What do you think of the overall talent on coach John Calipari’s Kentucky roster this year?
That’s a question I posed recently to several media members who I believe have a good feel not only for UK basketball, but college basketball in general. And remember they have no idea about exactly what Skal Labissiere’s eligibility status is with the NCAA.
Start with Mike DeCourcy, columnist for The Sporting News.
“I thought it was interesting as the spring rolled on and UK was eliminated by a number of topline recruits, I kept telling people that the one player they needed to get to have a shot at the title was Jamal Murray,” DeCourcy said. “His Hoop Summit performance made it clear he was much better than his ratings indicated; you score 30 in that game, you’re special. Go back and look at the history of that game and see who’s dominated it.
“They needed Murray because they needed another perimeter player, and they needed one who could play on the wing. He can shoot, attack, run the offense. And he’s big enough to guard opposing wings.
“It’s not as talented a team as last year’s Wildcats — or last year’s Wisconsin, Duke or Arizona. But there aren’t any teams in college basketball as good as any of those four were a year ago. UK has enough size, athleticism and playmaking ability to contend for the title.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says the Wildcats have as “much talent as any team” this year in agreement with DeCourcy.
“There is not the size and frontcourt depth of last season’s incredible roster, but that level of talent is unlikely to be seen again for quite a while, if at all,” Bilas said.
Another ESPN analyst, Dick Vitale, likes the multi-talented team UK will have but already is anxious to see the guard play.
“The Wildcats have a perimeter trio in Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray and leader Tyler Ulis that will be as good as anyone in America, maybe better,” Vitale said.
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch has Kentucky No. 1 in his preseason rankings despite the loss of seven players off last year’s 38-1 team.
“Maybe not as strong top to bottom as last year, but nevertheless a team capable of winning the national championship. From all I’ve heard about Jamal Murray, his addition late in the recruiting process was the dealmaker. He’s a player who can transform his teammates and elevate the level of their play, a trait all the great ones seem to possess,” Dortch said.
Finally, let’s go to Mike Pratt, analyst for the UK Radio Network and a former UK All-American and successful college coach.
“They are going to be very good overall. Long and athletic,” Pratt said. “Look to be deeper in the backcourt than up front, but that also depends on the definition of your wing position. On paper, it has the potential to be a high scoring team fans should really like.”
A coach who speaks the truth
Everyone had to be surprised when Kentucky rushed for only 55 yards on 36 carries against Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels physically dominated UK’s offensive line most of the game before Kentucky came from two touchdowns behind to win in overtime.
So why could a Southeastern Conference team not run the ball on Eastern Kentucky?
Shannon Dawson was honest enough to admit a big part of the problem was Eastern’s defense. then also did something not every coach would do, especially after almost losing to a lower division team.
“Part of it is probably my fault. I might’ve abandoned it (the run) at times when we weren’t getting success out of it,” Dawson said. “So we’ve got to stick with running the ball at times, but when you’re not getting the success you want, it’s hard to. We had some things in the pass game we liked, too, so it goes back and forth every game.
“I will give them a lot of credit because the bottom line is this: they played harder than we did. That’s it. We ended up coming through at the end and showing some character and showing some toughness, but the bottom line is they played harder than we did. Anybody that watched the game can tell you they coached better and they played harder. There’s enough blame all around to go around, so you learn from it and you move on.”
Again, kudos to an honest coach for giving Eastern its proper credit and then blaming himself, not his players.
Once again the injury bug has hit the Kentucky basketball team. Two years ago it was Willie Cauley- Stein injuring his foot/ ankle during the NCAA Tournament. Last year it was forward Alex Poythress blowing out his knee in early December and missing the rest of the season.
Now guard Dominique Hawkins has broken his right hand and needed three screws inserted in the bone to repair the damage. For those who know Hawkins, you understand there is not a nicer, more genuine athlete than him. His smile is contagious and his work ethic second to none. He’s also always all-in on being a team-first player.
What makes this even harder for Hawkins is that he was apparently doing everything Calipari told him he had to do to earn more playing time in UK’s crowded backcourt. He was more aggressive going to the basket. More importantly, he was hitting 3-point shots.
Just a few weeks ago I got to talk to the former Madison Central star and he was so excited about his summer workouts and chances to play more this. That’s when I asked him which teammate he enjoyed being around the most. He noted he had a bond with returning players Alex Poythress and Tyler Ulis.
“They are always fun to be around and I know them well. I am getting to know these freshmen as we go. It’s possible to have a bond like we did last year as a team, but you have to put a lot of effort into it when you have newcomers. Plus, you have to get to know them as the year goes on,” Hawkins said.
Then came vintage Hawkins.
“ I have never been around an Australian ( like teammate Isaac Humphries). This is my first one. He is a really nice guy. Has a great personality but is very shy,” Hawkins said. “I remember when I was a freshman I was shy. Hopefully we can get him out of that. I like the way he plays. He is really fundamentally sound. He is very strong. People are saying he is just like (former Wildcat) Josh Harrellson and I can agree with that. His corner and mid-range shots go in.”
Shy? Dominique Hawkins with that milliondollar smile?
“Coming in here I was not much of a people person. I have learned that if you are on my team, I will talk and goof around with you. I was too shy to be a people person at first,” Hawkins said. “Being around my freshman class I didn’t talk to them at first. Jon Hood basically made me talk to him and then I started talking to everybody midseason. I am more of a people person now.”
And then word came that Derek Willis would miss two weeks with a finger injury suffered in practice Saturday. Calipari indicated it should not be serious, but Willis, like Hawkins, has a small margin for error if he wants playing time this year.
Willis didn’t deny this was a make-or-break year for him during a preseason interview.
“I think you hit the nail on the head. I am a junior this year. I have been trying to get things worked out back home and now that I have I can focus on games,” Willis said. “You will hear it everywhere I go, ‘Derek, you should play.’ That is fine. But what happens if I do play. Maybe I take away somebody else’s playing time. What if I play five minutes? Maybe somebody else drops in the draft. I would rather have those people succeed and I can be patient.
“I don’t play this game for myself. I play it for everyone else that has put time into me. Honestly, if I had to play this game, I wouldn’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t love the game. I do. There are just so many other things I would like to do. But my dad, AAU coaches, all people who have let me in gym, maybe they feel like they have helped this kid get somewhere and I feel I owe that to the people and the fans.”
Believe him. He’s never been a basketball “junkie” but he’s always worked to hone his skills and he does want to play.
“This year I just kind of want to give back to people. When I get on the court I want to play for the fans. They are the most loyal people,” Willis said. “Everywhere I go they talk to me and they love UK. For me to play for them … that is just part of being from Kentucky.”
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