Asked who he thought would be a likely coaching target at Florida State after the Seminoles fired Willie Taggart, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said an “obvious” choice would be Kentucky coach Mark Stoops.
He noted how Stoops had been a successful defensive coordinator at Florida State before coming to Kentucky where he has now taken UK to three straight bowl games, including 2018 when the Cats went 10-3 with a Citrus Bowl win over Penn State.
Stoops tried to downplay the speculation last week. Recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow and Stoops spent hours on the phone talking to players verbally committed in UK’s 2020 recruiting class along with other players the Cats are still recruiting.
Louisville Christian Academy offensive lineman John Young is one of those 2020 commits who has never budged in his commitment to UK and won’t now because he’s convinced Stoops will be at UK when he gets there.
“I wasn’t worried at all. I was on the phone with coach Stoops and he did tell me he was not leaving,” Young said before UK’s 17-13 loss to Tennessee last week. “I committed to Kentucky and things are just like they were. I was not worried when I first heard the rumors and I’m not worried now.
“I know no matter what I am committed to Kentucky. I trust coach Stoops and what he tells me I believe. I think he stays at Kentucky and will be my coach at Kentucky.”
Young did say he had talked with other 2020 commits about the Florida State speculation.
“ But once we heard from Stoops himself (that he was not leaving UK) it eased everyone’s mind,” Young said.
That seems to be the case, too, with Michigan lineman Justin Rogers, the highest rated commit in UK’s 2020 class. Many thought he might flip after the early commitment to UK but Young said Rogers is “as solid as he can be” with Kentucky. He likely will play defense at Kentucky but could also play offense.
“He is 100 percent committed,” Young said. “He’s a monster, too. He’s a different type of animal on the football field. Off the field he is a funny guy. He likes to joke around but on the field, he gets serious and the lights come on like he is flipping a switch and turning mean on the field.”
Young also said it was not unusual for UK coaches to call him and other commits. He talks to Stoops, Marrow, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran or offensive line coach John Schlarman almost every day.
“I think a lot of schools are in contact weekly with recruits but Kentucky has such a family feel that the coaches check in a lot more,” Young said. “The coaches a lot of times don’t even talk about Kentucky football. They ask about how school is going, your family, how practice went and just a variety of things.”
That goes along with what Stoops had to say about things that are important to him as a head coach.
“Certainly support, quality of life. You know, what you’re doing. There’s things that are important to me, that what people perceive is an easier or better job and things that we always as coaches end up having great perspective with my family of looking at things and doing what’s right for you and your family,” Stoops said.
Nate Sestina’s decision to join Kentucky as a graduate transfer from Bucknell has turned out to be much more of a godsend than most realized at the time. He had a double-double in his Rupp Arena debut after playing well in his first UK game in New York against then No. 1 Michigan State.
With both Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery already missing games due to injuries, Sestina’s inside play has been needed and yet his best value may come from the leadership he’s providing to younger teammates.
“I think Nate’s energy is infectious with this group. Have you a group of young people that don’t really know what to do,” Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus said. “When you get to this level, guys have to talk. Transition defense. They have to be engaged not only themselves, but they have to be engaged with their teammates.
“And Nate is a guy that’s a connector on the floor because he talks. He’s a guy that is not only going to be in the right place himself but he’s going to make sure, one, two, three other guys are in the right place every time down the floor.
“Now, what you hope is that you can find of group of guys that are connected. And if Nate’s the guy that’s driving that, if he’s the straw that stirs the drink, you might say, hey, that’s going to be a big thing for us especially in November and December.”
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch, who also writes for NBA.com, isn’t surprised at what Sestina has done based on what he did at Bucknell against higher level opponents last year.
“He can post inside. He can shoot from 3. He can handle himself at this level and has shown that,” Dortch said. “He didn’t rebound well in his career until last season when he had what I called a free agent year for him. He upped his career rebounding from 2.5 (per game) to 6.5.
“I do a lot of stuff for NBA.com profiling players. All the scouts talk about having a motor and work ethic, and Sestina has both. That’s why he can help.”
Dortch also said there is one other obvious huge upside with Sestina.
“In the Cal era the consistent weakness has been outside shooting,” Dortch said. “Good shooters do not care about the longer (3-point) line this year. He’s one of those kids I think.
“But I just love how he gets good post position, stays active, moves well, can pass it a little bit and he is a smart kid, which also really works in his favor.”
Remember when it seemed almost certain that Kentucky coach John Calipari would add James Wiseman to the UK basketball roster? Instead, Penny Hardaway got the head coaching job at Memphis and persuaded Wiseman, who had played AAU for Hardaway, to stay home in Memphis and join the Tigers.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas believed that Wiseman, a freshman, was ready to make a big impact on the college basketball season, and he had 28 points and 14 rebounds in his collegiate debut.
“Wiseman is a great talent and a super young man. I was in Memphis a few weeks ago and got a chance to speak with him, and I was blown away by the caliber of young man that he is and the way he carries himself,” Bilas said.
“He’s obviously a great player. Like he’ll be a top-five pick (in the 2020 NBA draft). He’s projected to be the No. 1 pick overall, but conservatively he’ll be a top-five pick, and he’s super skilled, and he can really at his size do just about everything out there.”
However, the NCAA has now ruled Wiseman ineligible because current Memphis coach Penny Hardaway helped provide moving expenses for Wiseman’s family when he came to Memphis to play high school basketball when Hardaway was the coach. A court injunction let Wiseman play again in Memphis’ second game but winning an eligibility appeal against the NCAA is not going to be an easy task for Wiseman and Memphis.
Nothing against the Champions Classic, but Kentucky coach John Calipari has an idea he thinks would be much better for college basketball — playing exhibition games against good opponents in August.
“You play Michigan State in an exhibition game and it’d be televised and everyone in the country could play two games, three games, whatever it is, with four or five practice days. Kind of like spring football. And you do it in August,” Calipari said.
“That is the best way to promote — in a dead month — to promote college basketball. And you do it late July, early August when you have a chance to really have people see your teams. You could have double-headers, triple-headers. You can do whatever you want.”
This is not a new idea from Calipari. He’s been on bandwagon for college basketball to use summer as a time to get extra national publicity.
“It’s not money. It’s not taking them out of school. Most of us are practicing our teams in the summer, and then it eliminates this European stuff where people are going … you know, we’re all taking foreign tours because it’s educational,” Calipari said with an obvious twinge of sarcasm. “Did I say that? So I lied. I admit I lie. It’s not educational. It costs $250,000 to go to Spain, Italy, Croatia, wherever you want to go.
“Let’s go to two sites and kids are sleeping on the bus. They get up, ‘Can I just stay on the bus?’ ‘Yeah, stay on the bus.’ I mean, let’s just do this stuff here. Why? Everybody gets to play in August.”
Like he normally does when he brings up new ideas, Calipari already has a plan in his mind for how it could work.
“You take seven days. A few practice days. We’re practicing anyway. How about this: Take one day a week off up until that point and you don’t add any time. It’s the same amount of time and you’re playing games,” Calipari said.
“Television. You think the SEC Network would like content in August? How about that? You think all these other networks — the ACC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12, ESPN — they all would like content. It wouldn’t just be us playing; you’re televising the whole league, so now you’ve got another 50 games, 60 games (on TV).”
So UK didn’t visit museums or other such spots during two exhibition trips to the Bahamas?
“They did learn about dolphins, shells on the beach. We talked about the different kinds of shells. We thought that was a good lesson for them, teaching them stuff,” Calipari joked.
Another year, another perplexing loss to Tennessee even after the Cats took a 13-0 lead to start last week’s game before losing 17-13 to the Vols.
The Cats had the ball at the Tennessee 1-yard line with about two minutes to play but could not score on third or fourth down runs. On fourth down, quarterback Lynn Bowden was stopped on an option play where many thought he should have pitched the ball rather than keeping it himself.
Former UK running back Anthony White said Tennessee’s defense deserves credit for making the stop.
“I just think the defensive player made a better play than Lynn. He should have pitched but I get why he didn’t. He felt the fake on the pitch would set him up to make the play and he believed he could make the play like great players do. I understand that,” White said. “He’s just doing the best he can playing quarterback but there is only so much he can do and learn on the fly.”
What he didn’t understand is why UK didn’t give Sawyer Smith or someone else a chance to play at quarterback and make the Tennessee defense worry at least about the threat of a pass. Kentucky ran for 302 yards but threw for just 25 and squandered numerous scoring chances in Tennessee territory.
“The deeper you get on the field, the more your options are limited because Tennessee just sold even more on Lynn to stop him,” White said. “The more you continue to run the same thing, then the defense knows what you will try to do and it just stacks the box.”
Former UK coach Rich Brooks went on social media after the Tennessee loss – a feeling he knew all too well during his time at UK – calling it a “very tough loss” for Kentucky.
“Very hard to win when you can’t throw it,” Brooks posted on Twitter, a sentiment many UK fans had also after the loss.
Yet Stoops was not ready to commit to using Sawyer Smith, who the coach says is “available” after healing from a series of unspecified injuries, at Vanderbilt this week.
Quote of the Week: “A lot. I would say as I go, the team goes. It’s a big thing for me to be out there on the court. I’m going to try my best to stay out there the whole time,” sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans on what he means to the team.
Quote of the Week 2: “It’s amazing how John Calipari has put together a contender every year for the last decade at Kentucky. We’ve got teams that can’t even make the tournament in back-to-back years and Kentucky to the Final Four has been a realistic possibility at the start of every year under Cal,” ESPN college basketball analyst Myron Medcalf on UK’s upcoming season.
Quote of the Week 3: “They are going to be dynamite on the perimeter. I think you can make a case that by the end of year they will be the best team in college basketball on the perimeter,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale on UK’s three-guard line-up with Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley.