John Calipari looked at his phone a few minutes after his team’s late-night win over Mississippi State Tuesday. Among the texts and emails from well-wishers was a an observation from a friend, about sophomore forward E.J. Montgomery.

“I had a guy hit me and say it’s the first time he saw E.J. smiling on the court,” Calipari told the media after his team’s 80-72 win over the Bulldogs.

This is to report that the smile, almost ear-to-ear, remained on Montgomery’s face as he came out to face cameras, microphones and recorders.  He was ready to talk about what might have been his most important effort as a Wildcat – 12 points, eight rebounds, three steals and a block against a tough, physical MSU team.

It was a must-win situation for Kentucky, coming off the loss at Auburn. The Wildcats can scarcely afford another home-court loss at this stage of the season, with teams jockeying for seeds in an NCAA Tournament field that chances like an amoeba each night, it seems.

The Bulldogs, by most account, are the most physical team in the SEC – even more so than Auburn.  That’s why Montgomery’s effort, coupled with fellow big Nick Richards (career-high 27 points, plus 11 rebounds), was so crucial. And it’s why he was still grinning, more than a half-hour after the final horn.

“I wasn’t too happy with myself, how I was playing before,” Montgomery said. “But tonight was fun. I was confident out there.”

It’s a newfound confidence born of the additional conditioning his coach says is making all the difference.

“They don’t like it. It hurts. It’s hard,” Calipari said. “The conditioning is starting to pay off. Now he has to step on the gas and even go father.”

To hear Montgomery describe it, his conditioning was close to where it needed to be. Now, apparently, it’s where he – AND his coach – want it to be.

“It’s not been a major issue,” Montgomery said, “but I wasn’t in tip-top shape. So I was trying to get better every day and go out and compete.”

He may have been under-selling the value of whatever extra work he’s been putting in.  The type of effort he showed at both ends of the floor Tuesday night is what Calipari has been looking for, ever since Montgomery arrived on campus, shouldering incredibly high expectations.

“What E.J. did is what my vision for him is,” Calipari said, explaining that the majority of Montgomery’s damage offensively came when he eschewed settling for jump shots and headed for the rim.

“He squared up and drove the ball. That’s what we want him to do. Play through bumps, wanna get hit. Go get and-ones. E.J. was ridiculous. That’s my vision of him.  That’s what I think he is.”

For his part, Montgomery was feeling it – as it was happening.

“I felt very good tonight, very confident,” he said. “I tried to bring it on the defensive end and bring the energy.”

He had his hands full trying to guard State’s Reggie Perry, a childhood friend of Montgomery who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. But the ‘Dogs’ front line was no match for Montgomery, Richards and Nate Sestina (six points and three rebounds in 11 minutes, his night briefly interrupted by a shoulder injury that had him sprinting to the locker room during the second half).

“The sky’s the limit (if) all the bigs bring it every night,” Montgomery said. “It’s gonna be hard to beat us.”

Coaches around the league have been raving about Richards, who has transformed himself from puzzling underachiever into one of the best big men in all of college basketball.

And now, if Montgomery can begin to string together performances similar to the one he turned in against Mississippi State, Kentucky will be its usual handful come tournament time.

“It’s taken him a little time,” Calipari said. “So what? What is the issue?”

Don’t kid yourself. He knows the issue.

The Montgomery whom Calipari – as well as the Big Blue Nation – saw smiling on the court during the win over MSU, is the one he needs from here on.  Not the guy who played only 17 minutes at Auburn, in foul trouble and scoring just one bucket and grabbing three rebounds.

“He is a premier player, one of the best players in the country,” Calipari said. “He’s just not done it yet. Tonight is that first step.”

Montgomery sees more good times ahead.

“It feels good,” he said. “My competitive edge is going out there and trying to get a win.”

And that’s worth smiling about.

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