LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky is a third of the way through the regular season and these young Wildcats, with five freshmen in the starting lineup, are beginning to figure it out. They passed a big test last week against Virginia Tech, but here comes another one Saturday in New Orleans against UCLA.
Coach John Calipari allowed a handful of local reporters to watch Tuesday’s practice and see how seventh-ranked Kentucky (9-1) is progressing. (In a hurry, he hopes.) After battling the Bruins, three of the next five games are against KenPom top-30 opponents: Louisville on Dec. 29, at Tennessee on Jan. 6, Texas A&M on Jan. 9.
Some sights and sounds from the Cats’ latest learning opportunity at the Joe Craft Center:
- Point guard Quade Green is still wearing glasses to protect his recently poked right eye, but he alternated between clear and shaded during practice. He earned national attention from dropping 17 points and 5 assists on the Hokies while wearing sunglasses. He was just as smooth running the offense in Tuesday’s practice.
- On the defensive end, if you’d like to see Kentucky make better use of its ridiculous length (every available scholarship player except Green has at least a 6-foot-11 wing span), so would Calipari. He ran a defensive deflection drill in which three defenders face four offensive players whipping passes around the perimeter. The defenders initiate the drill by yelling, “One, two, three!” and slapping the floor. It’s all about moving your feet and getting long arms into passing lanes. “We’re long! That’s why we’re doing this drill,” Calipari said, not long before stopping the drill to hound Green for his inactivity. “When I see that in a game, who do I put in? Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander].”
- Calipari stopped practice repeatedly to harp on defensive breakdowns and the importance of communication. “Stay engaged,” came out of his mouth more than once.
- Hamidou Diallo ripped a 3-pointer through the net during a drill and preened as it went in. “What’s happening with Hami is he’s getting happy that he’s making shots and now every shot it’s this,” mimicking Diallo’s dramatic, frozen follow-through from he game-clincher with 50 seconds left against Virginia Tech. Calipari didn’t tell him to stop, just made sure to poke fun at him so the rest of the team could have a laugh about it.
- Wenyen Gabriel: prettay, prettay, prettay good shooter for a 6-9 forward. During the Cats’ rapid-fire shooting drill to end practice, he swished 16 of 22 threes from the right corner. (Diallo stroked 8 of 10 threes from the left wing during one stretch I watched at the end — and I glanced over to Kevin Knox just in time to see him hit six straight threes from the right wing in the final 18 seconds of the exercise.)
- Freshman 7-footer Nick Richards was out doing individual work several minutes before practice started — before any of his teammates arrived — being put through his paces by post whisperer Kenny Payne. UK’s towering assistant had student managers beat up Richards with pads while he bullied his way to the basket. Then Richards went through shooting drills, during which he at one point swished eight straight from the right elbow. (He also hit mid-range jumpers from the right baseline at a very high clip during drills at the end of practice.) Now’s a good time to remind that this kid has only been playing basketball for five years and he’s really talented for a guy his size. He could be a revelation come March.
- That said, Richards remains a work in progress. Calipari was all over him during practice to rebound with two hands, noting that the only guy on the team consistently doing that is Wenyen Gabriel (who grabbed 9 rebounds off the bench against Virginia Tech). “You’re just standing there, Nick!” Calipari yelped at one point. “You’ll have an excuse why it was OK he got the ball, but it is not OK he got the ball.” He was Sacha Killeya-Jones. At one point, an hour into practice, Payne stopped play to ask the statistician how many rebounds for each: SKJ 7, Richard 6 at that moment.
- How important is rebounding to Calipari? About 35 minutes into the practice, he literally put lids on the baskets and ran a short 5-on-5 scrimmage. “I want to see us offensive rebound. I want to see us defensive rebound. You’re not going to make a shot, so rebound,” he said. Offensive boards were worth 2 points, defensive rebounds 1 point. “Loser runs,” Calipari said, but he was pleased with the effort by both teams and didn’t make anyone run.
- Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) and Jemarl Baker (knee) sat out of practice, as they have all season so far, but so did sophomore forward Tai Wynyard. Afterward, a UK spokesperson confirmed that Wynyard is day-to-day dealing with “general soreness” but worked out individually with the strength coach.
- Calipari pointed out to his team that it will open January with consecutive SEC road trips — at LSU and Tennessee — and they’d better know the plan (and be communicating with teammates who don’t). “They’ll be sold out, biggest game of the year. You’re not going to be able to hear, and you cannot do this,” Calipari said, cupping his hand to his ear. “What was that? Won’t work on the road.”
- Calipari opened practice by saying he’d heard they went really hard in conditioning earlier, so he’d put them through a shortened practice, which he did. He ended practice with: “Great job today. You gotta be tired. Why don’t you go get a great meal somewhere? Go to dinner together, and then you should get rest.” It’s clear, as he loves to say, Calipari likes his team.