LEXINGTON, Ky. — All the preseason buzz about 7-foot sophomore Isaac Humphries was that he’d slimmed down and shaped up and was catching the Kentucky basketball staff’s attention with his increased confidence and improved play. Then he looked terrific in the Wildcats’ season opener.
Humphries had 9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals against Stephen F. Austin, and the affable Australian was off and running. Only, he wasn’t. It was a strange, steady decline from there, as he seemed to somehow regress with each passing day.
By Kentucky’s 13th game, he was averaging just 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds, and he’d played single-digit minutes five times in a seven-game stretch.
“That’s not how I planned on it going,” Humphries said, “but we all have to face adversity at some point in our lives. So it just happened to be my time. I’ve been dealing with that, and I’m almost certain I’m out of that little slump and on the rise into that more positive time of the season.”
After playing just 5 minutes against Louisville — with no points and no rebounds — and only 4 minutes at Ole Miss, Humphries went for 8 points, 6 rebounds and an assist in 13 minutes against Texas A&M on Tuesday night. He followed that up with a strong practice Thursday.
“Isaac looked really good,” coach John Calipari said. “Like, really good. I had some individual meetings (to) remind these guys that we do this different here. It’s faster. You’ve got to stay up with the treadmill or you’re going to get flipped under.”
Humphries has used Camp Cal — the weeks between semesters when practice time is unlimited and there are more opportunities for individual development — to get himself back up to speed with the rest of the sixth-ranked Wildcats (12-2, 2-0 SEC). He’ll get another chance to demonstrate his growth Saturday night against Arkansas (12-2, 1-1).
“Camp Cal has been very beneficial to all of us. We’ve had a lot of time to work on ourselves and our team,” he said. “We’ve been scrimmaging a lot in practice and I think that’s helping a lot of us to kind of find ourselves a little more. We’re doing situational stuff, game-like things. I think that’s helping me a lot.”
One-on-one drill work with assistant coach Kenny Payne, who specializes in grooming Kentucky’s big men, also can’t hurt.
“He’s trying to really make me mentally tough, to take on everything he’s giving me, because obviously the games are very intense and they get crazy sometimes, so he tries to emulate that environment,” Humphries said.
Payne pushes him to the limit, but then comes a visit to Calipari’s office for a reminder that he can cut it at this level.
“We’ve had a lot of meetings about him believing in me and just trusting the process,” Humphries said. “We all know he loves us, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to get a job done. That’s why we’re here.”
It’s also why Calipari recently started talking up 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Tai Wynyard as an option in the frontcourt. He was the first big man off UK’s bench at Ole Miss. The Cats need someone other than freshman star Bam Adebayo to step up in the paint, and the others weren’t cutting it.
While Wynyard earned that opportunity by the way he practiced — and Humphries doesn’t believe it was meant to send a message — his fellow post players still “took that as a little bit of motivation.” Calipari sometimes sees more in guys than they see in themselves, so they need a nudge.
“It’s a competitive spirit,” the coach said. “You get scored on, you’re mad. You missed an easy layup that you should’ve beat the guy on, you’re not happy. You’re not like, ‘Eh, I missed it. So what?’ In this environment … it’s just hard to be that guy, to compete here.”
Now Humphries is determined to prove he’s up to the challenge.