In last week’s win over Mississippi State Kentucky had five true freshmen — defensive linemen Josaih Hayes, Octavious Oxendine, Justin Rogers and Tre’Vonn Rybka along with defensive back Andru Phillips — make their collegiate debut on defense. Backup quarterback Joey Gatewood also got his first snaps after being ruled eligible following his transfer from Auburn.
“It was really important (to play the freshmen). And it was important to put Joey in there and just get a few snaps under his belt,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “You never know when he’s going to be thrust into the game should an injury happen or something, so it was important to get him a few snaps.
“And it’s always important to get those young guys. They work extremely hard. I am really impressed with their attitudes. That year’s difficult, but these guys are working really hard and there’s some guys in there that are very talented and they just got to keep on chopping wood and doing the things necessary.”
Stoops said he has other players he hopes will pay attention to what those true freshmen are doing to get on the field.
“If you’re not getting the outcome that you want, then you got to look at yourself and keep on working, and sooner or later you’re going to get that opportunity and what are we going to do with it? So we got to go put it all together. We have a brutal schedule and we got to get all phases playing in sync and playing together.”
While UK also had two true freshmen — receiver Mike Drennen and running back JuTahn McClain — play on offense, the true freshman defensive linemen have the biggest expectations. Rogers was the highest-ranked recruit Stoops has signed at UK.
“You’re looking for opportunities to get guys in there and see what they can do. So that’s a good thing when you got good players and you got good depth and you feel like you have some good young guys,” Stoops said. “They have to make the most of their opportunity and we have a lot of confidence in those guys. They just need some plays under their belt.” s
If you ask most Kentucky basketball fans — and probably even most recruiting and college basketball analysts — who is the most talented player on John Calipari’s team this year the answer would be freshman Terrence Clarke.
One person who does not agree is Terrence Clarke.
“I feel like the whole team has a lot of surprises. We are all freshmen but we will all bring different things to the team. I feel our whole team is great,” Clark said during a recent appearance on BBN Tonight on WLEX-TV.
Whole team is great? That’s the kind of statement not only do UK fans love but so does Calipari.
“To me, I feel like our team is exactly what I want it to be. We’re all dogs, we all want to play, we all have that spirit. I think everybody is great.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown time when UK players could not be on campus, Clarke went to California to train with freshmen teammates BJ Boston and Devin Askew, both five-star guars like Clarke.
Clarke said not to discount how much that helped all three of them.
“I think we all had a picture of how good we were as players, but us playing this summer and getting our chemistry right on the court, we have a better feel for each other,” Clark said.
“Devin and BJ are great basketball players. It was great to just work out with them and see how they work compared to me being in Boston and training. I got to see their strengths and their struggles, see how I can help with them. Coming into the season, we’ll definitely need to know our strengths and weaknesses.”
Clarke also candidly admitted during his TV appearance that the Cats did indeed watch the NBA playoffs knowing that some of them could have the same opportunity in the 2022 playoffs if their freshmen seasons go well.
“We definitely come to practice and talk about the games a lot,” Clarke said. “Me, I watch every game. I’m a Celtics fan, so watching what Tyler (Herro) and Bam (Adebayo) did to them, (in the Eastern Conference Finals) it was heartbreaking.
“One of the main reasons I came here is because of the (NBA) legacy. You can see it now today, these guys are built different. Tyler, Bam, Anthony (Davis), those guys play and they win.” s
New Kentucky assistant coach Jai Lucas was a successful college point guard and he likes the one-two combination the Cats will have this year with freshman Devin Askew and senior grad transfer Davion Mintz.
Lucas believes Askew’s work ethic can help make him special.
“Probably one of hardest workers on the team. You can watch and tell that every easily,” Lucas said. “One thing that shocked me is how his body transformed (over the summer) and how he looks. His body does not look like a freshman. With the work he has done this summer, he has an opportunity to have a really good year.
“The way he shoots the ball is one thing that has not changed. He can flat shoot it. He has poise and plays beyond his years. He plays with an edge I love. He is a competitor and plays to win every play.”
Lucas still remembers something his father, former NBA player John Lucas, constantly told him.
“There is a small margin to be good. Dad told me the smallest guys have to be the toughest and Devin is like that,” Lucas said.
The UK assistant coach said Mintz, a regular at Creighton, is probably the best outside shooter on the team and compliments Askew well.
“Davion has been through the wars and has the scars. He plays with upperclassmen confidence and is going to be a big part of the team,” Lucas said. “He brings an older presence we need and gives confidence on the court to everyone.
“He has that chip on his shoulder. A lot of people doubted why he would come here. But he’s coming from a backcourt loaded at Creighton also. He’s not afraid of competition. s
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook does not have UK as the preseason Southeastern Conference favorite. Instead, Blue Ribbon publisher/editor Chris Dortch and his staff went with Tennessee.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes not only has perhaps Tennessee’s best recruiting class but he also returns veteran players with talent and experience. Dortch said that “age” is why the Vols are the pick to win the SEC.
“Tennessee has two fifth-year seniors and a senior in the starting lineup. This is also the deepest team Rick Barnes has had at Tennessee and will be the best defensive team,” Dortch said. “And for the first time ever, the Vols have a recruiting class that approaches a typical Kentucky class.”
Kentucky is picked second behind the Vols followed by Alabama, LSU and Florida.
Blue Ribbon also does not have a single Kentucky player on the preseason all-conference team.
“It probably goes back a ways (with no UK player on the preseason team), but having no re turning starters is one reason,” Dortch said.
The five players picked by Blue Ribbon were forwards John Fulkerson of Tennessee, Trendon Watford of LSU, Yves Pons of Tennessee and Keyontae Johnson of Florida along with guard John Petty of Alabama. Johnson was picked as the SEC player of the year.
Kentucky did have one preseason honor as guard BJ Boston was projected as SEC Newcomer of the Year. Many expect Boston’s teammate, Terrence Clarke, to be the SEC’s best newcomer.
“They’re both great players. I like the sophistication of Boston’s offensive game. He can score at all three levels and his shot selection is advanced for a player so young,” Dortch said.
During his time with Kentucky media members to discuss UK players in the NBA playoffs, Kentucky coach John Calipari could not help reminiscing a little bit about Anthony Davis — the 2011-12 national player of the year when UK won the national title.
“When I went into Chicago (to recruit him), he tells a story that I drove in a limo. I don’t believe I drove in a limo. I probably had a driver come take me from the airport, take me there,” Calipari said.
“I went in the house, he had all the family there. Grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins. We were all in there together, and his comment to me was, ‘Coach, I trust you. Don’t care where you play me. I want to win.’
“Here’s a kid, he’s 190 pounds at 6-9, 6-10, and now all of a sudden he comes in, gets bigger and stronger and starts. He was a guard. Went from 6-3 to 6-10. Never played near the basket. He needed to learn that first. You’re 6-10. What are you going to be, a point guard? Come on. Learn to play first.”
Quote of the Week: “It was really important for us. We just did dedicate that game ball to him and we’re going to bring it up to him tomorrow. So it was important for us to play well for him and try to inspire him to continue with his rehab,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on injured linebacker Chris Oats after UK’s 24-2 win over Mississippi State.
Quote of the Week 2: “It feels good that people enjoy watching me play. Having the next generation look up to me and be something special for them, that feels great. Right now, I can’t really worry about the decision to put on a Nigerian jersey,” Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo on inspiring young Nigerian players and possibly playing on the Nigerian national team.
Quote of the Week 3: “The contracts that we had to honor whether we were playing at home or on the road makes our schedule ridiculously tough. When you have nine new players, this is way too tough of a schedule,” Kentucky coach John Calipari on his team’s upcoming schedule.