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Joe Boozell | | January 29, 2019

Here are 5 reasons why Kentucky looks like a national championship contender now

The best highlights from Kentucky's win over Kansas

Kentucky came into the season ranked second in the AP Poll, but it got off to a disappointing start. The Wildcats weren't competitive against Duke, lost to Seton Hall, and played several close games against lesser opponents.

But Kentucky is rolling now, having won nine of its last 10 against some excellent teams. Here are five reasons why the Wildcats look like a title contender.

POWER 36 RANKINGS: Kentucky is back in top 5 of Andy Katz's latest rankings

The best players are playing the most minutes

This may sound simple. It is, and that's the point. When you're as talented as Kentucky is, just play your best guys as much as reasonably possible. They are in shape to play 30-plus minutes per game. This isn't the NBA, where teams are playing back-to-backs and four games in five nights.

John Calipari has settled on a starting lineup of Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington and Reid Travis. No reserve played more than 11 minutes in Kentucky's win over Kansas, and the bench combined for just 31 minutes.

This is a drastic philosophy shift from earlier in the season. The bench combined to play 70 minutes against Duke, and four reserves logged at least 13 minutes.

It's usually nice to have depth, but it's not necessary to win a championship. And it can actually be detrimental if it holds back your best guys from playing as much as possible and allowing them to establish a rhythm. Kentucky's role allocation is clear, now, and the top five guys are rolling. It's the biggest reason for the Wildcats' resurgence.

Washington and Travis are learning to play together

Washington and Travis are both really good, but are undeniably similar. They aren't the most logical frontcourt pairing for that reason. Both guys would prefer to do their work inside and would benefit most from a stretch power forward or center next to them.

Kentucky cracks the top 5 in Andy Katz's latest Power 36

But they're learning the nuances of playing with one another. It helps that Washington has turned into a passable 3-point shooter. He's shooting 36.8 percent from deep on two attempts per game, which isn't heavy volume, but is enough to make defenses guard him out there. That's huge for Kentucky's spacing.

Travis and Washington combined for 38 points and 25 rebounds against Kansas. The tandem is still a work in progress. Washington went for 21 against Mississippi State, while Travis finished 1-for-6 with five points.

But the collective good games are starting to outweigh the stinkers. Keep an eye on this duo moving forward.

Herro is heating up

Herro was branded as a sniper coming into college, but he struggled from 3-point range early on. He could still establish some more consistency from range, but Herro is shooting better lately. And that's helped juice Kentucky's offense.

RANKINGS: College basketball NET rankings, updated daily

Herro has buried multiple triples in seven of Kentucky's last 10 games. He's still only shooting 34 percent from deep, but defenses respect him; Herro has gravity, and that makes the game easier for everyone else on the floor. He's constantly in motion in the half court, whipping around screens and always causing defenders to pay attention to him.

Calipari knew he needed to snag a shooter in his latest recruiting class. Herro started slow, but he's coming on now, and his emergence is huge for Kentucky's title hopes.

Hagans' two-way play

It's not a coincidence that Kentucky has taken off ever since Calipari committed to Hagans as the full-time point guard. Since Dec. 22, Hagans has logged at least 30 minutes in eight of nine games. Before Dec. 22, he only reached the 30-minute threshold once.

And he wasn't all that impressive at the beginning of the year, so it's easy to see why. But his confidence has grown with Calipari's. Hagans is a defensive terror, a 6-3 speed demon who has excellent instincts on that end. He's a steals machine. Hagans has racked up 34 in his last nine games, which averages out to 3.78 per game. That's insane. You can't just judge a defender exclusively on steals, but a steal is a live-ball turnover. Every Hagans theft presents an easy scoring opportunity for Kentucky.

Kentucky passes test from Mississippi State

He can't shoot the 3 (3 of 17 this season), but Hagans has progressed on offense, too. He's so athletic that he can get to his spots whenever he chooses, and he's developed into a nice complementary scoring threat. Hagans has notched double-digit points in six of his last eight games and has done a solid job of distributing to teammates.

Hagans isn't Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in terms of impact, but he's not that far off. Kentucky was missing that dynamic point guard play earlier in the season.

Increased defensive effort and discipline

Kentucky ranked in the 50s in KenPom's defensive efficiency in early December. The Wildcats have vaulted all the way up to 10th, and have smothered some good good offenses. They held Kansas to 63 points and Mississippi State to 55. Vanderbilt and Georgia failed to crack 50 against them.

POLL ANALYSIS: UNC, Marquette jump into top 10 of newst AP Top 25

Hagans' increased playing time makes a huge difference, but this has a lot to do with effort and discipline. Early in the season, you'd see Kentucky players bite on pump fakes time and time again. They fouled a bunch, too, and had a habit of making the wrong rotations and allowing open 3s.

Opponents shoot 36 percent from 3 against Kentucky, which is still high, but the Wildcats do a good job of dissuading opponents from taking 3s. They rank 10th in block rate, and the Washington-Travis pairing is stingy near the hoop. Nick Richards provides nice rim protection off the bench.

Hagans is the focal point of the defense, but there's no weak link in the starting lineup. As a result, Kentucky's defense has gone from a concern to a major strength.

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