshman of the Year tradition continue at Kentucky.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor 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.