Mark Stoops won’t be SEC Coach of the Year, but maybe he should be. No one could really have believed UK would be 5-3 after it lost its first two games and had to rally just to beat New Mexico State in game three.
Yet Kentucky has rebounded to win four out of five games, all SEC games. The one loss was at No. 1 Alabama, certainly no embarrassment for any team.
Kentucky should be at least bowl eligible since it still has a game with winless Austin Peay. But this Saturday night’s game in Commonwealth Stadium against Georgia could be another game the Cats will win. No, I don’t expect UK to put up the rushing numbers against Georgia it did against Mississippi State and Missouri. However, UK’s offense is good enough to score on Georgia if the Cats do not turn the ball over and quarterback Stephen Johnson is consistent with his passing.
“We want to win the rest of our games. We cannot be satisfied with what we have done so far. We have to go out and finish what we started and win the rest of these games,” Johnson said.
What has made finishing games possible is an improved defense, but also a more physical offense. Kentucky had the football almost 40 minutes against Missouri. I cannot remember that happening before. This physical play is what Stoops envisioned when he came to UK.
“You’re never going to be satisfied as a coach. Ever. Or you shouldn’t be. We know we’re making progress in a lot of areas. We know we’ve got good kids and all that. And we can grow up and get experience and play well: offense, defense special teams. This is the first time with this whole staff. The staff has done a remarkable job, every coach and every player,” Stoops said.
He’s right. Most fans gave up on this team — and Stoops. He never flinched — a phrase he likes to use. Recruiting has stabilized and that’s big because UK is still a young team with the fewest seniors of any Division I team. If the Cats could find a way to beat Georgia, what looked like a disastrous season then becomes special.
“It’s a process to get there that nobody wants to go through and wait, but we weren’t ever discouraged. You just got to stay the course and get better. Some of those linemen are grown up. We have some backs, the receivers are always a threat even when we’re not throwing the ball extremely well. They are a threat,” Stoops said.
Just like Kentucky has become a threat to win games in a season where it looked like all might have been lost. That’s why even though it will never happen, Stoops merits consideration for SEC Coach of the Year because I’m not sure there is a league coach who has done a better overall job this season than him.
Former Madison Southern running back Damien Harris was a five-star recruit who has lived up to his recruiting hype. He’s now the starting running back at No. 1 Alabama and he certainly impressed Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.
“I thought Damien was very effective. He is strong and can be elusive,” Sumlin said. “He could find any mistake we made.
“We have a lot of respect for Damien. We tried to recruit him. He is going to do nothing but get better. He does a great job not only running with purpose but being patient in a zone scheme. He is a young guy that is only going to get better just like I expected he would.”
Odds are another Kentuckian, five-star offensive lineman Jedrick Wills of Lafayette, will join Harris at Alabama next year even though no official announcement has been made. Plus, if UK can keep winning, maybe Wills will have a change of heart.
Kentucky women’s assistant coach Lin Dunn understands why many, including those in the media, might think of coach Matthew Mitchell as a friend first and a coach second.
“I think that is his personality. Matthew tends to let people in. He tends to let his guard down and he is nice. He is good-hearted,” Dunn said. “When you are around Matthew, you can’t help but believe he values everybody he is with.
“He just has a way about him of connecting with people. A lot of people feel that way about him. We know what a good man he is and we want him to be successful. He’s a friendly guy and it is genuine.”
Mitchell had all three assistant coaches leave after last season and also had only six returning players. But Dunn said he is very comfortable going into this season.
“I do know he feels very comfortable with his staff. There is no doubt in his mind this is the best staff he has had and I challenge anybody in America to say who has a better staff,” Dunn said. “He is confident in who he is around. His inner circle is totally committed to what he is doing.”
Paintsville native John Pelphrey spent last year working as a TV analyst, but he’s back coaching now as the associate head coach at Alabama.
“He is just a great basketball mind having played and coached in the SEC. He knows the concepts of team play. He knows everything. Scouting will be a big thing. He’s just really smart and knows how to make us better or take away advantages against other teams,” Alabama junior forward Riley Norris said during SEC Media Day in Nashville.
Pelphrey earned Mr. Basketball honors at Paintsville and became one of “The Unforgettables” under UK coach Rick Pitino. He has worked as an assistant at Marshall and Florida as well as head coach at South Alabama and Arkansas.
He’s already popular with the Alabama players.
“Just his personality and knowledge of the game is contagious because a lot of stuff I don’t know right now, he has been through it as an athlete,” Norris said. “That helps me. He played at Kentucky, played professionally. To talk to him and communicate to him and just learn from what he knows is the biggest key. Just talking to him and learning from him is great.”
Isaiah Briscoe certainly has earned the respect not only of Southeastern Conference coaches, but also SEC players.
“He is a tough defender and player and underrated playmaker. Really he was an underrated player for them last year. He makes the game easier for others,” said Georgia guard J.J. Frazier, a preseason all-SEC pick just like Briscoe. “They had Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray last year, but he was that piece that made them go.
“When he didn’t play well, they typically didn’t play well. He is a really good, strong one-on-one defender and it takes more than one move or two moves to get by him. He doesn’t quit on the play. He just makes it tough. Even if you score on him, it was a tough, tough shot. That’s all defense is — making it tough on your opponent and that’s what he does.”
Briscoe said he was on the same team with Frazier when they worked out for the Minnesota Timberwolves before last summer’s NBA draft.
“It’s funny he said that about my defense. He is strong and tall. I just have a pride thing and on defense I don’t like getting scored on. I take it to heart. I challenge myself,” Briscoe said.
Florida guard Kasey Hill knows Briscoe from AAU play as well as attending some of the same all-star camps.
“He is a tough competitor. I think one time we were shooting free throws and one of his bigs was up closer to free throw line when our guy was shooting free throws. That showed me he is a competitor because he wanted to make sure he got the rebound,” Hill said.” He is trying to get down there and make plays for his team. He has a nice game. He is cool. He is one of my good friends. I like him a lot.
“He just wants to win. Great shooting goes out the window when you are a competitor. It doesn’t matter what people say about you if you are a competitor, you are going to take your shots. If you make them, you make ‘em. If you miss, you miss. But as long as you are competing for the right reasons, that’s all that matters.”
Briscoe did have trouble making both 3-point shots and free throws last year, something that surprised LSU sophomore Antonio Blakeney who counts Briscoe as a “good friend” because of their experiences as younger players together.
“I know when I played with him at all-star games, AAU events and camps, he always shot well then. The Isaiah Briscoe I know can shoot free throws and 3’s with confidence,” Blakeney said. “I think he is a really good player. With the ball in his hands, he can do a lot of great things. Confident guy who has confidence in his game.
“He has always been tough since high school. He’s always been a competitor — wanting to guard the best player, play against the best player. That’s how he has always been. He is really strong and hard to stop. He has game. He has nice moves and can make plays for himself and his teammates. That’s how he can get inside.”
Blakeney says the two often played one-on-one games when no one was around like at the McDonald’s All-America Game in Chicago after their high school senior seasons.
“That’s been my boy for a long time. He is a competitor, I am a competitor,” Briscoe said of Blakeney. “If it is a court and just us two, why not play one-on-one … and bring the best out of each other.”
Briscoe has vowed to be a more vocal leader this year. Can he do that?
“I think he can do it. The Isaiah Briscoe I know was good at stuff like that,” Blakeney said.
“Becoming vocal is very hard, especially if you are a guy that does not say much off the court and you just are not a big talker. Then you have to get on the court and talk all the time, especially at point guard,” Hill said. “It can be hard and uncomfortable at times. But if you are doing it for the team and the right reasons, it makes it a little bit easier for you and that’s how it will be for him.”
Frazier said it is a logical assumption to expect Briscoe to improve in most categories this year because of his talent and experience.
“He is older and knows more and has seen more. He has dealt with adversity,” Frazier said. “When things get a little tough in a game, he can be there to try and calm the storm for everyone. That’s always good to have.”
Kentucky turned to another legend to replace Oscar Combs as co-host of the UK Radio Network’s pre basketball show as Rex Chapman will take over and partner with Dave Baker.
Chapman made his debut Sunday when UK hosted Clarion in an exhibition game.
He scored 1,073 points in two years at UK and earned All-American honors.
Chapman has a couple of special UK memories involving Mr. Wildcat, Bill Keightley, and former UK coach Joe Hall.
“Mr. Bill grabbed me on my visit to UK in 1985 and said, ‘Rex, whether student/ athletes leave here and go on to play pro ball or not — we take care of our guys at Kentucky.’ Truer words were never spoken,” Chapman said.
“My grandparents and coach Hall were the best of friends when I was a little kid. I’ve been fortunate to witness this program’s greatness and durability from Joe B. in the mid-70s through coach Cal today. What Cal has done and continues to do on this stage is mind-blowing. Simply, he’s killing it.”