When he originally decided to transfer from Rhode Island to Kentucky last April, Jacob Toppin came in with the intention of redshirting the 2020-21 season, regardless of the NCAA’s potential one-time immediate transfer rule. At the time, the 6-foot-9, 194-pound forward out of Brooklyn, N.Y. wanted to sit out the year to develop his body and his game leading up to a strong debut season in 2021-22.
When the NCAA announced an additional year of eligibility for student-athletes competing in winter sports due to COVID-19, though, both Kentucky and Toppin decided to apply for a waiver for immediate eligibility in what amounts to a free season of college basketball. With three years of eligibility remaining, the sophomore’s long-term development goals at the school could remain while helping the program on the floor right away. It was a win-win for both parties.
Now 19 games into his young Kentucky career, Toppin has developed into a strong contributor off the bench, averaging 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game. And his biggest performance of the year came in UK’s 82-78 victory at Vanderbilt Wednesday evening, with the 6-foot-9 forward finishing with 16 points on 5-9 shooting and 5-5 from the line to go with four rebounds, two assists and one block in 22 minutes.
“I was so happy. What I said to the team after, a real team doesn’t know who’s going to have that big game, and whoever it is, everybody’s gonna be ecstatic for. They were ecstatic for him in that locker room,” UK head coach John Calipari said after the win. “We’re becoming a team. “Instead of doing what I want to do, what does this team need me to do?” Jacob went in, looked good. We were able to put him on the point guard, which meant we could switch him to the big guy.
“… Jacob, I wouldn’t have subbed him at all if he could’ve lasted in the game. He was playing too well. He came up with the last rebound that won the game, correct?”
In a year where any and all production is icing on the cake for Toppin, he’s now finished in double figures three times and added six or more rebounds six times.
As Calipari would put it, he’s found a “nice bit of change” in a season of “found money.”
“For Jacob, this is found money. This is money he found in the couch,” he said. “Nice bit of change he picked up.”
Despite his original redshirt plans, Toppin feels the free year of on-court experience is allowing him to improve as a player every day and prepare him for greater success in the long-term.
“This season has helped me a lot,” he said. “I’m learning from everything going on, the experience I’m getting, I’m just getting better every day.”
Up by just one point with 30 seconds to go, Toppin knocked down two free throws to take a three-point lead. After the Commodores responded with two free throws of their own, Toppin followed with two more makes at the line to extend the lead back to three with 19 seconds remaining.
It was four consecutive makes that helped solidify the victory, Kentucky’s second in a row.
“It’s just a mentality. If you have that mentality that you’re going to make the shot, you’re going to make the shot. You can’t have doubt in yourself,” Toppin said of his clutch free throws to close out the game. “I had all the confidence in the world I was going to make those free throws when they mattered.”
Toppin’s long-term plans at Kentucky remain, but the Brooklyn native is providing plenty of immediate help in a year the Wildcats have certainly needed it.