Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy has watched John Calipari coach long enough to know that Kentucky’s season-opening 34-point loss to Duke will not define UK’s season.
“John is the best coach I have ever seen at being flexible with his system and adapting to the players he has,” DeCourcy said. “He has a challenge this year but he also has a lot of weapons. I know he will figure it out. I am just not sure when. It will be better if it is soon because Kentucky has a difficult stretch of games in December and then the strongest SEC schedule maybe ever.
“Duke played inspired against Kentucky and played very precisely. It was the perfect storm for the Blue Devils, but they have not played like that since then. It will be difficult for Duke to play at that level very often.”
Determining the team’s top point guard is a must for Calipari. DeCourcy said he was a bit surprised that Calipari started Ashton Hagans against Duke.
“In August they were very impressive in the Bahamas (in four exhibition games) but they didn’t play a team that had the first three picks in the draft (like Duke could have). The teams they played had relatively competent players but not top draft picks. In those games they had been bringing Hagans off the bench as a defensive boost and he would amp up the way they were playing.
“Against Duke I think it got to be 29-10 and it was over. If John had another point guard with better offensive skills on the floor, maybe those 10 UK points become 18 or 20 and it is still a game. I think that was a mistake John made here. He doesn’t make many mistake but he got one wrong there.”
DeCourcy believes Hagans will be a “fine player and probably a pro” but simply is not advanced offensively at this point, especially considering the other players Kentucky has dependent on what the point guard does.
“Kentucky does not have a lot of shot creators. Keldon (Johnson) can get to the rim and Tyler (Herro) can score but P.J. (Washington), Reid (Travis) and Nick (Richard) are all dependent on getting the ball in good positions. Kentucky needs to have its point guard position resolved and could become a great team when that happens. I think Immanuel Quickley is the best option. Quade (Green) can get in position but is not overly dynamic in the lane. Immanuel is the best option if John can get him on the same page with the veteran players.”
DeCourcy says more consistent play from sophomores Green, Washington and Richards would help but that Calipari searching for the right playing rotation early in the season is nothing new.
“It’s going to take John a while to find the perfect system this year,” DeCourcy said. “Think back to 2011 and it took to early February to find the right mix for that group that made the Final Four. Some years it just takes time. This is one of those years.”
Benny Snell anticipates he will play in Kentucky’s bowl game because playing football is what he does. It’s no secret he’s headed for the NFL and won’t be back at UK for his senior season. Some players doing that avoid playing in bowl games to not risk being injured (he missed most of the second half against Louisville with a back injury) but coach Mark Stoops says he expects all the Cats, including Snell and Josh Allen, to play in the bowl game.
Snell also has a chance to become UK’s all-time leading rusher. He’s 107 yards behind Sonny Collins after running for 100 yards and two touchdowns in Kentucky’s rout of Louisville.
“I take it game by game and keep those goals in mind,” Snell said. “But I don’t just want to put all my focus on that and never did. I had my offense to carry and my team to lead.”
He’s more proud of Kentucky winning nine regular season games this year, something no Kentucky team has done since 1977.
“It says how far Kentucky has came as a team. From all the way back when we weren’t winning as much. The standards are just higher and higher each year,” Snell said. “Everybody is more tight and knows it is like business. Just guys being accountable and playing harder. I am happy to be part of it.
“This team’s legacy, these seniors can say they played their butts off. When the ball was kicked off, they fought until the end. That’s what I want my legacy to be here.”
Snell admits Adrian Peterson is his all-time favorite running backs and that he’s always watched current NFL backs Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott.
“I like guys that run hard and are strong on pass blocking,” Snell said.
Snell has also put his name into the SEC record book in the same category several times as former Georgia great Herschel Walker. He says he would love for Walker to reach out to him.
“I look up to Herschel. He is amazing. He is one of the greats of all time,” Snell said. “I try to be a sponge any time I am watching his film. It would be amazing to talk to him. That would make my day.”
Almost 3,100 fans were in Memorial Coliseum Saturday to watch Kentucky volleyball sweep Auburn and end SEC play 18-0. It was Senior Day for McKenzie Watson, Brooke Morgan, Anna Nyberg and Meredith Jewell, who were also part of a SEC championship team last season.
“I want to thank BBN a lot, especially for the seniors, for coming out,” sophomore libero Garry Curry said after the win. “It was really a cool way to go out and I know they (the seniors) really appreciated it. They mentioned that so many people were here. I want to thank everyone for coming.”
The volleyball team got an even bigger ovation the night before at Rupp Arena when it was introduced during the men’s basketball game.
“It was unreal. I think the noise … nobody expected everyone to stand up and cheer that loud,” Curry said. “Everyone was like, ‘Wow. That’s crazy.’ It was really cool that we can have basketball fans also support us.”
The players tossed T-shirts into the crowd and coach Craig Skinner challenged his team to have someone throw a shirt into the upper deck. Junior Leah Edmond got the closest, but came up just short.
“I think I threw out my arm,” Curry laughed and said. “I was like, ‘I got it,’ when Craig challenged us. Then I threw it and knew there was no way I was getting it up there. I was trying, though.”
Curry was asked what it was like to be famous with games on TV, the ovation at Rupp and the perfect SEC record.
“Little girls recognize us,” Curry said. “If we go out as a group, for sure we get recognized. People are like, ‘Do you play basketball? No, volleyball.’ But I think little girls see us around and they will say something but not old people, but maybe one day.
“On campus for sure (the players are recognized). We have a really cool athletic community. They know us and we know them.”
Kentucky is 24-4 and ranked 11th nationally going into NCAA Tournament play this week.
Pendleton County senior Dontaie Allen, a Kentucky signee, will play in the Marshall County Hoopfest Saturday night against host Marshall County. It’s something Allen, his teammates and Pendleton County fans have been looking forward to for months.
Some of the nation’s elite prep schools will also play in the fourday event that is part of the Grind Session. Allen had chances to leave Pendleton for various prep schools, but never seriously considered doing so.
“Even if I had thought about it, my parents would have reemphasized why staying was good, so leaving was never really in my mind,” Allen said. “Some prep schools used to text my dad and reach out on Twitter. But I love being at Pendleton County. Every time I am on Twitter I would always check to see what offers different players were getting but I am very happy where I am.”
Allen said where other players were going never overly influenced him.
“I am just glad I found the school that I wanted to go to that fit best for me,” Allen said.
Texas guard Tyrese Maxey also signed with UK while guard Kahlil Whitney has verbally committed to UK but will wait until spring to sign. .
“I think me and Tyrese play a lot alike. I was watching some film and as far as skill sets we are really a lot alike. Then Kahlil, he’s just so, so athletic,” Allen said.
Maxey in some ways is like Allen — he could have reclassified and been in college this year but he wanted to finish high school with his friends much like Allen wanted to stay at the same school with his life-long friends.
“I think it is rare because a bunch of people want to leave for a better situation and if it doesn’t go right then they try to move back. Just stay there and work through it. That’s what was best for me and sounds like it was for Tyrese, too,” Allen said. “I am just taking it all in and taking it one day at a time. Keep working hard, hang out with friends and just enjoy things like Marshall County Hoopfest. That’s really going to be big for me and my team. It’s an honor to be going there and we are all looking forward to it.”
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Even though Auburn shared the Southeastern Conference regular season championship last season, coach Bruce Pearl still feels it has something to prove this season.
“I think we feel like we have unfinished business and the reason why, at the end of the year we were down to seven scholarship, maybe eight scholarship guys. We were hurt. We limped into the (NCAA) tournament, had a heroic win against Charleston and got blown out by Clemson,” Pearl said
“You got to remember there’s not a McDonald’s All-American on that team, only two five stars and the rest of those guys are threes and fours and got chips on their shoulders and feel like they got overlooked.”
Auburn played in the Maui Invitational last week and beat Xavier in overtime, lost by eight points to Duke and then beat Arizona by 16 points. Pearl appreciated the invitation for several reasons.
“If we weren’t competitive it would not look good, and number two Auburn doesn’t travel in basketball. We travel in football and yet we had a great turnout — I think the combination of Maui and our team playing well and the real honor that we feel about representing the SEC and being in this amazing tournament, so I’m proud of Auburn,” Pearl said.