2018-19 Basketball Preview
By Aaron Torres on ©November 06th, 2018 @ 10:00am
By my count it’s been 218 days since the last college basketball game was played between Villanova and Michigan, but folks, we’ve made it. We’re finally here. Today is the day college basketball begins.
Sure, you might not tune in for the technical first game (anyone got the spread on Wisconsin-Lutheran vs. Green Bay?) but yes, there will be actual college hoops on our TV’s today and no shortage of good games. And it will be that way straight from now through the beginning of April of 2019.
Forget Christmas, this truly is the best time of year.
So what do you need to know heading into the season? Well hopefully you’ve been paying attention here as I’ve given you no shortage of good content, ranging from a bunch of major conference previews (including the SEC), to the strengths/weaknesses of each title contender and even my projected field of 68.
But even still, there is plenty more to get excited about.
What exactly, you ask? Here are 68 reasons to get excited (and if you stick around to the bottom of article, I’ll even give you my National Player of the Year, Final Four picks and 2019 national champion).
By Aaron Torres on ©October 31st, 2018 @ 10:00pm
Look, I know that Kentucky is a football school, and that the sole focus this week is on a potential SEC-East clinching game against Georgia on Saturday. I get it. I totally do. But as some of you might have heard, the Wildcats have a pretty good hoops team entering the season too.
Crazy, I know. But yes, they’re really good. Coached by some guy named Calipari. No. 2 in the preseason polls or something. Nine deep with McDonald’s All-American caliber talent. Again, I just wish Kentucky wasn’t such a college football hot bed, and these guys might get a little more attention!
In all seriousness, I’ll leave the heavy-hitting analysis of the football team up to Nick Roush and the football guys, but if you’ll excuse me for a second, I would like to indulge in a little basketball talk. Kentucky is now just days away from that opener against Duke, and the start of what could be a very special season. As I’ve mentioned many times throughout the summer, I really do believe they’re the best team in college basketball and should be a favorite to cut down the nets next spring in Minneapolis.
Still, as good as the Wildcats are, they have questions like everyone else. So what questions do they need to answer this season to ultimately win the school’s ninth national championship come early April? Let’s take a look:
Are the veterans ready to lead?
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but history tells us that John Calipari’s most dangerous teams are the ones that have veterans sprinkled in on the roster with younger guys as well. I’m also not sure if you’ve heard, but Willie Cauley-Stein also once played football, Kevin Knox’s dad won a national championship at Florida State and Bam Adebayo got his nickname when he broke a table as a kid.
Again, I wish announcers really would talk about these storylines more.
Still, even though this will be a talking point that is beaten to death by the end of the season, it really is important here. The Wildcats have three sophomores with major experience and one fifth-year senior. The question for me is, are they ready to lead?
After all, it’s one thing to have older guys, but it’s another thing to have a Tyler Ulis/Darius Miller/Patrick Patterson type presence to grab guys when they’re in the huddle, push people when they’re down and to fight through adversity.
For all intents and purposes, it seems like some of those older guys (P.J. Washington, Reid Travis) and even a couple of the younger ones (cough, Keldon Johnson) are ready to take on those roles. But we won’t know for sure until we see it on the court.
What will Kentucky get from the point guard position?
This is kind of a trickle-down storyline from the one above. But we all know that the point guard is the leader on the court, and in the past, Kentucky has had wildly strong personalities in that spot, ranging from John Wall to Ulis to De’Aaron Fox.
But this year it’s more of a wild card. The talent is there. But all three players are being asked to take on roles they’ve never had before.
What makes things especially interesting – at least to me – is that all three of the point guards in question have slightly different skill-sets. Immanuel Quickley is probably the best at running an offense out of the group, but doesn’t necessarily look for his own shot a ton. Ashton Hagans is by far the best on-ball defender, but his offensive game still seems to be lacking at this point. And Quade Green seems best playing off the ball and getting buckets, which is fine. But with Johnson and Tyler Herro also on the wing, at some point will it make more sense to insert them into that spot?
Again, we’ll start to get answers here soon. But at the same time, it’s really hard to make a deep run into March if you don’t know what you’re getting from the point guard position. And right now, it’s hard to know exactly what UK will get from that spot.
Sophomore Nick Richards was real and spectacular in the Bahamas. But will it translate once the games start?
Credit to my buddy Drew Franklin, who sniffed out Nick Richards’ sophomore emergence months ago, like it was a half-priced happy hour special at KSBar or something. Richards – along with a few other guys – was one of the real revelations of the entire trip to the Bahamas, thanks in large part to that breakout, 19-point performance in the opener.
At the same time, what’s sort of gotten lost in the shuffle is that Richards has been relatively quiet since that opener. Despite putting up 19 points in the Bahamas, Richards finished the trip averaging just 12 points per game over the course of the four games in the Caribbean. He also had 13 points in Kentucky’s exhibition win over Transylvania last week.
Now on the one hand, it’s important to note that Kentucky will gladly take 12 or 13 points per night from Richards once the season begins. If they get that, they’d be through the roof. The more important question though is can he play with the intensity he showed early in that Bahamas trip on the defensive end?
Look, it’s no secret that Richards is just about the only shot-blocking, rim-protecting presence on the roster, and because of it, it’s important that he plays well enough on both ends to warrant playing time. It won’t be easy with a loaded front court of E.J. Montgomery, P.J. Washington and Reid Travis.
Point being, Kentucky needs to get some version of “Early Bahamas Nick Richards” all season long, if they truly want a chance to compete for a title.
What will Kentucky get out of E.J. Montgomery?
Montgomery was limited in the Bahamas, but once healthy he has already shown why some people believe that he’s the best NBA prospect on this roster. Montgomery absolutely balled out at Kentucky’s pro day and was maybe the best player on the floor in the Wildcats exhibition win over Transylvania, scoring 14 points on 7 of 10 shooting.
And really that game is what has me so darn intrigued about Montgomery. That’s because as good as the other bigs on this roster are, no one has a skill-set quite like Montgomery, who is as comfortable stepping out and hitting 15-foot jumpers as he is banging down low. And the former is important – if Montgomery can consistently hit that mid-range shot, it is one more threat from the outside, and will create more spacing and driving lanes for Kentucky’s guards.
If Montgomery can continue to play like he has since the team’s pro day, he adds a whole new dimension to this roster.
Will the three-pointers continue to fall?
Honestly, I’m not as worried about Kentucky’s three-point shooting as some of the national pundits. If you watch the Wildcats games you know that they can shoot the hell out the ball, with everyone from Tyler Herro to Keldon Johnson, Jemarl Baker, P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Immanuel Quickley capable of hitting from deep.
Still, even with all those shooters, there are questions: Will Baker be available at all? Will Washington (and to a smaller degree, Reid Travis) be able to show the consistency that they have early in the season. And what happens if Herro has an off-night, or Green falls down the depth chart?
Again, I’m not as worried about Kentucky’s shooting as most. But it is something to keep an eye on going forward.
Can Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington and Tyler Herro… umm… ahh…
On second thought, I really have no concerns about any of these guys.
Both will be awesome.
Let’s just move on.
Will the weight of the NBA get to any of these guys?
Again, this is something I’m not all too worried about, because at the end of the day, every Kentucky team is filled with a bunch of guys who want to get to the NBA and John Calipari always seems to figure out a way to make it work.
Yet this year it feels like, more than ever, the stakes may be higher in terms of guys going out of their way to impress NBA scouts.
Think about it. Reid Travis is a grad transfer, who specifically came to Kentucky for the exposure that playing at one of the most prominent programs could bring. And he needs that exposure to prove that he has evolved as a basketball player. Will that – at any point – impact how he plays.
P.J. Washington was thiiiiiis close to staying in the draft, and he too came back to show that his game has evolved into a more “NBA friendly” version.
Tyler Herro has been adamant that he came to Kentucky because he believes he is an NBA guy, not a four-year system guy at Wisconsin. What will that mean for him? Quade Green and Nick Richards both want to show they’ve improved, and Keldon Johnson and E.J. Montgomery are playing for lottery spots as well.
Again, impressing NBA teams has never held back Kentucky before. But it might be something worth watching here.
Finally, can they get the breaks and the bounces?
This one is obviously less quantifiable, but at the end of the day every national champion needs a few breaks and bounces along the way. Rarely does a team just blitz through the NCAA Tournament relatively untested. Even that 2012 Kentucky squad needed big plays down the stretch against Louisville and Kansas to seal the title.
So can Kentucky get all those breaks, avoid the key injuries or bad foul calls at the worse possible time?
We’ll start to find out soon – because folks, the season is finally here!
By Aaron Torres on ©October 26th, 2018 @ 1:00pm
Although I’m not quite sure how we got here, we are basically 10 days from the start of the college basketball season – and believe me, I am not complaining. After six months of analyzing and overanalyzing everything about this season (seriously who is the ninth best team in the SEC, Vanderbilt or Arkansas?!?!), we are finally here. The latest clue that basketball is reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally close came this week when both the AP and Coaches released their preseason polls.
Still, while there is unquestioned optimism coming into the year, if you ask any single coach, there is also plenty of cause for concern. After all, as good as some of the top teams in the country are, no team is perfect, and everyone has concerns coming into the season.
So what are the biggest concerns for the top teams in the country? Let’s take a look at one for each team ranked in the Top 10 of the Coaches Poll, which was released on Thursday:
1) Kansas Jayhawks – The FBI
Not sure if you’ve heard, but it’s a bad few weeks for Bill Self. As we all know now, text messages obtained by the FBI and released in court over the last month basically revealed that Self worked closely with Adidas to ensure they landed the commitment of forward Silvio De Sousa. De Sousa has already been suspended and almost certainly will never play again for Kansas (ironically, I actually think his suspension helps Kansas on the court, where they had too many players in the front court as is). More importantly though, everyone wants to know what will happen with this program, and Self specifically.
Ultimately I’m not positive that the texts alone reveal enough to cost Self his job, and even if more evidence comes out, it seems highly unlikely that any resolution will come before the end of this season. At the same time, how much will the scrutiny of the investigation weigh on this program? We saw the FBI backdrop take a toll on schools like Arizona, USC and Louisville last year, and eventually you’ve got to think it will on Kansas as well. Everywhere Self goes he will be asked questions about this FBI probe (no matter how much he continues to issue “no comments”) and in every opposing arena players will be serenaded with “FBI” chants from fans.
My hunch is that like Arizona last year it will eventually wear on one of the most talented teams in the sport and keep them from fully reaching their potential.
2) Kentucky Wildcats – Will They Peak Too Soon
Since the day Reid Travis announced his decision to enroll at Kentucky, I’ve been adamant that this team has no real weaknesses, and four games in the Bahamas only strengthened that belief. This is a team with all the components to win a title: Size, athleticism, skill, mental and physical toughness and experience.
However, when I was watching Kentucky’s “Pro Day” a few weeks ago, I found one comment John Calipari made to be very interesting: He said that he has to do everything he can to make sure that this team doesn’t peak too soon. As he said, this team had to ramp up the intensity for those four games in the Bahamas and will need to keep that edge through a season-opener against Duke, a brutal November and December that includes games against North Carolina and Louisville, and an SEC slate with a handful of Top 25 caliber teams. Is there any chance that mental edge fades the deeper they get into the season? Can they really keep it up for what amounts to 10 months straight?
It will be interesting to see how Calipari handles this group, and the ways he finds to motivate them. However outside of that, it really is hard to find too much to pick apart with this team.
3) Duke Blue Devils – Can the “Big Three” Co-Exist Together
I’m getting kind of tired of typing this so I’ll try to keep it brief. But since the day that Zion Williamson committed to Duke last winter and signed up to play with R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, I really have questioned the ability for all three to play together on the same court.
Seriously not trying to throw shade at Duke, because what Coach K in recruiting is doing is incredible. But this is the exact problem they had last year, with Tatum/Kennard and Grayson all essentially playing the same position. As we all remember, it didn't end well https://t.co/IWjiQZTgHm
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 21, 2018
Sure, signing the top three players in a recruiting class sounds sexy on paper, but putting together a basketball team isn’t like putting together a line-up full of home run hitters in baseball. Guys have to be able to play together, styles have to mesh. And what I see from those three Duke players are three insanely talented players – but three that are all essentially the same. All three are incredible athletes and future NBA stars, but all three are also players who are best at creating their own offense and most effective when they have the ball in their hands. None are great three-point shooters, which will limit spacing and driving lanes when they’re on the court together. And much like Duke two seasons ago when they had Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen, I could see a scenario where this simply doesn’t’ work out.
To Duke’s credit they did look good during their trip to Canada, but that was without Reddish on the court. It’s clear that Barrett and Williamson can play together, but what about when they add a third piece to the mix?
We will find out soon enough when Duke faces Kentucky a few weeks from now.
4) Gonzaga – Uncertainty at the Point Guard Position
Ask most casual fans about the Zags, and they’ll tell you that their biggest problem could be weak competition in their conference, where outside of BYU, they probably won’t face an NCAA Tournament caliber team once league play starts. But considering that the Zags have made it to the Sweet 16 or beyond in each of the last four seasons – something Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Arizona, Kansas and UCLA can’t say – I’m not so worried about it.
What I am worried about however, is the point guard position.
Gonzaga does return fifth-year senior Josh Perkins, but he isn’t a natural point and was kind of forced into the role last year. It showed, as Perkins finished with a 3-2 assist to turnover ratio and to make matters worse, he missed the whole off-season after shoulder surgery. I talked to Perkins a bit this summer and he claimed that his injury was a blessing in disguise as it allowed others to get more ball-handling reps, and the Zags did get a reinforcement the last few weeks as they welcomed in grad transfer Geno Crandall to the program from North Dakota. Again though, Crandall is more of a combo guard and not someone suited to run an offense.
At the end of the day, the Zags are talented enough to win a national championship. But until we see production from the point guard position, we will continue to question whether they can actually reach that goal or not.
5) Virginia Cavaliers – Will Tony Bennett Actually Switch Up His Coaching Style Come March?
One of the reasons that I think so many of you like me so much is that I always tell it like it is. And as part of telling it like it is, I’m just about the only national media member that refuses to endlessly gush over Tony Bennett. Do I think he’s a good coach? Good enough, sure. Do I think he’s a James Naismith and John Wooden all rolled into one like so many claim him to be? Come on, man.
And if anything, I think it’s fair to call into question his actual “coaching” merits. Because while he has a system built to rack up wins in the regular season, his inability and refusal to change up his style of play continues to cost his team in March. Seriously, just watch that UMBC game. Everyone remembers the loss, but few remember how the Cavaliers got there. When they fell behind early, they continued to run the same boring, plodding offense, which took 28 seconds off the clock every possession.
At a certain point, Bennett had to switch up his team’s style of play, switch up everything that is comfortable to him and he couldn’t do it. And until I see otherwise, I believe it will continue to hurt the Cavaliers to come tournament time.
It was backed up when I talked to a coach following that game, one who had been to multiple Final Fours. I remember him telling me (and I’m loosely quoting him), “That guy will never win a title until he changes as a coach. In the NCAA Tournament you’re just going to face too many different teams, that play too many different styles, and if you can’t adjust, you’ll never be able to win a title. You need to be able to win more than one way.”
That has stuck with me all summer and will continue to stick with me until I see change in Bennett. He is great at what he does, but part of being a “coach” is adjusting your game-plan based on the opponent and situation.
Until I see otherwise, I’ll continue to pick against the Cavaliers.
6) Tennessee Volunteers – Have They Already Peaked?
I’ve made this argument so much throughout the summer that I will try to keep it brief here. But is it possible this particular group of Vols have already peaked?
It sounds crazy, but think about it. This is a group of fourth and fifth-year players who have grown, developed, matured within Tennessee’s system. Also, if we’re being perfectly honest, they’ve all kind of hit their “ceiling” as basketball players. While young teams like Duke, Villanova and Kentucky will no doubt get better throughout the year, how much better can 22 and 23-year-old grown men like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield really get?
To me, it’s a fair question. And it’s why I’m not as high on the Vols as some other teams.
7) North Carolina – Another Team with Point Guard Issues
This one really is a no-brainer. The Tar Heels have arguably the most balanced frontcourt in college basketball. Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Nassir Little are each All-ACC caliber players (Maye and Little both could mess around and win Player of the Year) with perfect skill-sets to complement each other. It isn’t the deepest frontcourt in the country. But it is the one where the pieces fit perfectly together.
The problem is in the backcourt, where Joel Berry is gone and there is no adequate replacement. Freshman Coby White will be thrust into that spot and considering that he’s a freshman and more of a combo guard than he is a true point, it probably won’t end well for the Tar Heels.
To be blunt, I think North Carolina is a little bit overrated – and it’s because of their point guard play. I don’t expect them to stay in the Top 10 for long and consider them more of a fringe Top 25 team.
8) Villanova – Did They Lose Too Much Off Last Year’s Team
Seeing the system that Jay Wright has created at Villanova really is incredible. They rarely recruit a bunch of can’t miss NBA players, yet develop the guys they have into future pros. And when one leaves, the next guy steps in. Between the growth of Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono and the four guys they had drafted last year, it’s only a matter of time before the NBA is filled with a bunch of former Nova guys.
However, that last part is kind of the problem. For years, this program has been able to replace its stars with one homegrown player after another, but that cycle was somewhat disrupted by last year’s national championship run. Had the Wildcats not made the national championship game, there is a zero percent that Donte DiVencenzio or Omari Spellman would have even considered going pro. Instead, both blew up in the tournament and both ended up as first round picks.
No one is feeling sad for the Wildcats are winning a title, but had those two returned, Villanova would have likely been the preseason No. 1 team in the country. Now, for the first time in a long time, they will have younger and inexperienced guys thrust into bigger roles.
How much will it cost them?
(The early returns are “not much at all”)
Villanova tops North Carolina by 10 in a 50-minute scrimmage, per release. 41 for Phil Booth and 24 for Eric Paschall, including six made threes. Cam Johnson led the Tar Heels with 19.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) October 20, 2018
9) Nevada – Do They Actually Have Too Many Players?
Earlier this summer I had Nevada head coach Eric Musselman on the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast (actually I’ve had him twice – you really do need to make sure and subscribe) and one thing that he said stuck out to me. The Wolf Pack only had about six healthy players by the end of last season (at one point they actually had to bring over players from the football team just to run a five-on-five practice) and I mentioned to him that it must be nice to have a full roster, after a slew of transfers and freshmen joined the Pack this off-season. The Wolf Pack are expected to be about 10-deep this season.
In an interesting twist, Coach Muss told me the exact opposite was true: Having a deeper bench created more problems for a coach. Not necessarily with this specific Nevada team, just in general. As he explained it on the show, he’d prefer to have a rotation of about seven to eight guys who knew their roles and knew exactly how much they were going to play and what roles they had. Any more, and it became to get complicated.
So those were Coach Muss’s words, which leads to just one problem for the Wolf Pack: They are insanely deep this season. Nevada expected to lose at least a couple players to the pros (most likely Caleb and Cody Martin), but when both decided to return it created a log jam on their roster. When you add in a bunch of transfers who sat out last season, they now have nine players who are either playing their fourth or fifth year of college basketball. Eight of those guys have averaged double figures at some point in their college careers, either at Nevada or their previous stop.
Yes, you read that correctly. Nevada has… EIGHT GUYS who have averaged double-figures at some point during their college career. The one veteran who hasn’t is Lindsey Drew who started every game for the Wolf Pack until a season-ending injury last year. And Nevada also added McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown to the mix this past summer as well.
So yeah, you think there are going to be battles over playing time and stats? It seems inevitable.
And more than any other program, it seems like that will be the ultimate issue for the Wolf Pack.
10) Michigan State – Relying on Freshmen
True story: As I got set to write this piece, I texted a buddy of mine who works at Michigan State. I asked him what he thought the biggest concern or weakness of his team was entering the season. His response: “We really don’t have any.”
So yeah, I guess a lack of self-awareness is the biggest issue in East Lansing right now.
In all honesty, I actually like the make-up of this team, but as he later mentioned to me, the Spartans will rely on a bunch of freshmen to fill gaps off their bench. None need to be stars, but for Michigan State to have any depth they will need guys like Gabe Brown and Foster Loyer to contribute. N
March is always a crapshoot, but especially when you’re relying on such young players. And the Spartans will rely on a few this March.
As you wrap up your work week and get nestled into your spot for Big Blue Madness, take a moment to read and/or watch our player profiles from the one-on-one interviews TJ Walker and I conducted last month, as well as the one-hour conversation from Coach Cal’s media roundtable discussion.
10 Things from John Calipari’s Roundtable – Mrs. Tyler narrowed down Coach Cal’s roundtable to 10 things to know.
John Calipari Roundtable Transcript – If you have some time on your hands, read every word Coach Cal said.
Tyler Herro – Herro explained why he chose Kentucky over Wisconsin and the backlash he’s received from Badgers fan. He also talked about his breakout week in the Bahamas and the pressure of being the fan favorite.
Keldon Johnson – Johnson opened up about his recruitment and how he and his dad disagreed about Kentucky. We also learned how he feels about being ranked behind Duke’s RJ Barrett in the class rankings, and what that first game means on November 6.
Immanuel Quickley – Quickley explained how a trip to Egypt with Coach Cal and Team USA sealed the deal with Kentucky, the favorite in his recruitment from the start.
Ashton Hagans – Hagans’ recruitment was a whirlwind, with a de-commit from Georgia and then a jump up to a new class. He told us all about it.
EJ Montgomery – Did something happen with EJ Montgomery and the Duke commits at the McDonald’s game? He said no, but the video suggests otherwise.
Reid Travis – Reid Travis’ path to UK is unique. He told how it came to be and what it’s like being the “old head” in the Wildcat Lodge.
Sophomore Nick Richards – The GOAT opened up about last year’s struggles and how he is a much more confident player entering his sophomore year.
PJ Washington – Washington had a tough decision to make after last season and it came down to the wire on NBA draft deadline day. He told KSR what went into the decision and what he is doing to win a title and get NBA ready in his second year at Kentucky.
Quade Green – There is a new Quade Green in Lexington. Read to find out what’s different.
Jemarl Baker – Baker hasn’t played a basketball game in 18 months, but he doesn’t feel that he is behind the other guards in the UK backcourt.
Brad Calipari – Expectations are at a new high for Brad Calipari after he played first half minutes as a sophomore and in the Bahamas.
If you’d rather watch all of the videos, I created a YouTube playlist for your viewing pleasure:
By Drew Franklin on ©October 12th, 2018 @ 2:00pm
Brad Calipari wants to be more than the victory cigar. He’ll never be a go-to guy or even a regular contributor at Kentucky, but he wants to play meaningful minutes and be more than the “Shooooooot!” guy at the end of the game.
Last year he saw real time that mattered: first in the first half of Kentucky’s home game against Texas A&M, and then again on the road at South Carolina. Both were very close SEC games, and he got thrown into the action before halftime.
“Being able to get first half minutes last year was nice,” he said in his preseason interview with KSR last month. “I wanted to work up from just getting in at the end of games, the less meaningful minutes. Being able to get in there and hold my own and show people I can get in there and keep the flow looking normal is always nice.”
“Then going into the games this year in the Bahamas and being able to show I can be out there too, it’s reassuring,” he added.
Calipari played in all four games in the Bahamas, highlighted by a three-pointer in the first game against the Bahamas national team.
Now going into his third year, his old man wants more.
“He expects a lot out of me, especially, he told me how much better I got from last year,” he said. “That was important for me to hear and I believe that I got better. Just knowing how hard I work consistently, it gave me confidence going into this year, especially these first practices… He’s been on me more this year in these 10 practices than he has the past two years.”
Considering he’s one of the oldest players on the team and has been around the program as long as anyone, there is no better player to ask about the new team. He sees a competitive bunch, more so than in his first two seasons on the team, and their hard work is producing results.
“It’s a lot more competitive spirit in this group, I think,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work outside of practice; before, after, whatever it may be. A lot of these guys are spending time in the gym late at night, trying to get themselves better, so I think it’s another thing that’s important for individuals and for us as a collective unit.”
By Drew Franklin on ©October 11th, 2018 @ 7:30pm
Jemarl Baker is the most mysterious player on the roster, considering he has been with the program for over a year and we still haven’t seen him play.
It has been an injury-riddled career thus far for Baker, the four-star shooting guard out of the Class of 2017. He came to Lexington with a knee injury he suffered in California’s title game, the last of his high school career. He would eventually learn it was a torn meniscus and had to undergo surgery prior to the start of his freshman season. It kept him out the entire year.
Then he thought he was ready to go this past summer, but again missed some practice with lingering issues in his knee. When it came time for Kentucky’s four-game slate in the Bahamas, Baker watched on from the bench, as he had done all last season.
“Just little things that aggravated it,” Baker told KSR, when asked what went wrong prior to the Bahamas, where he expected to make his on-court debut. “I had a swell-up for a couple weeks straight, but I feel really good now. I’m so excited. I feel good.”
“It was definitely tough,” he added, “but I try to be positive with everything — just being able to cheer the team on, encourage the team, and be able to learn and see how passionate we are and how hard we work. I’m a hard worker and I’m passionate as well, so now that I’ve been able to practice I’m just glad to be on the court and just waiting for my chance to get onto the floor in a game.”
Baker is back to practicing and he is working hard to make up for lost time. It would seem he is behind in the rotation, simply because of his absence, but don’t tell him that.
He said, “I don’t even think about it like that. I’ve been on the court, I’ve been doing the whole practices now, so I’ve just been working hard, trying to get better and I’m controlling what I can control. I don’t care about the minutes or anything like that — that’s going to come. I’m just going to work hard and do what I can control.”
When it comes time for everyone to see Baker on the court, he wouldn’t reveal what we should expect. He came in labeled as a shooter and insisted he had more to offer, but now he’s tight-lipped on what he can bring to the team.
“You’ll have to see it when I get on the court, really,” he said. “I haven’t played in a game so I can’t really say anything, but I’ve been working hard, I’ve been working on every facet of my game so I’m just working and when I get on the court I’m just trying to win. I’m passionate. Whatever you guys see, it’s what you guys see. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Hopefully he can stay healthy, although that remains to be seen. For now he says, “I feel really good. I feel really good.”
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By Drew Franklin on ©October 11th, 2018 @ 11:00am
Quade Green is back after a pretty solid freshman season in the Kentucky backcourt. A five-star point guard out of the hard-nosed Philadelphia high school basketball scene, Green averaged 9.3 points, 2.7 assists and had only 55 turnovers on the year, while connecting on 39 percent of his three-point shots. Most of his time was spent playing off the ball after the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a star point guard, a role Green did not expect to take, but handled well. All in all, it was a nice season for a newcomer.
But in Green’s mind, it could’ve been better. “By my standards,” he said, “I think I just struggled my freshman year.”
So what did he do this past summer to improve for his sophomore season?
He worked his tail off, he says.
Green spent a lot of time with Rob Harris, the Cats’ strength coach, working to improve his body, mostly with core work. He has since seen an improvement in his speed, his balance, running downhill, playing through contact, his vertical and overall core strength.
The improvements came at John Calipari’s request in his postseason one-on-one with Green before summer break. Green said Calipari told him he wants to see him come back in much better shape and, “That’s what I did. I got in better shape and have way more confidence now. That’s what he wanted and that’s what I gave to him.”
The numbers from UK’s Pro Day back up Green’s talk of a transformation. Comparing this year’s measurements to last year’s, we see a 14-pound drop in Green’s weight, from 184 to 170 pounds. His body fat dropped from 10.3 to 9.45 percent and he shaved time off his shuttle and 3/4 sprint times, while adding to his vertical.
It turns out Nick Richards was serious when he said, “He’s the same Quade, just not fat,” back in August.
Green knows he had to make a change or he could get left out of the backcourt rotation, even as the only guard back who played any minutes in 2017-18. John Calipari went out and added two new five-star point guards in Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans, a five-star shooting guard in Keldon Johnson and a four-star shooting guard in Tyler Herro, plus the return of injured guard Jemarl Baker.
On paper, the new backcourt looked too crowded, which sparked rumors Green may even consider a transfer. One report out of Philadelphia said Green was looking to return home to play for LaSalle.
Green denied any transfer talk whatsoever, telling KSR, “They was false rumors. It wasn’t nothing me and my mom and Coach Cal talked about. We didn’t have that discussion at all. I wasn’t going nowhere.”
So he’s back and in the best shape of his life, and ready to lead a talented group. It’s an all out war in practice and he sees a special, energetic group around him.
“Everybody here is hyperactive, I’ll say. Everybody got energy. Everybody got an energy button in them that just — I can’t explain,” he said. “Everyday is a battle, everyday. Everybody has a tough task because everybody is good in here. Everybody, from 1 through 5, it doesn’t matter.”
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By Drew Franklin on ©October 10th, 2018 @ 11:00pm
Of all of John Calipari’s NBA hopefuls from a year ago, PJ Washington struggled with his decision the most. He was reportedly back and forth throughout the entire process, but ultimately decided he needed a first-round guarantee to go. Once the guarantee didn’t come, Washington knew it was best to return to school, where he will almost certainly be an All-SEC player going into his sophomore year, and returns the most minutes, points, and rebounds for the Wildcats.
He feels he made the right decision to come back, although at times it seemed, at least to outsiders, the people around him wanted him to go. He shot that notion down, though, saying his family supported him the whole way, no matter the path he would decide to take.
“I feel like my family had my back, whatever decision I made,” he said. “They really let me make my decision, they didn’t make my decision for me. They obviously wanted me to make whatever decision they wanted, but I kind of took whatever they had to say and made my own decision. I feel like I made the best decision for me and them.”
As Washington worked out for NBA teams and weighed the pros and cons of remaining in the draft, several other players were in the process of making their own decisions, which could’ve impacted Washington’s future. Two of his UK teammates, forwards Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, contemplated a return, while Stanford grad Reid Travis, also a power forward, had Kentucky in mind as a graduate transfer destination. Throw in the commitment of five-star power EJ Montgomery, and it seemed there could be too many bodies in the paint at Kentucky.
Washington insists the decisions of others did not matter to him, and he wouldn’t let a crowded frontcourt at Kentucky push him to the NBA if he didn’t have the feedback he needed from the league.
“The decision was so hard for me that I wasn’t focusing on anything but myself,” he said. “I just heard from a lot of people, trying to sum things up, and I just felt like the best decision was coming back.”
In the end, Gabriel and Vanderbilt remained in the draft, and now Washington is battling with Travis and Montgomery in Lexington, as well as returning sophomore Nick Richards, who Washington said is much more dedicated than he was a year ago. The talented group makes for very competitive practices, and you can’t take a day off or you’ll get abused.
“There is a lot of length and a lot of strength,” Washington said. “You just have to come out and be focused everyday in practice because any day you can be abused down there, guarding Reid, or Nick will block all of your shots. You just have to come in focused and ready to play.”
It’s not just the big men who are going at each other everyday. Washington sees it at every position, and believes this year’s team will be a lot better than the team of a year ago.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I feel like they’re all hungry. They all bring something different to the table. I feel like we’re going to be a lot better than we were last year because they work a lot harder. They’re in the gym every night. They just love the game of basketball and I can’t wait to step on the court with them.”
As for Washington’s own improvement from a year ago, he described three new aspects of his game.
“The biggest thing I’ve improved on is being able to guard different positions, switching out on smaller guards and keeping them in front,” he said. “Then being more comfortable in my outside shot and being able to be a leader for this team. Those are the three biggest things I’ve been working on.”
He is shooting more three-pointers in practice (that’s his moneymaker for the next level) and is comfortable in his outside shot so far. And those free throw woes from last year’s season-ending tournament loss? He’s working on those, too. Obviously, he takes the issue very seriously, but can’t help but smile at the haters on social media.
“I think it’s funny,” he said, when asked about all of the free throw comments and hate he gets on his Instagram photos. “They mess with me everyday about it so I’m pretty used to it now. I don’t really let it get to me. I just laugh about it and just keep moving on.”
There will be no laughing when Washington takes the court for his sophomore season in a couple of weeks. Only flexing and snarling as a man on a mission, back to lead the Cats with an expanded game.
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By Drew Franklin on ©October 10th, 2018 @ 10:45pm
Nick Richards is back for a second season and eager to show the world a new version of himself.
We got a glimpse of the new Richards, who I call Sophomore Nick Richards, during Kentucky’s four-game run in the Bahamas, in which he averaged 12 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per contest.
John Calipari said, “He’s not the same player,” following his 19-point performance against the Bahamas national team in the first of the four games.
But before we build up the excitement for Sophomore Nick Richards’ potential in 2018-19, let’s revisit Richards’ struggles as a freshman last season.
He entered the year as a five-star, McDonald’s All-American prospect with high NBA draft projections, presumably as a one-and-done talent. However, we would soon find that Richards wasn’t completely ready to meet those expectations. Outside of a career game against Fort Wayne, six games into the season, Richards’ numbers don’t exactly jump off the page for someone with his size and athleticism.
He started all 37 games for the Wildcats, but averaged only 5.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. His minutes dwindled as the year went on, and by tournament time, he was a non-factor. Though still a starter, he played only seven minutes per game in Kentucky’s six postseason games, scoring less than two points in each of those contests.
Needless to say, Richards’ first season was a disappointment. That being said, it’s a driving factor in his improvement as he approaches Year 2 in Lexington.
“Everything is easier,” he said, when asked about his jump from freshman to sophomore. “I expect more. I know what to expect now and I’m not going to make as much mistakes as I did last year. I know the mistakes that I made last year and I know I’m just not going to make them this year.”
His newfound confidence is one of the major changes he sees in himself since last year. Confidence was often the issue when he struggled, not skill; so to improve on that is a huge step in his progress.
He told KSR, “I feel a lot more confident as a person and as a player.”
Consistency is another aspect of his game he has worked on this offseason.
“Being more consistent as a basketball player, just trying to have more of a feel for basketball games, just trying to be confident as an athlete,” he said. “Listen to my coaches more, be more consistent in my workouts, just stuff like that.”
When watching Richards’ development, it is important to remember his path is very unique, which is why he is back at school for a sophomore year when many others in his position bolted for the NBA after one season. While others have spent their entire lives playing basketball, Richards didn’t begin playing until he was 15 years old, so he has only four years of experience.
He will not use that as an excuse, though.
“I don’t really try to focus on it,” he said of his basketball adolescence. “You’re at Kentucky right now, you can’t use that as an excuse anymore. You just gotta go out there and work your hardest and play your best. You can’t rely on excuses all the time like that to say why you’re not playing as well as everybody else.”
Looking at his timeline, it’s pretty remarkable he’s come so far in only four years in the sport. So who’s to say he won’t make another significant jump in his sophomore campaign in Lexington? I wouldn’t bet against him.
I wouldn’t bet against his team, either. It’s a group that will contend for the national championship. If they get there, it will be redemption for how last season ended after Kentucky fell short while on a favorable path to the Final Four.
The heartbreak after the loss to Kansas State is still on Richards’ mind, as is the shot at NCAA tournament redemption.
‘That was probably like one of the saddest moments of my entire life,” he said of the postgame locker room scene. “I didn’t really want to be a part of that, I really don’t want to have that moment again this year, so we’re all working towards (a national title).”
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By TJ Walker on ©October 10th, 2018 @ 12:00pm
Kentucky fans were bummed when EJ Montgomery had to sit out the final three games of the Big Blue Bahamas Tour in August. Montgomery’s lower back only allowed him to play one game.
He finished with an impressive eight points and six rebounds, which isn’t too shabby for an 19-year-old kid playing against grown men. Montgomery didn’t care so much about his one solid performance, he was annoyed he had to miss the other three.
“I was kinda upset,” Montgomery said. “They were playing so well I just wanted to go out there and play with them.”
With the exception of the one game in August (he said he could have played if it were an NCAA Tournament game) and UK’s Basketball Pro Day on Sunday (where John Calipari said he was still slightly injured) we have to go back to the all-star circuit in the spring to see some tape on Montgomery.
But in the spring the action wasn’t with Montgomery on the court, it was off of it. At that time Montgomery was uncommitted and seemingly down to Duke and UK for his services. If you’ve been living under a rock the last few years, the Duke and UK rivalry is at its nastiest when the two recruit against one another.
People most in the know heading into the all-star circuit thought Duke was the leader, but shortly after the games he committed to Kentucky. Rumors quickly surfaced that Montgomery didn’t vibe with the Duke commits.
Montgomery denied anything happened during the McDonald’s All-American game, but the smile on his face when talking about it maybe said more than his quoted recollection.
“Nothing happened,” Montgomery said. “I had fun at McDonald’s All-American. There was nothing that happened. It was a regular McDonald’s All-American game.”
Now he will face the Duke Blue Devils in his first collegiate game. Whatever, if anything, happened between Montgomery and the Duke commits can be settled on the court, and Montgomery admitted he really wants to beat Duke. Although that’s not unique to just Duke.
“I want to beat those guys really bad, but I also want to beat everybody else really bad,” Montgomery said. “I don’t think it’s a rivalry, it’s just a game I want to compete in. It will be very fun. I know those guys, we’re very close and it’s going to be fun to compete against them.”
At this point, Montgomery is looking forward to competing against anybody that’s different than his teammates. With the exception of his one game against the Bahamas National Team you have to travel back to the all-star games since he faced unfamiliar competition.
Perhaps he’s looking forward to taking on easier opponents. Montgomery said his teammates are forcing him to play a variety of styles, and it hasn’t been easy.
“I have to come at those guys in different ways,” Montgomery said. “Reid is very physical, Nick, he is a big guy and P.J. can do it all. To score I have to do different things and it’s helping me with my all around game.”
“… Something I didn’t expect is how hard we work everyday. I knew it was going to be hard but it’s a different level here at Kentucky. We had hard workouts (at home) but workouts here are pretty different.”
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
Coming soon: Nick Richards | PJ Washington | Quade Green | Jemarl Baker | Brad Calipari | Jonny David | Zan Payne
By Drew Franklin on ©October 09th, 2018 @ 7:00pm
Reid Travis is unlike any other player John Calipari has had at Kentucky.
He’s Stanford educated, old enough to order a beer, and enters his first season as a Wildcat having already played almost 3,000 minutes of college basketball in his career.
Yet, he’s still a one-and-done prospect under Calipari.
The soon-to-be-23-year-old Travis transferred into the Kentucky program from Stanford, where he was a two-time First Team All-Pac 12 selection, and ranks 16th on Stanford’s all-time career scoring list. He was with the Cardinal for four seasons, but a knee injury early in his sophomore year kept him sidelined for most of that season. He would return in 2016-17 to average 17.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game as a redshirt sophomore, followed by a sensational redshirt junior season with almost 20 points and nine rebounds per game. Today, he is one of three Stanford players to have at least 1,400 points and 700 rebounds in less than 100 games played in the program’s history.
But once last season ended, Travis knew he had a decision to make.
“Going back to when the season ended, we lost in the NIT, I took two weeks off basically and I sat down and just really figured out, okay, what do I want to do this spring and what do I want to accomplish,” he explained to KSR. “I knew that I had a fifth-year eligibility if I wanted to take that, I knew that I had a chance to get invited by some teams and do some pre-draft workouts and look at the NBA, so I decided to go all-in on the NBA and do pre-draft workouts.”
Travis had workouts in Brooklyn, Cleveland, Denver, Minnesota and Golden State. Meanwhile, he was still trying to complete his coursework at Stanford to earn a degree in science, technology and society.
“It was a lot going on,” he said of his spring schedule. “I stayed on campus and did all of my workouts while I was finishing my degree.”
Soon after his last workout, he and his family decided it was in his best interest to return to college for a fifth year of basketball. But he was still immersed in his studies at Stanford, so he relied on his family to lay out the best options for where he would play that fifth year of basketball.
“Do I stay at Stanford? Do I go to another school? What puts me in the best situation,” he wondered. “I really started to sit down and think about that, all the while I was still trying to finish my degree, which was taking literally a lot of hours out of my day. I put a lot of faith in my family and they did a lot of the research for me as far as talking to schools, doing their own research and trying to figure out what would be the best fit for me.”
A lot of the school-searching fell on his family members, but Travis knew what he wanted out of the next year.
“The biggest thing is I wanted to get better as a player, which is an easy thing to say,” he said. “I mean every year I want to get better as a player, but I want to be pushed on a different level and be pushed in a different way and be made uncomfortable in ways I hadn’t been before, and I think that’s what steered me to a new situation. I want to compete for a national championship and I want to put myself in the best position for the draft the following year, and those were kind of the biggest things that I was looking at.”
He considered several schools, including a return to Stanford, but one stood out above the rest.
“When that came down to it and I started looking at places, there was no better spot than coming to Kentucky to try to do those things,” he said.
Travis visited Lexington days after his Stanford graduation, and he claims he was too busy with schoolwork to do much thinking before his arrival. His family had narrowed his list while he finished school, and Kentucky was one of the most serious options for a decision that had to be made in only a matter of weeks. But once he took the visit, it did not take long to know Lexington would be his next home. He announced he was transferring to Kentucky while on his visit, three days after he walked across the stage to receive his Stanford diploma.
I want to thank everyone who has helped me with this process of taking the next step to pursue my dreams. I couldn’t be more excited for the future! pic.twitter.com/xIwtBfFzLr
— Reid Travis (@2ReidTravis2) June 20, 2018
Now that he’s at Kentucky, Travis is enjoying his time as a Wildcat, but his day-to-day routine is unique compared to that of his teammates.
“I’m in the sports leadership program,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a little different experience than I had at Stanford or what most of my teammates are going through, because I’m going to night classes where I’m the youngest person in the class and everyone’s pretty old in there… so I don’t know if I’m truly living the student-athlete experience right now, but I’ve been enjoying it.”
He also has different interests than his younger teammates. They like video games, namely Fortnite. He does not even touch video games, he says.
PJ Washington, his roommate, told KSR, “All he does is talk to his family, that’s all I hear. He’s on the phone with his family or he’s in there watching TV or in the gym. That’s pretty much all he does.”
“He’s definitely the old-head around here. The young guys kind of mess with him a little bit and he doesn’t laugh about it at all. He’s always serious. He doesn’t play no video games with us. I don’t even think he owns a system.”
Travis doesn’t see a problem with the age gap, though.
“As far as talking to each other and things like that, I wouldn’t say that it’s every interaction that I have that I feel that much older,” he said.
On the court, he and the other Wildcats are pushing themselves to new levels and starving for a championship.
It’s why he’s here.
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By TJ Walker on ©October 09th, 2018 @ 12:00pm
Everything had to work out perfectly for Ashton Hagans to end up at Kentucky.
Hagans was once a Georgia commit for a few months. He also was a class of 2019 recruiting target, meaning he should still be in high school. Luckily for UK, both those things changed.
Once former Georgia head coach Mark Fox was fired Hagans started looking at other schools. It was a slow process but eventually the Cats locked in on the 6-foot-3, 192-pound point guard. Hagans had to put in a great deal of work to even be in a position to play at any college for the 2018-2019 season
“(UK’s staff) were on me but they weren’t really talking to me like that,” Hagans said. “… I was getting all my schoolwork done, trying to get there, get there. I was working hard, still had to workout early in the morning. Everything that was going on I still had my classwork when I was still in the 11th grade. I had all that on top. My dad was telling me ‘Keep fighting son. You’ve been working hard, don’t give up now. Keep it going.’ That’s all it was. He was on me, my mom was on me. It was like just let me get this done so everything can get off my shoulders. Now that I’m here it’s like, dang, I really did it. Working hard.”
It’s almost impossible to imagine.
While Hagans was going through his junior year of high school he was having to continue to workout and practice basketball, while trying to do enough coursework to reclassify and still having his normal schoolwork from his junior year teachers at Newton High School in Covington, Ga.
Oh, and he was having to deal with his recruitment, a stressful and important process. Hagans committed to Georgia in December and he said that’s when he started getting serious about reclassifying.
But things would become even more complicated for Hagans. Thinking he could just focus on reclassifying the Bulldogs fired Fox. This added more to his plate because it meant Hagans was going to have to through another recruitment.
“Me and Fox had the relationship because I was always up there with my cousin (Trey Thompkins) cuz he played there,” Hagans said. “I was always up there. The bond we had got, when all that happened, I was like loyalty over anything. Cal wasn’t gonna talk to me because him and Fox were like best friends. He wasn’t gonna have no conversations with me but he was conversing with my dad. When that had happened I was like ‘Dang, I might as well go to a bigger step, next level.’ I just decided to make the decision to come here and see how everything happened from here.”
Kentucky was the bigger step but Hagans still had plenty to do to get the next level. One of John Calipari’s most frequently used recruiting pitches is UK isn’t for everyone. He tells recruits how much work it will be and how nothing is promised or guaranteed.
Hagans previous experience shows he’s not scared to put in the work.
“I did what I had to do to get back here,” Hagans said. “I’m just focusing on right now and what I have going on right now.”
Hagans looked at a few schools after backing off his Georgia pledge and said Tom Crean was frequently at his school but the Cats were the clear favorites once they offered in late March. Two weeks later he committed and two months later he officially reclassified and was on Kentucky’s campus.
Hagans has always been solid at balancing his time and making sure he gets things done, but he laughed when talking about how challenging the college workload was once he arrived to campus.
One big difference is he has managers to help him keep his life together in college.
“Crazy,” Hagans said. “We gotta wakeup early, go to class, when you come back you have like a three-hour practice. That’s when we start practicing for real. We practice, we lift. You gotta time management. Get everything right, do everything what they’re telling you to do. We have (student manager) that comes gets us in the morning and make sure we’re on time for everything. Just make sure you’re doing what you gotta do to get out of here.
“… It’s real crazy. I ain’t never did nothing like this in my life. I’m getting used to it. We are getting used to it. Sometimes I oversleep, my boys… if I’m late to something or about to be late they’ll come in there and wake me up. The managers are like coaches, really. If we’re about to be late they’ll be beating on our door all day until we get up. Really, you have no chance to mess up here. I really like it.”
Hagans says now is the busiest he’s ever been but admitted he still sleeps more than anyone on the team. While Doron Lamb wouldn’t be pleased, given how much work he’s done over in 2018 it’s clear he’s earned some rest.
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By Mrs. Tyler Thompson on ©October 08th, 2018 @ 11:00pm
Last month, John Calipari hosted a roundtable with local reporters to discuss his team’s progress heading into the 2018-19 season. You can view the entire transcript of the conversation here, but these ten things stuck out to me the most.
The “Brandon Knight” culture continues
From early morning workouts at the Joe Craft Center to late night sessions in a ballroom at the Bahamas, it’s clear this team is willing to put in the extra work it takes to be special. Once again, Calipari said this group’s work ethic reminds him of Brandon Knight, whose gym rat mentality propelled Kentucky to a Final Four in 2011.
“I told them yesterday — everybody keeps asking me — I said the biggest thing about this team is the Brandon Knight culture, which was time in the gym. That’s what this group that walks in here, they love being in the gym. They just love the game. They love getting better. They love competing. That’s fun for them. Not running around, [saying] ‘Can’t wait until this is over so I can go.’ That’s not who they are. They love being in the gym. The teams I’ve had that way, normally, they’re reaching beyond what you think they should be able to do.”
Kentucky always has talented players; having players that are talented and willing to sacrifice is what has Calipari “jacked” to come to work each day.
“Yesterday we practiced and I was so jacked to be practicing. We only went for an hour and did all defense, but I think they could tell I was excited to be back. I’m excited about the team because the culture that they’re creating is going to be one of personal and team achievement.”
Freshmen are refusing to back down
Kentucky’s got a great core of veterans in PJ Washington, Nick Richards, Quade Green, and Reid Travis, but Calipari said just because those four are older doesn’t mean the freshmen are letting them push them around.
“The young kids have no idea what they’re about to face; the veterans do. But if the veterans try to get these young kids to back up, literally, the young kids will laugh at them like, ‘You know, no. That’s not how we’re doing this.’ You can come out every time you miss a shot. ‘Well, I’ll get in the gym more.’ So, anything that’s thrown at these young kids, they’re like, ‘No. I’m not buying it.’”
There’s a lot of Keldon Johnson in that quote.
Searching for a catalyst
This interview took place a month ago, and at the time, Calipari was still searching to a “catalyst,” aka a player who can come in and take over the game. This group seems to have a lot of alpha dogs; which one is the meanest?
“What we walked away from [the Bahamas trip] with was, we’ve got a lot of guys. Who’s going to be the catalyst? And you need a couple. Who’s going to be the guy that can change the game for three or for minutes to help you win? Who is that? Still not sure who that will be. You try to have one or two or three of those if you can; if you do, your team is really, really, really good.”
Based off the Bahamas trip, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, and Ashton Hagans come to mind as candidates. Speaking of…
Ashton Hagans: Tyler Ulis 2.0 on defense?
Hagans’ defense was one of the highlights of the Bahamas trip, and when asked whom he would compare Ashton to on that side of the ball, Calipari named one of his most beloved players.
“He’s got a little bit of the stuff that Tyler Ulis would do, which is, you go and he’s there, and then you go, and he’s still there. And then you go, and all of a sudden, he took the ball from you. Like, where did he come from? He’s got a little bit of Tyler. Tyler had to play angles and really had to be advanced in what was happening next because of his size. Ashton hasn’t done that yet. Ashton just mauls you. He knows to stay in front and to body you. He’s not afraid to be physical.”
Could Ashton be the catalyst Calipari’s searching for?
“Yeah. Tyler was a catalyst on that team. And it was as much what he did defensively as what he did offensively.”
He wants Immanuel Quickley to stop trying to be perfect
Immanuel Quickley’s stat line from the Bahamas was as close to perfect as you’ll see from a freshman in a summer exhibition: 18 assists to only two turnovers. Calipari said he’s been thrilled with Quickely so far, going as far to compare him to Brandon Knight in terms of work ethic, but he wants the freshman to let down his guard and take more chances.
“I’m trying to get him – he wants to be perfect. And he almost was down there. I want him to be a little more aggressive, take more chances. He’s used to, boom, the ball comes out, alright, let’s hold. No. Boom, the ball comes out, get in that lane and keep coming. There will be a time where it’s a dead ball, where everything dies and you have to take it and get us back to what we’re doing; he’s learning that. But he was terrific.”
He’s open to a neutral site series with Memphis
Without even coaching a game, Penny Hardaway has reinvigorated the Memphis Basketball program to the point the Tigers are vying with Kentucky for five-star big man James Wiseman. Calipari, who revived the Memphis program himself in the early aughts, said he’s open to a series with Hardaway and Memphis, but only at neutral sites.
“I like Penny and I congratulated him and he and I talked a couple different times, but I don’t believe – look, it’s hard for us to go home-and-home with anybody; it just is,” Cal said. “I don’t think a home-and-home would be in the cards, but playing them, maybe we can figure out something.”
He isn’t going anywhere anytime soon
When asked how he feels going into his tenth season at Kentucky, Calipari broke out his usual jokes about aging at the rate of a president, etc., but also shared a conversation he had with Joe B. Hall when he took the job in 2009.
“I can remember asking Coach Hall, ‘How long a run is this?’ He said, ‘About ten years.’ [Laughter] He said about ten. You know, the lifespan of a president, an athletic director, this level of coaching, it’s usually about ten years. Then after that, stuff gets harder and harder.”
That being said, at 59, Calipari is showing no signs of slowing down, even throwing around the possibility of coaching into his 80s.
“You’re here and it’s a position that, like I said, it took me twenty years to get a job like this. And, so, not as anxious to leave and probably going to stay much longer than I ever thought I’d stay in coaching.”
He really does get the state of Kentucky
We say all the time that Calipari “gets” the Kentucky Basketball program and its fans; that understanding was on full display when he was asked what he’s learned during his tenure in Lexington.
“This is a generous state. And it’s not a rich state. Some may say it’s a poor state, but it’s a generous state. It’s a provincial kind of place. In other words, they’re from where they’re from and they’re proud of it and you ask somebody, they’ll tell you the county they’re from.
“The other thing they’re protective of is their basketball program. What’s beneficial to me is I’m their basketball coach. You come after me, this army comes after you.”
Stitch that on a pillow right now.
“I should be John Wooden. I should have won nine, ten, eleven.”
Inevitably, Calipari was asked why Kentucky only has one title in nine years when 35 players have been drafted by the NBA. In response, he joked that he should have won “nine, ten, eleven” titles so far ala John Wooden, but dismissed the preconceived notion that Kentucky fans expect to win it all every year.
“You know what’s funny? Everywhere I go, everyone says, ‘How do you do it there?’ I go, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘They expect you to win it every year, these people expect that’… I don’t feel that way. What I say to them is, ‘They want to be in the hunt for recruits, they want to have a chance to win it every year. They’d love to win it every year but they want to make sure we’re one of those teams every year.’ That’s fair, I think. Being at Kentucky, that’s a fair thing to want.
“Every year, I’m coaching to win a national title. That’s what I’m coaching for every year I coach here. Have we been in the hunt every year? I’d say every year but one. And if a kid didn’t get hurt, who knows if that would have been every year?”
Will someone please take him to Dunkin Donuts when he’s older?
Calipari said that as he gets older, he worries less and less about his legacy, but admitted that sometimes, he worries he’ll become so irrelevant that no one will care enough to take him out for coffee and a chat.
“This platform will go away at some point. No one’s going to worry about what I’m saying or what I think. I laugh at times. I said, I wonder if someone will say, ‘Hey Cal, let’s go get a coffee and talk basketball’ when I’m done. You laugh about it because I try to take care of veteran coaches any chance I can because of it. And everybody says, ‘Nah, no way.’”
I’ll take you, coach. My treat.
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By TJ Walker on ©October 08th, 2018 @ 9:30pm
We all can get drained following a college recruitment. The lists being cut to 15, then 10, then five. The drama of hanging onto every quote and over-analyzing every prospect’s social media post.
That’s why Immanuel Quickley’s recruitment was a breath of fresh air. He took visits and had a list, but he was as honest as a recruit could be during his recruitment. He talked leaders and ignored building up drama.
He also didn’t want the schools that missed out on him waiting until the spring unsure if they were landing a five-star point guard, so once he knew he wanted to commit to UK that’s exactly what Quickley did.
Quickley said the first time he knew the Cats were in a good spot was after playing for Calipari in the summer of 2017 for the Team USA U19 team.
“After USA when I was playing with Coach Cal was a big one,” Quickley said. “I got to see him not only on the floor but off the floor. He was a real down to Earth guy that I think a lot of people don’t get to see when we were in Egypt on camels and seeing the Pyramids of Giza and stuff like that. I think that was one of the turning points in my recruitment.”
Although the United States failed to win gold, it didn’t take long for Quickley to see why so many of Calipari’s point guards are successful at the next level. That summer Quickley was only coached by Calipari for a few weeks, but now he’s getting to spend time with the Hall of Fame head coach everyday.
“On the floor that was my first time playing for him,” Quickley said. “I see why his point guards do so good because he pushes them. It’s not easy playing for Coach Cal but if you just put in the work and listen to what he’s got to say you’ll do fine.”
And as for that upset loss to Canada in the semifinals? That’s something that isn’t discussed between Calipari and Quickley.
“That has never came up again,” Quickley said. “It will always be a memory for me just visiting Egypt. That’s something a lot of people can’t say they’ve done before.”
But UK’s staff still needed to build a relationship with Quickley and his family, and oddly enough Quickley said his college head coach and his mother share a lot of the same traits.
“Coach Cal was really transparent and real real with me,” Quickley said. “My mom has always been real with me, she doesn’t lie to me. She tells me what I need to hear not what I want to hear. I think that’s kinda how Coach Cal was with me. He told me the truth. He told me other point guards were going to be here with me but I just gotta work hard and things like that, so I think that’s the real reason why I wanted to come to Kentucky.”
Calipari told Quickley that they would be bringing in other guards. The Cats also signed Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro at the guard position, plus Quade Green returned for his sophomore season. With Keldon Johnson being a true three, there’s a lot of bodies for seemingly only two positions.
Quickley embraced the crowded backcourt.
“The NBA is kinda the same way,” Quickley said. “It’s gonna be six, five or six players at one position. If you’re running from it now you’re definitely not gonna be ready for it at the next level.”
And it’s made for battles in practice.
“Practices have been real hard,” Quickley said. “I’m going against Ashton, Keldon is going against Tyler. The bigs are going against each other and everybody is getting better just from the high level of play and everybody is rising up. I think when we got against competition it made it a lot easier because we were going against somebody else. Practices are way harder than the games.”
The steady Quickley had a solid showing in the Bahamas in August. He may not be UK’s best shooter, most athletic player, or best defender, but he’s a do-it-all guard with few weaknesses. In four games in the Bahamas he averaged 7.3 points, a team-high 4.5 assists and over one steal per game.
“Individually I’m just looking forward to getting better everyday,” Quickley said. “I enjoy that part of the process of just getting better, working on my game and stuff like that.
“As a team, kinda the same thing. Getting better as a team everyday. We compete and practice hard. We’re going at it. By the time March comes hopefully we’ll be ready and we’ll be really well-tuned, fine-tuned at what we do.”
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By TJ Walker on ©October 08th, 2018 @ 5:00pm
Keldon Johnson tried to play it cool. The Champions Classic has never been the first game of the season, so it was a big deal when it was announced the college basketball season would kick off with one of its premiere events.
Johnson knew Kentucky would start its season against Duke. He answered the question with a straight face but couldn’t help but smile towards the end of his answer.
“Duke,” Johnson answered. “Everybody knows it. It’s no secret. Everybody out there knows that. Duke is our first game.”
He’s right. Everyone knows it’s Duke, but Johnson tried to play it cool again when discussing the matchup in Indianapolis next month.
“I’m pretty focused on just getting right now,” Johnson said. “But when that game comes they’ve got to throw the ball up and we’re going to go out there and get after them. The best team will come out victorious.”
Johnson and Duke commit R.J. Barrett turned a playful McDonald’s All-American game into a heated back-and-forth finish. Barrett has always been considered the better player and prospect, and that wasn’t news to Johnson.
He uses it as motivation.
“I wouldn’t say disrespected but I think it definitely made me grind harder and harder,” Johnson said. “It is what it is.”
Johnson never considered Duke and was never really recruited by the Blue Devils, which may add to his motivation, but he was heavily recruited by other ACC schools.
And for a few weeks, especially if Johnson’s dad (Chris Johnson) had his way, it seemed like one of those ACC schools may land Johnson.
Johnson’s dad had reservations about UK and wanted his son to go elsewhere. Luckily for UK, Keldon always preferred the Cats.
“At some point me and my dad had a disagreement about going to Kentucky,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say it was necessarily about numbers. I think he was thinking otherwise of fit, but we ultimately came down to the right decision for me and the best decision for me. Me and my dad have always been on the same page, we always talk about things. We just talked it out and we made the best decisions for me and that was to be here at Kentucky.”
There wasn’t any bad blood between Chris Johnson and UK’s staff, but he thought other schools may be a better fit. Keldon said his dad was coming from a good place and eventually came around to Kentucky.
“If y’all know my dad he speaks his opinion very well,” Johnson said. “He wants the best for me. I’m his son, so, it took some time to get him over but we did a great job with it.”
Now he’s at UK, he’ll have a chance to go against R.J. Barrett and the Blue Devils in his first college game, and if the Bahamas trip was any indication the Cats will try to win that game and win it big.
“If we can beat a team by 30 we’re going to try and beat them by 30,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to try and take it easy on no team. I think that’s just our mindset, we’re just going out there trying to destroy the other team, try to kill the other team. Like I said, if we can beat them by 30 we’re going to try our best to beat them by 30.”
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By TJ Walker on ©October 08th, 2018 @ 11:30am
It didn’t feel good when Tyler Herro’s classmates called him a snake when he decommitted from Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-5, 195-pound shooting guard from Milwaukee was committed to the Badgers for 13 months but as he blew up during the summer heading into his junior season, Herro knew he could have more options. He initially picked Wisconsin over DePaul and Marquette.
“I wanted to play somewhere bigger than that,” Herro said. “Obviously not a lot of people get the opportunity to play at somewhere like Kentucky. When I got the call that I could play here, why not? I know I’m good enough, work hard, play with a group of guys like this that have the same goal as me, get to the NBA at the end of the day, that’s really what went into it.”
Prior to committing to Wisconsin, Herro did earn an offer from Oregon and Arizona, more prestigious schools than other schools on his list, but after decommitting from Wisconsin in the fall of 2017 he started hearing from Kentucky, Villanova and Kansas.
Herro said while making the best decision for him and his family, disappointed Badger fans turned on him.
He admitted that it took some getting used to during his senior year.
“It was a little difficult at the very beginning,” Herro said. “Even kids from my own school were calling me a snake and this and that. At the end of the day it’s whatever is best for me and my family and friends. So, I think I made the right decision obviously and I’m ready to get started.”
Herro joked he’s the most hated man in Wisconsin and that hate will likely only intensify if he thrives at Kentucky. After just four games in the Bahamas it seems like Herro is heading in the right direction.
“I always expect to play pretty well,” Herro said. “I knew it was going to be a little bit different but going out there and playing at my best is what I try to do and I think I played pretty well.”
The freshman led Kentucky in scoring with 17.3 points per game. He was 8 of 18 from behind the arc and the rest of UK’s team combined for 18 of 50. Not only was Herro dangerous from outside, he surprised UK fans and national media alike by being able to attack the rim. Only three players went to the line more than Herro and Kentucky fans loved what Herro did from the charity stripe. He didn’t miss. 15 made attempted free throws and 15 makes.
While Wisconsin fans may hate him, Herro said he was more popular in Lexington after the Bahamas.
“Everybody started to know me on campus,” Herro said. “A lot of people wanted to take pictures and autographs wherever I go, so I mean, it was like that home but not as much as it is here. It was definitely different.”
Herro doesn’t have folks licking his car just yet, but if he plays as well for UK this season as he did in the Bahamas, he will be a rockstar on Kentucky’s campus.
But he seemed more excited being on a team of other great players that help make him better.
“I think we have a group of guys that are willing to do their role, whatever Coach Cal wants,” Herro said. “We all listen and we all really work hard.”
And it would have never came to fruition if Herro stayed committed to the Badgers. He wasn’t the only Wildcat that originally planned to play elsewhere. Freshmen E.J. Montgomery and Ashton Hagans were committed to other schools before eventually picking the Cats and Reid Travis played four years for Stanford before enrolling at UK.
“It definitely would have been different,” Herro said. “EJ also decommitted…. If Reid doesn’t come it’s different. We definitely need every piece that we have to be the No. 1 team in the country or whatever it may be, but with the group of guys that we have we’re definitely in a good position.”
And as for the haters in Wisconsin, Herro has moved on and is looking forward to the upcoming season.
“At the end of the day Kentucky is where I wanted to be,” Herro said.
Check out the rest of KSR’s 2018-19 Basketball Preview Series:
By Mrs. Tyler Thompson on ©October 08th, 2018 @ 8:00am
On whether he’s concerned the Bahamas trip will make the season feel longer:
Yesterday was our first day of basketball [since the Bahamas]. They’ve been on campus almost two weeks and yesterday, what we did was mostly defense, so all the stuff I did on offense, there’s only a couple things I’ll add in this time frame. It’s mainly so we can guard it. I told them, ‘If we’re really going to be good, it will be because we’re outstanding defensively.’ We just did a lot of defensive stuff yesterday for an hour.
The four hours a week, most of it is going to be team stuff. The individual stuff, I told them, ‘You’re responsible for you and being more consistent in your skills.’ That means you’re going to have to get in the gym, a little bit with us, but a lot by themselves.
On whether or not Jemarl Baker and EJ Montgomery are finally healthy:
Yeah. I told those guys, asked them if they knew Wally Pipp. They did not. I told them the story. So, EJ is saying, ‘I’m not going to be Wally Pipp. I’m just telling you, I’m fine.’ He said, ‘I’ll never act hurt.’ You try to tell them, ‘Look, you know your body better than anybody and if you’re hurt, you should never be playing. But, when you come out and you’re not playing, understand other people are moving by.’ It’s just how it is.
On if that was the only disappointing thing on the trip:
It wasn’t disappointing that he didn’t play. He was hurt.
On if he was disappointed he didn’t get a chance to see EJ play:
I’ve seen him. He’s really good. He’s really skilled. I’ve watched him enough. He’s more skilled – he’s better than I thought he was. He just has to get in a situation where everyday he’s got to fight and slowly he becomes what he’s going to have to become to be his best version.
I told them yesterday — everybody keeps asking me — I said the biggest thing about this team is the Brandon Knight culture, which was time in the gym. That’s what this group that walks in here, they love being in the gym. They just love the game. They love getting better. They love competing. That’s fun for them. Not running around, [saying] ‘Can’t wait until this is over so I can go.’ That’s not who they are. They love being in the gym. The teams I’ve had that way, normally, they’re reaching beyond what you think they should be able to do. Those kind of teams.
On if that’s something you can recruit for or if it’s something that’s a pleasant surprise:
You kind of knew. I didn’t know that Keldon [Johnson] was to that level. And I didn’t know that Tyler [Herro] was, even though his dad kept telling me, ‘Believe me, he’ll be in the gym all day.’ I didn’t know that though. I knew Immanuel [Quickley] was like that. And then what you have is, when you start having those guys and Ashton [Hagans], all of a sudden, when you start having four and five, it starts challenging the other guys. When you’re not in there, they all know it. It isn’t like there’s a secret. It’s, these are the guys spending the most time at this. Last year, the guy that spent the most time in the gym and spent the most time at this was Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander]. It wasn’t close. He went from our twelfth player who no one knew to a lottery pick. It’s good. Like I said, yesterday, Brad even said to me, ‘Man, are we farther along than last year.’ I said, ‘Well, we did spend 21 days practicing and in the Bahamas.’ Twenty days, anyways.
On what type of defender Ashton Hagans is:
I talked to him, there were some times yesterday when we were doing some stuff, and what I did was, I said, ‘You are one that doesn’t need to take chances. Just keep balling people. You take a chance because you’re trying to stop.’ I’m done. I don’t want to keep going. I said, ‘You’re not that guy. You’re the guy that just keeps mucking stuff up, that stays to the guy to where the other guy just wants to pass it and get rid of it.’
But we’ve got a couple. I think Immanuel will play that way. We just – you’ve got to get that other wing guy to be that way and then, watching PJ [Washington] and Reid [Travis] yesterday and even Nick [Richards] and the guys there, they’re all trying. I think they’re excited. I think they like each other.
On PJ saying the freshmen are already more intense than last year and whether they’re pushing the veterans or vice versa:
Players drive the culture. It’s not the other way around. It’s just how it is. The culture here has always been about putting in the work. Being committed to the game. Sacrificing. If you don’t sacrifice, you can’t play here. If you don’t give up something, you’re not going to play here. You’re not taking 30 shots here a game; it’s just not how it is. That culture of achievement and personal achievement along with team achievement is a culture we’ve developed here. Being responsible. Being responsible for each other.
This group has – I always said, Brandon Knight changed the direction and what we wanted and how we wanted it done and he took that to another level. We ran with that for a while. Then sometimes you get away. You get a group that’s not as – either the game was easy for them to this point, they were enabled, whatever you want to say and then reality hits and ‘Wow.’ So, when you say the young guys – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist kind of drove that group to approach it different. We had some veterans on that team. This could be similar to that in that [sense]. You know, Reid walking in, he is a veteran, but he gets after it. He works, he’s in the gym a lot. It’s a good mix and they’re going to help each other.
The young kids have no idea what they’re about to face; the veterans do. But if the veterans try to get these young kids to back up, literally, the young kids will laugh at them like, ‘You know, no. That’s not how we’re doing this.’ You can come out every time you miss a shot. Well, ‘I’ll get in the gym more.’ So, anything that’s thrown at these young kids, they’re like, ‘No. I’m not buying it.’ It’s a good group. It’s a good veteran group. Someone said, ‘What do you like about your team?’ I said, ‘I’ve got some vets. I got some older players.’
On how he feels going into his tenth season at Kentucky:
You know what? That is amazing. Tenth season. I can remember asking Coach Hall, ‘How long a run is this?’ He said, ‘About ten years.’ [Laughter] He said about ten. You know, the lifespan of a president, an athletic director, this level of coaching, it’s usually about ten years. Then after that, stuff gets harder and harder.
On how old he felt at his introductory press conference:
The thing that happens to you is you still see yourself a certain way until you look in the mirror. Then you say, what in the hell happened there? But, everywhere I go, I joke and just say, ‘I want you to go look at the picture of me at the press conference when I first took the job and look at me now and feel bad for what you’ve done to me, all you people.’ And again, that is not that long ago. You’re not talking 15 years ago.
But this is one of those all-encompassing – I was just in an NABC meeting and one of the coaches said, ‘Cal, how much in a year do you think you travel?’ I went, ‘I have no idea. I just go until I don’t go anymore.’ So, I told Eric [Lindsey], I may go back and just try to figure out, how many days did I travel, with recruiting, with personal stuff, with game days, with speaking, university functions, how much did I travel? How many did you say it is?
[Eric: “It’s about a third, a quarter to a third that you’re gone. At least a third.”]
Well, we’re going to find out because I have every calendar and I’m going to go through and just add them all up. So, it’s not just coaching here. It’s not just sitting in the chair. It’s not just watching game tape. You’re involved in a lot of stuff here. And so, if you don’t want to take that on, it’s probably the wrong job. I’ve said it before, the seat carries a different weight here, in this state. You can move people for good or you can move them the wrong way, if that’s what you chose to do.
On how much longer he can coach:
I didn’t think I’d be coaching in my sixties when I was doing this, mainly because of the pace I was going. But then again, it took me 20 years to get a job like this, so at this point, I don’t know.