On Thursday, every college basketball coach and recruiting analyst worth their weight in Spalding will convene in Augusta, South Carolina for the Nike Peach Jam, considered by many to be the top prep tournament in the country. Our very own Matt Jones and Drew Franklin will be among them, chasing down recruits to ask them the really important questions, like who was eliminated last on “The Bachelorette” and if they can finish Conway Twitty lyrics.
I kid, I kid. The best of the best (except for Jabari Parker) will hit the court Thursday morning with row upon row of college basketball’s elite watching their every move. The Peach Jam is the breakout tournament for many highly touted recruits, including Nerlens Noel, who basically turned the event into his coming out party last year. Andrew Wiggins, the number one player in the 2014 class, hopes for a similar outcome, and Calipari will have the best seat in the house, presumably between the two courts for maximum exposure. For those of you thirsty for recruiting news, get ready, because it’s about to pour. Maybe we’ll get really lucky and Matt will meet up with Gary Parrish again.
First things first. Wednesday belonged to the football team, who took their turn at the podium at SEC Media Days. While most of the national media decided to take an early lunch and skip the Cats’ portion, the rest of us were treated to the usual preseason talk, with a few gems sprinkled in. Here are five take-aways from the unofficial start to football season:
1. Football loves basketball
The highlight of the session were Joker’s comments about the relationship between the football and basketball programs. Going back to the time of Bear Bryant and Adolph Rupp, there is a common belief that a school is either a “football school” or a “basketball school.” Kentucky is most assuredly a basketball school, and while many, including Bear Bryant, have balked at that, Joker is using it to his advantage, telling reporters he is more than happy to “hitch our wagon to our basketball program.” Joker said he uses the basketball program as a selling point to recruits, and Cal is more than willing to help, in one case calling Phillips five minutes before a Dominican Republic National Team game to talk to a football recruit. Joker said that Cal is also cool with the football team bringing recruits into the Rupp locker room, sometimes 30 minutes before tip-off, during which Cal talks to them, hopefully rubbing some of the recruiting charm off on Phillips and the staff. One time, he allowed them to come in right before the North Carolina game. (Can you imagine Billy Gillispie doing that? He probably would have made recruits sit in the bathroom stalls.) This is yet another example of how Cal is tailor-made for the job and it may be one of the smartest moves Joker has made as head coach. Kentucky basketball is the gold standard in the sport, and along with the university’s improvements in baseball and tennis, it shows the school’s commitment to athletics. Tapping into the basketball team’s success and exposure is a fail-safe move that can only improve the UK brand in recruits’ eyes. Any edge we can get, right?
2. The Wisconsin Way
Now, about those recruits. Joker said that he and his staff are attempting to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin when it comes to recruiting and player development. Since Kentucky will rarely be able to compete for five-star talent like the LSUs and Alabamas of the world, Joker says he is going after “long, lean athletes” who may have been overlooked by other programs, and developing them into SEC-type players. He cited Collins Ukwu, along with Myron Pryor and Randall Cobb, as an example of that method in practice, saying that he came to Kentucky with a long, lean body and will leave looking (and playing like) an SEC defensive lineman. Joker said that like Wisconsin, Kentucky will probably never be able to recruit in the top of their league, but by finding diamonds in the rough and polishing them into SEC-caliber players, they may one day finish in the top of the league, like Wisconsin. Right??
3. Beat Tennessee
Although most are predicting doom and gloom for the Cats, Joker says they hope to capitalize off the momentum of beating Tennessee at the end of last season, calling it an “opportunity to grow as a program.” The game may have been ugly, but Joker said the Cats won by doing all the little things and not make foolish mistakes. Essentially, they got back to the fundamentals of football, something that seemed to perplex the team for most of the season. That new mindset was even on display when the Cats played Georgia the game before, giving the Bulldogs a pretty tough fight before losing 19-10. Joker wants to start a streak of his own this season: winning the last game. So, whether it be the last game of the regular season, or bless us, a bowl, let’s beat Tennessee. Oh, and Clay Travis? Let me take this chance to remind you that we did that with a wide receiver playing quarterback last year, so put your little “Poor Kentucky” jokes back in your bright orange pocket.
4. We’ve got QBs (and RBs)
Joker repeatedly referred to the quarterback and running back positions as the deepest and most competitive on the team. So competitive that he said whoever best managed what he called the “Oh Sh!t moments” would get the nod as starter. You know those…when the QB scans the defense before the snap, sees something he doesn’t like, and hopefully, calls an audible to cover it. We had lots of those moments last year in which the QB panicked, failed to get an audible in, and BAM play over. Joker was adamant that the starting QB going into the Louisville game would have to effectively handle situations like this, and although Maxwell Smith has the nod headed into camp, anything can happen.
With the running backs, Kentucky will enjoy both depth and experience, a rarity over the past few years due to injury. Josh Clemons will return from his meniscus injury, but Joker said they will limit his contact during the fall camp, only letting him work two days a week in order to protect his knee. “Le Freak” Co’Shik Williams will hopefully pick off where he left off, along with Raymond Sanders, and Jonathan George. Add in “SEC-ready” freshmen Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor and you’ve got a pretty well rounded depth chart. Now, if the offensive line can provide some opportunities…
5. What hot seat?
I don’t think many of us expected Joker to step up to the podium and complain about being on the hot seat, but when asked about it, he had a pretty candid remark: “I’m not sitting down right now, so there’s nothing hot.” He continued on to say that he doesn’t have time to listen to that “stuff,” and effectively turned the conversation back towards the positive things going on with the program, including the “unbelievable, unbelievable fan base that stick with us through thick and thin.” Similarly, Collins Ukwu called upon the fan base to support the team, (mildly) promising good things to come: “Stay with us. At some point this season, we’ll make you happy.” Ukwu said there is a heightened sense of urgency among the players, who all understand “this is the year” things need to turn around. Step one? Beating Louisville, a game which he likened to a bowl games in terms of impact on the program. Larry Warford and Matt Smith echoed this sentiment, dismissing Louisville player’s smack talk on Twitter and focusing the younger guys on what’s important: practicing hard and preparing for the game.
Phew. Enough football? Here are some basketball notes for you:
— Circle the Florida game on your soon-to-be-released SEC schedule, because Digger Phelps will be in the house! During an interview with ESPN 680 in Louisville, Digger said that the Gameday crew will attend the Florida/Kentucky game, along with games at Kansas, UCLA, Butler, Indiana, N.C. State, Georgetown and Louisville. The only way Digger’s reception could be frostier is if Bobby Knight accompanied him (not gonna happen). It’s only July, but we’ve got plenty of time to polish that “LISTEN TO ME” chant. I’m not above putting my video of Digger yelling at us at Occupy Memorial on the jumbotrons at Rupp.
— According to Adam Zagoria, the Cats are interested in 2013 PF Kentan Facey. The 6-foot-9, 205-pound power forward reportedly turned heads at the LeBron James Skills Academy and has offers from UCLA, USC, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Louisville, St. John’s, UConn, Providence, Rhode Island and VCU, along with interest from the Cats, Texas, Indiana and West Virginia. Facey maintains his recruitment is “wide open,” but it’s another name on the 2013 radar.
— Finally, it got pushed back a day by all the Media Days happenings, but don’t forget to tweet me your questions for this week’s KSR Mailbag! It’s your chance to get your name on the site and ask me just about anything–except BTI’s oatmeal cookie recipe. That’s top secret.
As previously mentioned, Matt and Drew are in Georgia for the Peach Jam, so expect LOTS and LOTS of recruiting talk over the next few days, starting with the radio show Thursday morning. See you then.